Conflict of Honor in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Though not one of the most prominent themes in the novel, the conflict of honor permeates the novel. This theme can be tracked down throughout the course of the novel.


      At the very beginning of the story, we are introduced to Tom Sawyer's gang of robbers. His reading of various novels of adventure has made him believe that there is great honor associated with being robber. In the true vein of Cervantes' Don Quixote, he believes it is heroic to rob people and that bravery lies in such deeds. The prospect of robbery and murder appeals to all these young boys living in St. Petersburg. The gory oath that every member is made to sign is indicative of how much importance is given to heroic romances. Each boy signs his name in blood and vows never to turn traitor. In case he does, he is supposed to pay for it by way of sacrificing the life of a family member whose name is proposed in advance.

      Although the entire belief goes bust with the revelation that, in a bid to rob the Arabs and merchants of their booty of diamonds, all that the boys manage to set their hands on is turnips. It is a group of young school children, on a Sunday school picnic, that the "robbers" manage to scare away.

      It is, indeed, hilarious when we witness Tom's confidence that he would hold the prisoners for "Ranson" - a concept that he doesn't have the vaguest idea about. He misconstrues it as an act that means keeping the prisoners till they are dead. Despite resistance from a few other members of the gang, he persists in his beliefs because he doesn't want to "go to doing different from what's in the books, and get it all muddled up". He feels that ".... we've got to do it. Don't I tell you it's in the books...."?

      Their desire to steal diamonds and another booty can be paralleled with the fact that Tom and Huck become almost real robbers when they steal Jim out of the Phelps' farm and, in the process, act honorably.


      The theme of honor is most evident from the 'Grangertord - Shepherdson' episode. These are two Southern aristocratic families who have been involved in a bloody feud for more than three decades. Fighting in the name of a family name, the concept of honor is something that they are obsessed with, more than any other character in the novel. Even though they have lost numerous members of their family, on both sides, nothing stops them from fighting tooth and nail for a cause that none is clear about. They can go to any lengths to salvage their family name.

      In Chapter 18, Buck Grangerford and Huck Finn are out in the woods when, all of a sudden, Harvey Shepherdson appears on horseback and starts shooting at Buck. Buck shoots the hat off the man and, dodging his enemy, sprints with Huck, to safety. On reaching home, Buck describes the entire incident to his father and the other family members. On learning about whatever happened, the elder son of the family appears serious and glum. Col. Grangerford, the head of the Grangerford clan, doesn't seem too happy either. It is regarded for family honor that makes him chastise his son for having behaved in a spineless manner. He says, "I don't like that shooting from behind a bush. Why didn't you step into the road, my boy"? Even his siblings are not too pleased. "Miss Charlotte she held her head up like a queen while Buck was telling his tale, and her nostrils spread and her eyes snapped. The two young men looked dark, but never said anything."

      Though the two families are at war with each other, they follow an unwritten and unspoken code of chivalric conduct. They'd rather die in battle than resort to the cowardly act of shooting from the back. This concept of honor gets reinforced when, in chapter 18, we learn that Buck's cousin and the last Grangerford to be killed in this battle, had lost his life as he had chosen the heroic path of running out onto the road instead of through the woods. He was Buck's fourteen-year-old cousin who had met his death about three months before. He had preferred the gallant and laudable feat of facing the enemy once he gave up the chase and had "stopped and faced around so as to have the bullet holes in the front, you know, and the old man he rode up and shot him down. But he didn't get much chance to enjoy his luck, for inside of a week our folks laid him out".

      Through the story of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, Twain does not mock the concept of heroism or honor. On the other hand, he drives us to hold these two families in high esteem for their strength of character and principles. They are, probably, more respectable than any other family in the novel, as far as honor is concerned. They have the courage of conviction to abide by what they consider respectable and honorable. It is not their wealth that earns them their respect but their adherence to certain codes of conduct.


      Though parallels can be drawn between Tom Sawyer and Grangerford - Shepherdson's concept of honor, Huck and Jim do not have any desire to be worshipped. Just as Tom accords enormous influence to the stories of heroic and adventurous feats, So do the two aristocratic families bestow too much importance to the system of the aristocratic honor. Huck reveals his disapproval of this system as he sees no point in it. Time and again, during the novel, we have seen that he acts based on what he witnesses, first hand. He does not get carried away by the dictates of society or what society terms as "right", "honorable" or "respectable". He does not wish to be "above" the others. He would rather get away with things by doing what pleases others if it means achieving his aim. When he encounters the fraudulent "King" and the "Duke", he gladly lets them think that he believes their aristocratic lineage. He wants peace on the raft and, to avoid disharmony, he behaves in an extremely practical manner.

      Even Jim has no desire to be respected. He hankers after little pleasures of life such as the right to live with his family. He would rather serve the "royalty"; Huck carn see that "Jim grows wide-eyed" and that "a body could see it was mighty pleasing to him".

      Though Huck does not believe in any of the conventional definitions of honor, as exercised by the royal families of the South, it does not mean that he is dishonorable. He has his code of honor and abides by his faithfully. It is a sense of personal honor that helps him decide to save a fellow human being from the shackles of slavery. This human being, then, ceases to be a slave or a sub-human nigger. Though, on several Caucasians, he resorts to lying, it is as a result of personal honor that dictates what he should do.


      These two men are the exact opposite of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. There is no place for even an iota of honor, respectability any such thought, in their dictionary. They are the epitome of what is most malicious and base amongst the human race. Greed and fraud are what spur all their actions. They are spineless in so far as their motives are concerned. There is no moral tradition in their world - either in theory or in practice. It is appalling to witness their demeanor when they finally manage to escape from the Wilks' family, in chapter 30. This is followed by a series of allegations and defense, between the King and the Duke. The latter blames the former for having messed up the entire game of deception. He blames him for his idea of making up the "deficit" by chipping in their own money into that of Peter Wilks. He also believes that the King tried to "scoop up" all the money and "give him the slip" When he starts to throttle the King, out of a sense of panic, the latter owns up. "The two of them start drinking and are thick friends again. They hug each other and go off to sleep, snoring in each other's arms.

      This chapter reinforces common intelligence that there is no sense of pride and honor among crooks. Each tries to conceal his intentions by holding the other accountable for the misfortune. It is by the sheer power of coercion that the Duke forces the King to concede. Not long afterward, they become the best of friends and "powerful mellow". It is evident that they are using each other for their ulterior motive.

      It is evident that Twain, the man, was not obsessed with this concept for its own sake. He is not against honor and respectability per se. It is the fanaticism, with which these characters stand for their preconceived notions, which Twain loathes. It is the unhealthy devotion that makes them dwell on the past and spoil their present.

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