How is "Conscience" a theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Through the medium of satire, Mark Twain capitalizes on Huck Finn's internal conflict - between his disposition and outward social conditioning - to bring out the idiocy of society. The principal issue in the novel is the clash between Huck's "sound heart" and "deformed", "conscience"; it is a variance between the head and the heart that is such an arduous experience for Huck. Within the novel's major themes of slavery, racism, religion, and civilization, this dilemma holds an important place.

      From the beginning of the novel, we become cognizant of the fact that Huck, as a result of his social conditioning, has learned certain values and codes of conduct that leave an indelible impression on his mind. He has learned to take these "values" and "morals" as "right".

      An insight into his upbringing gives us a more lucid background of Huck and helps us understand why he feels and acts the way he does. Huck is an orphan who is adopted by Widow Douglas. She tries her best to "sivilize" him and teach him "good manners". "Miss Watson would say, Don't put your feet up there, Huckleberry; and 'Don't scrunch up like that, Huckleberry - set up straight; and pretty soon she would say, Don't gap and stretch like that, Huckleberry why don't you try to behave?"

      A discerning reader can assess that Huck does not get the privilege of a conventional childhood. There is no mention of is mother and we assume her to be dead. His father is a useless drunkard who treats him extremely cruelly. The young boy's childhood, though seemingly carefree and relaxed, is practically a nightmare. It is easy to judge why Huck rejects this society that imposes so many restrictions on him. Society has rejected him as he does not get the love and emotional support of a family. He doesn't have anyone to call his own, in the true sense. No doubt, his guardian, Widow Douglas adopts him. She, along with her younger sister, Miss Watson, tries to instill certain socially accepted values in him, but these lead to Huck having a distorted sense of morals. His guardians teach him about "Providence", "Heaven", "Hell" and the need to do good to others. At the same time, Huck does not see them practicing this philanthropy. Miss Watson wants to sell her nigger, Jim, to slave traders from New Orleans. She has no qualms about the fact that this act would lead to the latter's separation from his family, forever. Such insensitivity towards a fellow human being is what Huck does not associate with the so-called Religiosity or true Christianity. These double standards and hypocrisies confuse Huck and make him detest society's concept of morality. His intelligence spurs him to question these ideals.

"Then she (Miss Watson) told me all about the bad place (Hell), and I said I wish I was there. She got mad then, but I didn't mean any harm. All I wanted was to go somewheres; All I wanted was a change, I wasn't particularly "... I couldn't see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn't try for it."

      Another reason for Huck's confusion is the discrepancy between these Christian values propagated by the true Christians and the philosophy of his father, Pap. "Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time but the widow said it wasn't anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it". Pap is a dishonest and immoral man who is untouched by even the theoretical concept of Christianity. He sees no harm in stealing and telling a lie. Therefore, a lopsided and dysfunctional upbringing and his varied childhood experiences lead to Huck's "deformed conscience". The confusion arises because

"Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn't borrow them any more - then he reckoned it wouldn't be no harm to borrow the others..... trying to make up our minds whether to drop the watermelons, or the antelopes, or the muskmelons, or what. But towards daylight, we got it all settled satisfactory, and concluded to drop crabapples and p'simmons. We warn't feeling just right before that, but it was all comfortable now..."

      There is also evidence that Huck has a "sound heart". The society represents false and preconceived values. These preconceived values give Huck a deformed conscience. Life on the shore is all about hypocrisies and stereotypes whereas that on the river is more tranquil and untainted. The development of friendship between Huck and Jim represents humanity; a human reality that evades those civilized people living in St. Petersburg Huck perceives Jim more as a friend and family member than as a mere nigger.

      In chapter 10, he plays a trick on Jim. Huck kills a rattlesnake and keeps it under Jim's blanket, forgetting all about it later. The snake's mate comes and bites Jim on his heel. Huck kills the snake and throws it away. Since the snake bite is very painful, Jim has a bad time. Huck realizes his carelessness and feels remorse for having played this trick on Jim and secretly vows never to do it again. He repents having been callous towards Jim. Huck's remorse brings to light his innate goodness Again, in chapter 15, on their way to Cairo, Huck and Jim get separated by a thick fog. Realizing that an island has separated him from Jim, Huck feels terribly lonely. On waking up, he manages to locate Jim. He finds the latter sleeping and plans to play a prank on him. When Jim expresses his happiness on seeing Huck, the latter pretends to have been with him all this while. He makes Jim believe that all this was but a nightmare. Later, when Jim notices the broken twigs on the floor of the raft, Jim realizes that his friend has been fooling him all this while. He feels terribly hurt. Huck also feels remorseful for having played with Jim's sentiments even though he needs a good "fifteen minutes" to gear himself up "to go and humble" himself to Jim because he is a "nigger Tom had also played practical jokes on Jim but in contrast to him, or any other character in the novel, Huck is more receptive of the fact that, despite being black, Jim too is a human being.

