There is no doubt that one of the most important literary elements in a work is characterization: The creation of a group of personalities who function as representatives of a fictional world are as vital to a novel's story as its many themes. For Twain
, the challenge was to embody fictional characters with realistic traits and personalities; that is, his characters had to be as believable and as recognizable as the people readers confronted every day. To accomplish this feat, Twain frequently called upon his childhood experiences to create some of the most memorable characters in American literature.
The expanse of characters that blanket the pages of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are numerous. Certainly Huck is an incredible character study, with his literal and pragmatic approach to his surroundings and his constant battle with his conscience.
Huck's companion, Jim, is yet another character worthy of analysis. At a period in American history when most African-American characters were depicted as fools or "Uncle Tom's," Jim's triumphant but humble passage from simple house servant to Tom's savior is an outline for the heroic figure. He embodies all the qualities — loyalty, faith, love, compassion, strength, wisdom — of the dynamic hero, and his willingness to sacrifice his freedom and his life for two young boys establishes him as a classic benevolent character.
Both Huck and Jim can be viewed as the heroes of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But if the two characters are the chief agents of good, the loathsome Pap Finn is the novel's most pitiful and despicable character in terms of exemplifying the characteristics of a depraved, squalid world. When Pap reappears, with hair that is "long and tangled and greasy" and rags for clothes, it is a reminder of the poverty of Huck's initial existence and a realistic representation of the ignorance and cruelty that dominated the institution of slavery and prejudice in America. Pap is suspect of both religion and education and feels threatened by or resents Huck's ability to read and exist in the world of Miss Watson and the Widow Douglas.
Except for brief passages, however, readers are not privy to all of Pap's history and his rage at a world that he thinks has mistreated him. In a revealing sequence, Pap displays all of the con man's tactics when he tries to acquire Huck's reward money. Pap convinces a new judge that he is a changed man, has "started in on a new life," and has given his life to God. It only takes a night for Pap to return to his previous ways, as he becomes "drunk as a fiddler" and ends up collapsed outside the judge's house with a broken arm and a bitter spirit. The judge's observation that Pap might be reformed with the aid of a shotgun is a dark foreshadowing of what will follow.
Along with Pap's obvious insecurity toward Huck, what readers receive is a frightening picture of what Huck could become if left to the parental guidance of Pap. Huck's vague, past home life is solidified by Pap's constant verbal threats, and Pap warns Huck that he will physically abuse him if he tries to "put on considerble many frills." During the first meeting between the boy and his father, Pap's threats of abuse are so haphazard and disjointed that he becomes a comical figure. For Huck, the drunken rantings of Pap are neither astonishing nor cruel; they simply exist as a facet of his life, and Huck reports the threats with a tone of indifference and detachment.
Under the abusive eye of Pap, Huck attempts to romanticize a life free from the intrusions of a judgmental society and constrictive civilization. Away from the enforced rules of school and town, Huck is "free" to exist and absorb Pap's life of liquor and theft. But after Pap gets "too handy with his hick'ry," Huck decides to escape. The ensuing passages portray another comical, slapstick version of Pap, cursing against a "gov'ment" that would take his only son away and condemning a nation that would allow a "nigger" to vote. Beneath Pap's farcical ramblings, however, is the reality that Huck has, indeed, been constantly beaten and left alone for days, locked in the cabin. The reality of Huck's existence under Pap, then, is one where the presence of Pap's fist and racism pervade — where Huck is "all over welts" and subject to the venom Pap has for all of society.
Pap's role as an abusive parental figure is disturbing but vitally important to the novel, because it sets up as a direct contrast to the heroic and caring Jim. When Huck and Jim come upon the floating frame-house in Chapter 9, they discover a dead man among the various items. After Jim looks over the body, he tells Huck to come in the house, but "doan' look at his face — it's too gashly." Jim's gesture is similar to that of a protective parent, but the symbolism of the act is not fully realized until the last chapter of the novel. In Chapter the Last, Jim explains that the dead man aboard the house was Pap, and Huck realizes that Pap will not bother or abuse him ever again. With this realization, readers now view Jim's earlier gesture as an act performed by an empathetic and caring figure, and, in this sense, Jim serves as a father figure. With Jim as his role model, Huck is able to "inherit" the admirable and worthy qualities that Jim possesses and, therefore, is able to make his later decision to free Jim.