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Childhood in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

Although Huck Finn's childhood may have appeared to be carefree and easy, this was not necessarily the whole story. In this lesson, learn how Mark Twain used childhood as a backdrop in life in his classic work, 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'

Huck Finn's Childhood Idealized

To the casual reader of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Huck Finn's childhood may seem idealized. Huck lives a carefree life spending his days in harmony with the natural world. He builds a raft and floats down a big dangerous river without a lifejacket or annoying adult supervision. He sports a straw hat, smokes a corncob pipe, and runs around barefoot. He plays hooky from school, has great adventures with his friend Tom Sawyer and does not have to answer to adults who try to 'sivilize' him.

It's a good life by any child's standards, but it's not the whole picture. Mark Twain treats Huck Finn's childhood as a backdrop for life in the post-Civil War South of the 1880s. On the surface, Huck's childhood seems idyllic, but in reality it is not. Huck's worldview is limited by the corruption around him. He experiences loss of innocence, sometimes brutally. Eventually, Huck begins to appreciate and recognize his own moral values as he emerges from childhood innocence.

Huck Finn's Real Childhood

When the novel begins, Huck Finn is still a child, probably around 13 or 14 years old. Aside from having a lot of pleasant freedom, he has also been the victim of some rather horrific experiences. Huck is the child of an alcoholic, abusive father who locks his son up inside the cabin.

Huck remembers his father beating him and describes these events with a sort of matter-of-fact detachment. 'But by and by Pap got too handy with his hick'ry and I couldn't stand it. I was all over welts.' Huck explains. 'Once he locked me in and was gone three days. It was dreadful lonesome.'

Modern readers are especially likely to recognize that Huck is a child in need of supervision. Formal social service agencies were not readily available at the time, but even in the post-Civil War South of the 1800s, everyone in town knows that Huck is an abused and neglected child. Huck is taken in and cared for by the Widow Douglas who tries to provide him with a good home, firmness and strong Christian values.

Huck's Limited World View

In his childhood innocence and limited understanding of the larger world, Huck fails to appreciate the help he is being given and rejects the Widow Douglas's influence. Like many children in his situation, even today, Huck prefers the carefree life and runs away.

Twain's emphasis on Huck's childhood illustrates an important theme in the novel; in life, pure childhood innocence of any kind is fleeting, if it exists at all. Huck's innocence is really quite harmful; it his view of the larger world is limited and he is incapable of distinguishing right from wrong,

Huck's Moral Values

Huck demonstrates that he does indeed have a sense of morality, be it misguided. Huck values his friendship with Jim, a slave who belongs to Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas's sister. Jim wants to run away, so Huck helps him. Together, Huck and Jim set off on a home made river raft to set Jim free. (Never, mind that in their ignorance and inexperience they travel the wrong way and sink deeper into the South.)

Huck has been raised by the corrupt values of a slave owner society and begins to feel guilty. Technically, Jim is another person's property and he begins to see himself as a thief. Huck wrestles with his conscience and considers returning Jim to his owner rather than being Jim's trustworthy friend.

Huck Finn's Loss of Innocence

Huck's innocence has been eroded bit by bit, and he finally begins to realize what is happening. He is faced with learning some bitter truths about the world. Some of the adventures are quite comical, yet sobering at the same time.

Huck and Jim come across and join forces with crooks and frauds. One of the crooks tries to steal Jim. It is at this point that Huck decides to help Jim escape no matter what. They also experience a petty 30-year family feud. When he spends some time with two warring families, Huck witnesses the brutal murder of his friend Buck Grangerford.

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