      Another proof of Huck's "sound heart" comes to the fore when he realizes that the "King" and the "Duke" are not royal people but mere swindlers. "It didn't take me long to make up my mind that these liars warn't no king s nor dukes at all, but just low-down humbugs and frauds. But I never said anything (to Jim), never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have any quarrels, and don't get into no trouble. If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, hadn't any objections, long as it would keep peace in the family; and it wasn't any use to tell Jim, so I didn't tell him. If I never learned anything else out of pap, I learned that the best way to get along with his kind of people is to let them have their way".

      Though he does not acquiesce to their ways in the Wilks' episode, he feels pity for them when they get "tarred" and "feathered" in chapter 33. He feels sorry for "them poor pitiful rascals". The King and the Duke had made life pretty difficult for Huck and Jim. Nevertheless, Huck deplores the fact that "human beings can be awful cruel to one another". The fact that he "couldn't ever feel any hardness against them anymore in the world" reveals his essential goodness.

      In this conflict between a "sound heart" and a "deformed conscience", it is the heart that prevails upon everything else. The conscience is nourishes by society. Huck can discard the influence of society that tells him slavery is "right" and "acceptable". The triumph of the heart lies in this refusal to blindly accept this social construction. Throughout the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck has the sense of judgment; he can evaluate what is truly good and righteous; his intelligence that makes him appraises situations prudently, coupled with a natural sympathy for fellow human beings, makes him a virtuous and honorable young boy.

      He makes his moral standards and decides to "go to Hell" in chapter 31. His decision to help Jim doesn't come easily. He experiences "Providence slapping" him and is torn apart by conventional good judgment and his independence of thought. His final decision "All right, then, I'll go to hell" - is the culmination of his journey towards emotional maturity and leads to an evolution of his conscience. He has developed the ability to take his decision himself rather than being a puppet in the hands of "society". He realizes that if his heart "wasn't right" and the "warn't square", he simply couldn't "pray a lie". He doesn't mind submitting to the "everlasting fire" and doing everything he can, to save Jim.

      Another incident where the heart triumphs are when, in Chapter 16, Huck and Jim encounter two slave hunters. By cooking up a story, Huck makes them believe that the man in the raft is his father who is suffering from smallpox. According to Mark Twain, the deformed conscience is nothing but defective training that is accorded by society. This training endorses concepts of slavery and approves of society's constricting hypocrisies.

      Though it may be true that Huck is not able to address Jim's distress and offer him any comfort by way of words, his actions, dictated by a "sound heart," make sure that Jim gets tremendous emotional support from the former. Huck realizes that Jim, or any other nigger for that matter, is as capable of emotions and love as any "white" man because these emotions are human emotions and not merely the prerogative of some people. He says in chapter 23, "I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks do for their'n. It doesn't seem natural, but I reckon it's so". Huck's realization, that Jim was "a mighty good nigger" (chapter 23) and that he is "white inside" (chapter 40), speaks volumes of Huck's inherent humanity.

      We also witness the triumph of Huck's sound heart over dishonesty. (In chapter 26) Huck faces the dilemma of whether he should let the two frauds continue duping the "poor sweet lambs" or should he give them away and endanger his relationship with them. His good heart wins through again as he feels "so ornery and low down and mean that I say to myself, my mind's made up; I'll hive that money for them or bust".

      To sum up, we can say that, by portraying Huck as a young boy of fourteen years of age and yet, as one who has the courage of conviction to act on his feeling, Twain makes sure that our respect and admiration for Huck receives a boost.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn "a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat. What influences have deformed Huck's Conscience?
How is "conscience" a theme of the novel, in general?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is all about the clash between rearing and innate goodness in which the latter triumphs. How far do you agree or disagree with this statement. Substantiate your answer.

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