The primary theme of the novel is the conflict between civilization and natural life. Huck represents natural life through his freedom of spirit, his uncivilized ways, and his desire to escape from civilization. He was brought up without any rules and has a strong resistance to anything that might sivilize him. This conflict is introduced in the first chapter through the efforts of the Widow Douglas: she tries to force Huck to wear new clothes, give up smoking, and to learn the Bible.
Throughout the novel, Twain seems to suggest that the uncivilized way of life is better; he draws on the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his belief that civilization corrupts rather than improves human beings. The theme of honor is one that permeates the novel. It is first introduced in the second chapter with respect to Tom Sawyer’s band: Tom believes that there is a great deal of honor associated with being robbers. This theme can be traced throughout the rest of the book.
Huck and Jim encounter robbers on the shipwrecked boat and later they are forced to put up with the King and the Dauphin, both of whom rob everyone they meet. Tom’s robber band is also paralleled by the fact that Tom and Huck both become literal robbers at the end of the novel. They both resolve to steal Jim out of slavery, and in the process they act honorably. Thus honor, and acting in a way to earn honor, becomes a central theme that Huck will have to deal with. The theme of food is one that occurs in many parts of the novel.
It is based on the fact that Huck grew up fighting for food with pigs, eating out of a barrel of odds and ends. Thus, whenever there is mention of food, it is a sign that Huck has someone to take care of him. For example, in the first chapter it is the Widow Douglas who feeds Huck. Later she is replaced by Jim, who takes care of Huck on Jackson’s Island. Food is again mentioned when Huck lives with the Grangerfords and the Wilks. Another theme, and probably one of Twain’s favorites, is the mockery of religion.
Twain tended to attack organized religion at every opportunity, and the sarcastic character of Huck Finn is perfectly situated to allow him to do so. The attack on religion can already be seen in the first chapter, when Huck indicates that hell sounds like a lot more fun than heaven. This will continue throughout the novel, with one prominent scene occurring when the King convinces a religious community to give him money so he can convert his pirate friends. Superstition is a theme that both Huck and Jim bring up several times.
Although both of these characters tend to be quite rational, they quickly become irrational when anything remotely superstitious happens to them. The role of superstition is two-fold: it shows that Huck and Jim are child-like in spite of their otherwise extremely mature characters. Second, it serves to foreshadow the plot at several key junctions. For example, spilling salt leads to Pa returning for Huck, and later Jim gets bitten by a rattlesnake after Huck touches a snakeskin with his hands. Slavery forms one of the main themes that has been frequently debated since Huck Finn was first published.
Twain himself was vehemently anti-slavery; Huckleberry Finn can in many ways be seen as an allegory for why slavery is wrong. Twain uses Jim, a slave who is one of the main characters, as a way of showing the human side of a slave. Everything about Jim is presented through emotions: Jim runs away because Miss Watson was going to sell him South and separate him from his family; Jim is trying to become free so he can buy his family’s freedom; Jim takes care of Huck and protects him on their journey downriver in a very maternalistic manner.
Thus, Twain’s purpose is to make the reader feel sympathy for Jim and outrage against the society that would harm him. However, at the same time that Twain is attacking slavery, he also pushes the issue into the background for most of the novel. Thus, slavery itself is never debated by Huck and Jim. Even the other slaves in the novel are noticeably minor characters. Only at the very end does Twain create the central conflict concerning slavery: should Huck free Jim from slavery and therefore be condemned to go to hell?
This moment is life-altering for Huck because it forces him to reject everything that civilization has taught him; he makes the decision to free Jim based solely on his own experiences and not based on the what he has been taught from books. The theme of money is threaded through the novel and is used to highlight the disparity between the rich and the poor. Twain purposely begins the novel by pointing out that Huck has over six thousand dollars to his name; this sum of money dwarfs all the other sums and makes them seem inconsequential by contrast.
It is also within this context that Huck is able to show such a relaxed attitude towards wealth. Having so much money, he does not view money as a necessity. In addition, Huck’s upbringing on the land has made him independent enough that he views money as a luxury. Huck’s views on money are meant to contrast with Jim’s views. Jim sees money as equivalent to freedom; with money he can buy his freedom and that of his family. Money also would allow him to live like a white person, thus raising his status in the society. Thus, throughout the novel Jim constantly tries to get money whereas Huck takes an apathetic attitude towards the subject.