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Symbols & Symbolism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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  • 0:04 Symbolism
  • 0:39 Mississippi River
  • 2:00 The Widow Douglas
  • 2:52 Jim
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Mark Twain was well versed in literary devices and used them to great effect. In this lesson, you'll learn about his use of symbols and symbolism in 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.'

Symbolism

When you look at a literary text, there's a lot going on that isn't explicitly stated. In fact, the purpose of many literary devices is just that - to add depth to the story and give it meaning beyond the literal plot and characters. One literary device that does this is symbolism. Symbolism is when a character, object, or event in a story stands for something bigger. A lot of times this is something relevant to the society the story is set or written in or something that would be relevant to the readers. There is quite a bit of symbolism in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Mississippi River

One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the Mississippi, the big river that Huck and Jim use to travel. The Mississippi is used literally as a form of transportation, moving the raft carrying Huck and Jim down the river. More symbolically, it stands for freedom. Both Jim and Huck are using it to escape, though what they are each running from is pretty different.

For Jim, the river symbolizes the most basic kind of freedom. He is using the river to escape from slavery and being sold as property away from his home and family. Since the river runs south, his path becomes increasingly more dangerous, but the river is still taking him away from where he was a slave and towards where he thinks he might be free and able to work to free his family. The river represents all of Jim's hopes for freedom for himself and his family.

The river symbolizes freedom for Huck as well. He uses it to escape from his abusive, drunken father and also the society he feels stifled by. The river takes him away from both Pap and the Widow Douglas. These were Huck's two main options for homes, and he wasn't happy in either one. The only place he was really content was on the river. He was free to be himself and not constrained by society's rules or subject to Pap's abusive behavior. Clearly then, the river symbolizes freedom for both Huck and Jim.

The Widow Douglas

Another symbol in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is actually a character - the Widow Douglas. Huck lives with her for the first part of the novel, and it is her goal to 'civilize' him. She makes him go to church and Sunday School, as well as regular school, and she tries to keep him clean and tidy. The Widow Douglas, and the home she gives Huck, symbolize society and 'civilized' life.

The Widow, as a symbol, stands in contrast to Huck. He prefers to be outdoors, with no shoes or responsibilities. He doesn't like church or school although he warms up to school the more he goes. The Widow, on the other hand, is always clean and proper. She reads her Bible every night, and she is reasonably well educated for the time period. She symbolizes the proper, civilized portion of society, and her aspect of society is one of the reasons Huck takes to the raft to escape.

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