Huck's Moral Dilemma and Growth in of Huckleberry Finn

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      On the face of it, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seems to be a novel of a young, rebellious, fourteen-year old adolescent who wants to break free from the restrictions imposed on him by his guardians. Delving into the depths of the novel, we realize that it is way beyond that. Attempting to save the runaway nigger, Jim, Huck goes through the ordeal of confronting his conscience and testing his morality and character. He becomes intensely introspective and, by and by, lets his inner voice guide him towards what he considers "right".

      Of course, this transformation doesn't come overnight. In the beginning of the novel, Huck is at the pinnacle of immorality. When the young boys, including Tom, decide to start a gang of robbers, each member of the "gang" is obliged to sign an oath of loyalty to the gang It is pointed out that Huck doesn't have a family for them to kill, in case he turns traitor. Therefore, he should be excluded from the gang. Huck, on the spur of the moment, offers Miss Watson's life, if the need arises. This irresponsibility and juvenile behaviour is in sharp contrast to the boy, Huck, we get to meet, later in the novel. He is also immature enough to join hands with Tom and play a trick, on the sleeping Jim, in chapter 2. His actions show a distinct tinge of racism, though inadvertent.

      Nevertheless, there is not a single incident in the novel that makes us feel that Huck's attitude towards Jim is that of scorn or disrespect; the former has always been fond of Jim. Owing to their social status, they could not have been buddies. But, as they sail down the river Mississippi, Huck seems to have evolved morally and spiritually.

      His maturity comes to the fore in the first part of the novel - even Ore he makes an intensely personal relationship with Jim. When the meet on Jackson's island, Jim is frightened that Huck would also act like the others and betray him. "He bounced up and stared at me wild. Then he drops down on his knees, and puts his hands together and says:

"Doan' hurt me- don't! I hain't ever done no harm to a ghos'. I alwuz liked dead people, en done all I could for 'em. You go en git in de river agin, whah you b'longs, en doan' do nuffn to Ole Jim, 'at 'uz awluz yo fren'."

      But Huck promises not to tell a soul and keeps his word. A young kid is not really expected to be so matured. He assures the latter of his dependability and loyalty.

"...I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum - but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways. So, now, le's know all about it."

      His acceptance of Jim, as more than just a slave, is the first step towards moral development. Far from adhering to what society terms as "right" or "wrong", Huck has his own paradigm and moral standards. He makes his own dictates and adheres to them.

      In the beginning of the novel (chapter 10), Huck, somehow, disregards Jim's sentiments and can't overcome the temptation of playing several practical jokes, including the "rattle-snake" incident, on him. But, gradually, he starts showing signs of maturity.

      In chapter 16, when Jim is excited at the prospect of reaching the Free States, for the first time ever, Huck is in a quandary. He confronts a guilty conscience for helping a slave escape. Though he tries to justify his actions, his conscience reprimands him for having behaved in the most despicable way with Miss Watson, who has been so good to him in "every way she knowed how". The first instance of Huck's growth is when he is stopped by two slave-hunters. He decides to betray Jim. They ask,

"Any men on it?
Only one, sir."
" S your man white or black?"
"He's white.

      Huck's ostensibly racist attitude brings us to the most pertinent question - Is Huck Finn too, like the other characters, racist? In an attempt to address this issue, it is imperative that we take into account the socio-cultural milieu that he grows amidst. It is just that the young adolescent, entirely subconsciously, believes society's teachings. He is brought up in an environment that considers slavery as "right" and "acceptable". He has been trained to believe that a "nigger" is inferior to a "white" man, not only in status but also in emotion and feeling. Even though Huck has managed to escape the society that he detests, he has not been able to emancipate himself from its teachings. After all, it is not easy for one to have a complete metamorphosis of values and beliefs that have been ingrained. Father John Hanrahan, the priest of the church of St. John says, "To a Southerner of 185, this was as outrageous as accepting the dignity and sincerity of a Communist has been to many Catholic". An acquaintance with Huck's personality, throughout the novel, lends us the view that he is too innocent and innocuous to harbour any hardened opinions of racism like the other members of society.

      Suddenly, in this conflict between the head and the heart, the heart triumphs. In Chapter 31, when he discovers that Jim has been sold to the Phelpses, Huck contemplates telling Miss Watson all about Jim's whereabouts. After struggling with his conscience for a long time, he decides that he would submit to the "everlasting fire" and do everything he can, to save Jim. His decision doesn't come easily. He experiences "Providence slapping" him. As Tom Petty wrote,

"You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down"

      This is exactly what Huck does. He'd rather go to hell and confront God than betray Jim who is much more than merely a companion; he is the only family that Huck has in the world. In this battle of legality and conventions versus morality, the latter triumphs. 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 can be seen to achieve a kind of moral grandeur when he tears up the note he's written to Miss Watson.

      Huck experiences a moral evolution not only in so far as his relation and attitude towards Jim is concerned. No doubt, these form an important part of his moral development, he exercises this morality in other situations as well. He decides, though as a late reaction, to save the robbers of the steamboat called "Walter Scot, in chapter 13. After abandoning them, suddenly, he goes through self-introspection and starts empathizing with the robbers' plight. He is overcome with his sense of guilt and he imagines what a dreadful situation they are in.

      Huck's confession to the Wilks sisters, about the fraudulent ways of the "King" and the "Duke", is also a step towards his moral growth. I'm letting him rob her of her money. I feel so ornery and low.. I got to steal that money somehow; and I got to steal it some way that they wont suspicion I done it" (chapter 26). He betrays the King's evil designs to Mary Jane Wilks. His decision to help the Wilks' sisters is not attributable to what society calls "right". It is due to his own scruples anda sense of right and wrong. He cannot see the "fatherless and motherless" girls, the "poor sweet lambs" being duped and is able to overcome his dilemma when his conscience stirs him. He is, now, able to break away from the code of morality propounded by society.

      His moral growth is discernible even in relation to the "King" and the "Duke". After witnessing the claptrap of the two frauds, and even after getting into such a lot of trouble because of the same, Huck realizes, at the end of the novel, that no matter how corrupt and ruthless someone is, their life is still of significance. In chapter 33, at Uncle Silas' farm, when the swindlers get tarred and feathered, Huck makes an unsuccessful attempt to save them. He comments, "Well it made me sick to see it; and I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals.. It was a dreadful thing to see". This exhibits genuine maturity and wisdom and can rarely be expected from a fourteen-year old. A young adolescent would, under similar circumstances, be overcome by emotions of revenge and spite.

      This episode is a significant step towards Huck's moral development. Huck Finn, the fourteen-year old adolescent, has more integrity than the 30-year old Duke and the 70-year old King. He has, so far, been a mute spectator to the entire game of pretense. It is not until the end of the chapter that he vociferously asserts his abhorrence for the conduct of the two swindlers.

      It is, ultimately, because of Jim that Huck reaches this moral growth. Had the former not become such an important part of his life, Huck would never have discerned the beauty and compassion in Jim's personality.

      Conclusion. The novelist displays his disdain for slavery through a character who, despite the corrupting and demoralizing weight of the Southern civilized society, has "learnt his lesson" and that character is Huck. There are critics who have castigated the novel for its faulty grammar and incorrect English. Others disparage this masterpiece of Mark Twain on the basis of the argument that the use of the "N" word has a demeaning effect. Little has anyone realized that Huck's moral progression and maturity can be a source of great inspiration for young minds. They could be steered towards maturity and to assess people for what they are on the inside rather than assign a verdict based on superficial factors such as skin colour and social status.

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