Effects of Setting in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is set in essentially two different places: on and off the river. What occurs in each of these two settings contrasts in content and nature, bringing out different aspects of Twain’s writing. On the river, Twain emphasizes the free and easy nature of Huck, while introducing society and its conformity in Huck’s time off the river.

When Huck is traveling on the river, he can be and do whatever he wants. It’s a completely informal situation, and he doesn’t have to change to fir anyone else’s rules. He can choose what he does without having to conform to an acceptable practice, even going so far sometimes as to travel on the raft naked because that’s what’s most comfortable for him. Because of the complete freedom that the river gives Huck, it represents his individuality. It’s a place where he can be himself and not have to abide by society’s rules. He also doesn’t have to accept society’s treatment of Jim and other slaves; as long as Huck and Jim are by themselves, they can live without the ideals of civilization. Huck’s treatment of Jim on the river is just as it would be toward any good friends, and so without the watchful eye of society, Huck lives the way his true feelings dictate. He doesn’t have to grapple with what society thinks he should do until he is faced with having to deal with its views. Before that, Huck helps Jim to run away and does only what comes naturally to him. Huck also associates freely with people without the constraints of society and its influences. The king and the duke, whom townspeople are running out of town, become Huck and Jim’s companions on their way down the river. These are people with whom Huck would normally not have associated with; if for instance he were still with the widow, she would have tried to discourage him from befriending such rascally people in her efforts to civilize him.

Huck’s experiences off the river and among society are completely different, forcing him to change his actions to become part of society. He frequently must adopt another identity, such as George Jackson, to be accepted by the people he meets, and must adapt to their ways of living. For instance, in the episode with the Grangers and the Sheperdsons, Huck becomes a part of the Granger family and adopts their customs, some of which he normally would object to as too stiff and formal. He is also exposed to the cruelty of society in this episode, witnessing the savageness of the feud between the two families. Huck must change who he is as well when he is with the king and the duke, almost involuntarily taking part in their fraud and being exposed to the dark side of human nature. In their experiences with the deceased Peter Wilks’ family and town, Huck sees how very base they are as they unscrupulously try to rob the girls out of everything they have, and he decides he must get rid of the king and duke the first chance he gets. While they traveled with Huck, the king and the duke consistently showed their utter lack of morals, thus further exposing Huck to the evils of man. Huck also has to find ways to explain Jim’s presence when he is on land, an example of how he must conform to society’s views. Because of the changes Huck must make and the darker sides of man that Huck must deal with when he is on land, being off the river symbolizes Huck’s search for identity. When the evil and good sides of man are shown to Huck, he is exploring human nature in a search for what’s inside of himself. As he frequently changes his name, for instance, once becoming a girl, and once Tom Sawyer, Huck is searching for himself and trying to become someone.

Huck's experiences on the river, where he is free to do what he wants and lives in innocence, contrast greatly with his experiences on land, where he is faced with conformity to society and its cruel nature. This enhances the meaning of the work because it brings out Huck’s need to find himself. Everything that he encounters is merely a step in his journey toward finding his identity, and this, the true meaning of the novel, is played out with all of Huck’s discoveries about man and the decisions that he makes.

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