Context and Background #
Though the novel is written in the 1870’s, completed in 1883, after the Civil War (1860 – 63), it depicts the society of the 1840’s America about 20 years before the Civil War emancipates the slaves. Set in Hannibal, Missouri on the Mississippi River, Twain’s home town, Huckleberry Finn recreates some of the events and characters from his boyhood. “I confine myself to life with which I am familiar, when pretending to portray life”
* *The question of slavery was still very much an issue in the 1840’s especially in the mid-west though in Missouri the numbers were much lower than the deep south. During the Civil War Missouri did not secede and join the Confederate South. Since the novel was written after the war, it tends to deal with the issue more objectively.
Journeys in Huck Finn #
Twain uses the river as symbol of a journey. For Jim it is a deceptive flight into freedom, for Huck it is a symbolic voyage of self discovery while for Twain it is a medium for displaying a panoply of society’s rogues and victims.
The novel is propelled by a series of episodes as the two fugitives float down the river giving us a cosmopolitan glimpse into the society of pre- civil war America. Both fleeing from Miss Watson, they enjoy the serenity and tranquillity of a raft as they drift down the river. It is only the breaks on land that contrast this bliss and give us cameo glimpses into hell on earth as each bend of the river gives us a new adventure and new hope only to be shattered by new evidence of the depravity of man by each experience on land. The temporary respite on the raft is eventually invaded by the two rogues, bogus aristocracy, demonstrating that even the river is not immune from the encroachment of society - evil – corruption is so rampant and pervasive that it intrudes everywhere.
People travel to new places hoping that they will find new hope, opportunities or utopia. Yet it is Twain’s profound misanthropy that depicts a world full of callous depraved and rapacious villains preying on a mass of hapless gullible and defenceless victims. Each episode on land ends with Huck commenting on his disgust for humanity or “man’s inhumanity to man”.
Even at the end of the novel we know that Huck’s aim to escape “sivilisation” by striking out into the territory is futile and doomed to failure because the intrusiveness of society.