As the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn progresses, an interesting comparison emerges between two different types of learning: book-learning and life experience. This theme first appears early in the tale, when Tom Sawyer lectures his friends on the proper behavior expected from a band of robbers. The majority of Tom’s knowledge comes from books, and he uses this knowledge to make his friends feel ignorant: “Do you want to go to doing different from what’s in the books, and get things all muddled up?” (21). Ultimately, Tom’s band of robbers does not make much progress, and Huck informs us that they “hadn’t robbed nobody, [and] hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended” (24).
In contrast, Huck demonstrates his skepticism for Tom, and, consequently, for book-learning. He states “I reckoned [Tom] believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different” (26). Shortly after this point in the tale, Huck is abducted by his father – an event that sets in motion the true Adventure of Huckleberry Finn: Huck’s journey down the river with Jim. Indeed, the vast majority of the tale focuses on Huck, Jim, and their experiences on the river. For this portion of the tale, Tom Sawyer and his hyper-literate imagination are nowhere to be found.
That Huck grows over the course of his journey is evident. He frequently finds himself in situations that pit his own innate sense of right and wrong against society’s morality. In several of the most obvious cases, he rightly condemns the behavior of those he encounters (for example, he states that the duke and the dauphin make him “ashamed of the human race” (176).) Yet other questions, and in particular that of Jim’s freedom, prove much more ambiguous. Huck’s final decision to free Jim marks a pivotal point in both the novel as well as Huck’s personal development. For though Huck proclaims “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (223) and rejects society’s morality, we cannot help but agree that he is making the correct choice.
As the novel draws to a close, the reintroduction of Tom Sawyer allows for a particularly vivid comparison between book-learning and life experience. This difference can be observed most clearly by comparing Tom’s motives for wanting to free Jim with Huck’s motives. When Huck initially decides, he says “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against [Jim], but only the other kind … I’d see … how good he always was” (223). Over the course of their journey, whether he is conscious of it or not, Huck comes to regard Jim as a person. He wants to free him, despite the risk involved, because he knows that Jim is good – that he is deserving of freedom. Tom, on the other hand, simply wants to free Jim out of a desire to once again imitate the adventures in his books. Furthermore, because he secretly knows that Jim is already free, there is no real risk involved. Where Huck exhibits a definite transformation from the novel’s inception to its conclusion, Tom remains unchanged. The implication thus is that life experience is a far more powerful tool of personal growth. While literature certainly can inspire, as Twain surely intends with Huck Finn, when misread, or when simply taken at face value, it can also prove fruitless.