Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a ground-breaking piece of literature work that not only seemed to define what American Literature should be but defined what the national identity could be. It also exemplified what the United States was experiencing in certain parts of the country. Throughout the story, Twain seems to highlight a lot of contradictory behaviors and social expectations. While these are not apparent to the characters as a reader there are moments where we are overwhelmed by his critique of daily life in the southern part of the country. America was still trying to cope with its troubled past and the rippling effects that came about after the civil war. The most obvious struggle our protagonist encounters is that civility can never be independent of society and thus flawed.
In his 1895 lecture tour, Twain described Adventure of Huckleberry Finn as containing a two-pronged moral conflict in which “a sound heart” collides with “a deformed conscience.” (6) The story seems to highlight opposing views of morality in which a person is born with the intrinsic value of what is right and wrong and those who upon observation of the social norms dictate what is indeed correct or not. Now, civility encompasses a wide range of material that must be combined in order to be considered civilized in that era. Huck Finn is an anomaly as he does not wish to conform to these ideas and become cultured, which is what people of the age considered the epitome of civility. He has grown in a very different way than most and decides that he enjoys being uncivilized. He considers a lot of what is required to be considered civil folly and restrictive.
Huck is a spectacular case because we have ample examples of where his morality is not only tested but reconceived. As previously stated, morality and civility are greatly interwoven and cannot be separated quite clearly. Many of the questions that Huck is faced with were of great controversy at the time. For instance, the biggest misconception that was widely accepted was that black people were inferior to white people. The country, which was still reeling from the damages that constituted the civil war was also afflicted with a lack of resolution. As coined by Paul Tillich, a Jewish philosopher, “Sin is separation” and the creation of laws of segregation as well as Jim Crow laws were forms of this concept all over the country. Being civil meant that it was not only your duty as a citizen but a moral duty as a Christian to report and turn in slaves seeking freedom. Civility meant a complete lack of empathy toward people of a different color.
Religion, which at this time was considered on par with civility was the greatest factor in determining what was acceptable and what was not. This is especially true when while deciding which days Tom’s and Huck’s band would meet. “Ben Rogers said he couldn’t get out much, only Sundays, and so he wanted to begin next Sunday; but all the boys said it would be wicked to do it on Sunday, and that settled the thing” (112). Despite the fact that they want to steal and commit murder they will not partake this deed during Sunday because it is a holy day. The irony of this is immense as they seem to have missed a great portion of the teachings by the Bible including thou shall not kill. Miss Watson who preached that civility was a must is also someone who is considered a hypocrite because of her ownership of slaves as well as willing to sell families for financial gain. She is the embodiment of what it meant to be civil in this era yet was devoid of the compassion that her faith required from her.
Religion aside there are concepts of societal standards to be upheld by every white citizen during this time. If any slaves were on the run, they were to be returned to their masters. This is an ongoing inner conflict within Huck as he soon befriends Jim, a runaway slave but who is useful as Huck is still only a child. While he does consider himself uncivilized he still is afflicted with what he considers a law, which is slaves should never run away. While not a slave this is something Huck is doing himself, running away to avoid responsibility and fails to see how this is unfair to Jim and how he sets different standards for himself. Huck decides to use Jim in order to avoid suspicion but promises Jim to help him get to freedom even if he is conflicted. He begins selfishly but along the way redefines himself and grows to care for Jim. There are however moments of turmoil as previously stated he is still just a young boy.
This is not lost on Jim who states “Dah you goes, de ole true Huck;de de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim”(204) and this sentence sets the stage for the progression of the story but it implies that perhaps Huck is the only moral character in the south. We do however see the conflict that arises within Huck when he states the following “And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again, I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame” (233). You clearly see the struggle with this comment despite not wanting to conform he still thinks of himself as a good kid and someone who is good does not condone the breaking of the law. Later when we see his shift and his readiness for “damnation” you can clearly see the divide between what would be considered an absolute and conditional. As an individual you must set forth your categorical imperatives and never sway even if you are to be labeled a brute.
It is discernible that Mark Twain is effectively saying that morality and civility while encompassing similar paths can and should diverge depending the scenarios. Civility is brought upon by expectations or duties placed on by the society which can ultimately corrupt the individual. For Twain it seems morality should be constant no matter time or place and should take precedent. While some consider this novel racist based on the language it is paramount to understand that Twain used this platform to highlight to double standards practiced during this time especially with slavery. It is vital that this story continues to be read and taught as many of its issues are still prevalent more than 130 years later. If we are to learn from out past, we must revisit the books that question what we considered paramount.
- Schinkel, Anders. “Huck Finn, Moral Language and Moral Education.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 45, no. 3, 2011, pp. 511-525.
- Bollinger, Laurel. “Say It, Jim: The Morality of Connection in ‘Adventures of Huckleberry
- Finn.’” College Literature, vol. 29, no. 1, 2002, pp. 32–52.
- Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 105-281. Print.