Sure, the river is Huck and Jim's transportation. It's taking them from captivity (slavery; child abuse) to (hopefully) freedom in the state of Ohio. But the river ends up symbolizing freedom in its own right. Before hitting the rapids, Huck feels confined—both by both society (which, figuratively, kept Huck imprisoned by its restrictive rules) and by Pap (who, literally, kept Huck locked up). And the river is the only route they can take if they want to be free both in that present moment and in their respective futures. Check out the way Huck describes it: So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us. (29) "Free again," "All by ourselves," "nobody to bother us": to Huck, the river represents a life beyond the rules of society. And that's a life he could get used to.
For Jim, the river will take him to “freedom” in the legal sense; he and Huck are aiming toward the free states. For Huck, the river carries him away from his frustrated life in St. Petersburg. Prior to hitting the rapids, Huck feels confined – both by both society (which, figuratively, kept Huck imprisoned by its restrictive rules) and by Pap (who, literally, kept Huck locked up). So when Huck and Jim decide it’s about time for them to move on out, they take their raft to the river. It’s the only route they can take if they want to be free both in that present moment and in their respective futures. So, if the Mississippi River is not a symbol, we’re not sure what is.
OK – the river symbolizes freedom to Huck and Jim, agreed? Whoa, whoa, wait a sec! It’s a bit more complicated than that – after all, the river also directly causes a bunch of problems for our heroes. “Freedom cannot cause problems,” you may be thinking. But, err, it can … just hear us out for a few more sentences.
The river may be carrying Jim and Huck to freedom, but on the way, it creates a few obstacles....
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