“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain

How does one define morality? Is it the standards set by society, or is it something that goes deeper than mere social customs to define one’s individual behavior? What happens to the individual who determines for himself whether to adhere to the social custom or the deeper internal sense when these things come into conflict? These are some of the questions Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) addresses in his popular novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story tells of the traveling adventures of a young boy named Huckleberry Finn and an escaped slave named Jim as they float down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft in the mid-1800s. As they travel downriver, they come into contact with numerous unique individuals, such as Mr. & Mrs. Phelps, the Duke and Dauphin, and the Grangerfords. In each situation he finds himself in, Huck faces a crisis of decision where he must either choose to do what he’s been taught is right by civilized society or do what he feels in his heart is the right thing to do. As he floats down the river, he has the opportunity to reflect on the choices he’s made and the reasons he’s made them, developing his own sense of morality free and different from what he’s been taught. From Huck’s introduction as a crude and uncivilized boy in sore need of ‘proper’ upbringing through to his final decision to head west in order to avoid that civilizing, Twain demonstrates the gross discrepancies between the ‘civilized’ concepts of morality as compared to actual social behavior, and the ‘natural’ rules Huck discovers on his own.

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Presented from the opening words, Huckleberry Finn, understood to be highly uneducated and uncivilized, presents the reader with his understanding of the world around him. The first sentence gives this impression as Huck introduces himself: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter” (1). Throughout the first chapter, Huck’s backward ways are compared against the genteel ways of the Widow Douglas and her sister, Miss Watson. While Huck prefers his “old rags and my sugar-hogshead” (2), admitting that he is “so ignorant and so kind of low-down and ornery” (17), the older ladies insist upon him being dressed decently and gaining some book learning. They spend a great deal of their time trying to teach him the ‘proper’ ways of society, including his manners while in society, his academic subjects, and his religious duties. According to Widow Douglas, Huck “must help other people and do everything I could for other people and look out for them all the time and never think about myself” (17). As he begins to settle into the routine of town life, attending school and learning how to read and write, he begins to feel more at home with it, “I liked the old ways best, but I was getting so I liked the new ones too, a little bit. The widow said I was coming along slow but sure and doing very satisfactorily. She said she wasn’t ashamed of me” (23). Huck has gone from an ignorant, abused, and neglected child of the wilderness to the beginnings of an educated, well-dressed and protected child of the town. Through this sequence, Twain builds on his audience’s expectations that society, and all its associated details, including education, religion, and propriety, is the morally superior choice to living in ignorance and the filth of the wild or ‘natural’ state.

Yet, the more Huck learns about this new society he’s fallen into and their moral codes, the more he becomes confused and disillusioned by their actions. This disillusionment begins with the imaginations of Tom Sawyer, which Huck resigns to having “all the marks of a Sunday school” and nothing of reality or truth in it (21). This foreshadows the hypocrisy to come as Huck is forced to come back into contact with his abusive father. Rather than protecting the relatively innocent and salvageable Huck, this ‘moral’ and protective society chose to protect the rights and privileges of a man who had none of these sensibilities: “it was a new judge that had just come, and he didn’t know the old man; so he said courts mustn’t interfere and separate families if they could help it, said he’d druther not take a child away from its father” (32). Although he’s told to always look after other people and not think too much for himself, he quickly understands that others only help others when there is hope for a reward for themselves. This is made clear when Huck finds it necessary to con the old ferryboat captain in order to get him to go up to the wrecked boat and rescue the band of murderers marooned onboard. While the old captain is interested in Huck’s story, he’s not convinced to go help the people he hears about on the wreck until Huck lets it drop that one of the marooned people is the niece of an important person in town. “Great guns! Is he her uncle? Looky here, you break for that light over yonder-way, and turn out west when you get there, and about a quarter of a mile out you’ll come to the tavern; tell ’em to dart you out to Jim Hornback’s, and he’ll foot the bill” (103). The Duke and the Dauphin prove just how depraved ‘civilized’ people can get through their various schemes as well, but Huck recognizes them for scoundrels from the start. Finally, Huck is forced to consider the morality of taking care of others and putting others before oneself while also owning slaves and participating in a system where some human beings are denied these considerations.

In direct contrast to the moralities of society and the contradictions apparent within the actual social group, Huck’s trip down the river gives him a chance to consider the more ‘natural approach to morality in which life tends to operate more along with a simple golden rule. While the courts are willing to throw Huck back to his father despite the better judgment of some of the townspeople, Jim strives to protect Huck from the ugliness of the world, such as when they discovered Pap’s dead body in the floating house, and Jim wouldn’t let Huck look at it. As Huck hears the murderers planning to allow their former partner to drown on the wrecked steamship, he decides it is right and fair to maroon all three men, particularly when he and Jim discover they will need a way off the boat, but then feels guilty about the action and contrives to send someone after them. “I was feeling rather comfortable on accounts of taking all this trouble for that gang, for not many would ‘a’ done it” (103). This streak of ‘natural’ morality also comes out in Huck as he strives to thwart the schemes of the Duke and Dauphin. This comes into strong focus as he works to protect the Wilkes girls from being cheated by the pair. “Them poor things was that glad and happy it made my heartache to see them getting fooled and lied to so, but I didn’t see no safe way for me to chip in and change the general tune” (252). Huck is operating here on his own morality, feeling that because the girls were so friendly, trusting, and loving, they should not be taken advantage of by the likes of the Duke and Dauphin. At the same time, he’s reached the conclusion that owning slaves is not moral at all and goes through his various machinations as a means of protecting Jim from being sold by the scoundrels, actively making himself into the abolitionist he’d previously felt was a bad word to be applied to a person.

Throughout the story, Mark Twain illustrates again and again how society’s morals are twisted out of place to the point where they have become meaningless mannerisms rather than acted upon beliefs. Again and again, Huck comes across people who act in direct opposition to the morals they supposedly uphold. The townspeople in Huck’s hometown place a great deal of importance on civilization and taking care of each other, but when Huck’s father arrives, Huck is quickly thrown back to him, forcing him to realize that he was only ever acceptable to them as long as he put on the outer trappings of their world. While they teach that all people deserve to be treated decently and with honor, they treat black human beings like animals and refuse to give them the dignity they demand themselves. During the trip down the river, Huck is forced to question the ideas he’s been taught in society and compare this with his concepts of right and wrong based on a more natural and sincere response to the individual character of the human being. In demonstrating this difference, Twain begins to paint a picture in which the morality of a society is compared unfavorably with the more sincere and heartfelt ‘natural’ morality of the golden rule. However, through Huck, Twain also recognizes that morality is not a black and white issue. While theft is considered to be always wrong, there are times when theft is justified or justified to a varying degree. Huck’s theft of the girl’s money from the Duke and Dauphin during the Wilkes incident is certainly more justified than his theft of the booty from the murderers on the Walter Scott. As the reader flows with Huck down the Mississippi River with his trusted friend Jim, Twain is able to take his reader from the more common understanding of empty social morality prevalent in his time and encourage a more natural and individualistic ‘natural’ morality of the senses.

Works Cited

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1994.

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