Morality in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Morality can be defined as a concern with the distinction between good and evil or right and wrong. Sometimes it is an abstract term that varies from person to person, based on one's perceptions and view of the world, in general. Morality holds an important place in our lives. It is imperative to give our world some semblance of order. Without morality, the world would be in an even more chaotic condition than it is now.


      Huck's encounter with moral issues forms the bulk of the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Having been brought up within civilization, he has automatically adopted certain (moral) values from the social conditioning that he has been subjected to. It is only when he gets to know the runaway slave, Jim better, that he begins to feel the soreness of the dilemma - that of rightness or wrongness, It is now that he questions the rightness of what society has taught him.

      Interestingly, in the novel, morality is more prominent in people who are otherwise disregarded as "black", such as Jim, and those who are uncouth and uncivilized, such as Huck Finn. Ironically, these two character are the moral epicenter of the novel. Jim is the one who aids Huck in his moral progression. By driving the latter towards a judgment of the world around them, he brings him closer to decision-making. Huck, as a result of listening to his own set of morals, decides to tear the letter that he has written to Miss Watson in chapter 31.

      Caught between what he has been taught and what he has scrutinized on his own, Huck faces a terrible situation. His confusion over whether he should tell Miss Watson about Jim's whereabouts or "keep mum" leads to excruciating mental torture. Finally, he decides that "you can't pray a lie" and submits to the "everlasting fire" by tearing off the letter. Taking one last look at it, he says, "all right then, I'll go to hell" (chapter 31). This action shows that Huck, indeed, has a good and clear sense of morals.

      I believe that tolerance and acceptance of people, as they are, is also a moral attitude. In chapter 19, Huck quickly realizes that the "King" and the "Duke" are not men of royalty. Yet, he accepts human nature and refuses to be judgmental. He simply lets them be. Huck also demonstrates this moral approach when he feels pity for the Duke and the King. Despite his disapproval of the frauds' antics, Huck feels sorry for "them poor pitiful rascals" when they are "tarred and feathered". The fact that he "couldn't ever feel any hardness against them anymore in the world" reveals his essential goodness (chapter 33). When he witnesses the pitiable condition of the King and the Duke, he feels, deep down within himself, that he is also to blame.

      This is not to say that Huck is moral throughout. He also has his weaknesses but we may pardon him for these moments, as he is only a fourteen-year-old adolescent, after all; he is one whose "sound heart" has been painted by a "deformed conscience". There is a myriad of occasions when Huck betrays his covertly racist attitude. When Jim voices his apprehensions of getting drowned in the wrecked steamboat incident in chapter 14. Huck acknowledges that Jim was right and that "he had an uncommon level head for a nigger". Why is it so surprising if Jim shows a "level head"? Is it because niggers and slaves aren't supposed to be sensible? Jim's correctness in assessing his situation, according to Huck, deserves louder applause because he is a "nigger". Again, at the end of the same chapter, when they talk of King Solomon, the wisest man, they argue about the latter's prudence in judgment. Jim vehemently dissents to the verdict that was given by King Solomon. Huck has a veiled streak of discrimination when he acknowledges the futility of arguing with Jim because "it wasn't no use wasting words you can't learn a nigger to argue".

      In chapter 16, Jim contemplates "stealing" his children. Huck whose views have been colored by a society steeped in racism, is appalled that Jim plans to take away what "belonged to a man". He states, "Give a nigger an inch and he'll take an ell".


      Society probably plays the most significant role in advocating its theory of morality. From the very outset, it is very clear that it is this morality that Huck shuns from the very beginning of the novel. At the onset, Huck is perceptive enough to judge the hypocritical morality of society and feels a sense of disgust towards the same. His abhorrence is so resilient that he voices his intention of "lighting out to the territory", etc., at the end of the novel.

      Of course, part of Huck's morality comes from society. He has been taught by Widow Douglas and Miss Watson that it is wrong to go against the tenets of the religion. The teachings of both of them leave an indelible mark on the young boy's psyche. That is the reason why he contemplates saving the two robbers on board Walter Scott in chapter 13. He says, "I begun to think how dreadful it was...even for murderers, to be in such a fix. I say to myself, there ain't no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself yet, and then how would I like it?". He also wishes that Widow Douglas would get to know about his kind deed. He craves the lady's approval.

      Of course, the widow to is not infallible. Twain satirizes her hypocrisy. She warns Huck against smoking. "Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn't. She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try to. not do it anymore". But she takes "snuff" herself because "of course, that was all right, because she has done it herself".

      The other characters are Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. Though religious people, they also condone slavery. Uncle Silas prays with Jim hut that is because he has nobody else to give him company. Mrs. Phelps, though an extremely kind old lady, doesn't flinch at the news of the death of a "nigger" as long as no "people" were hurt in the boat explosion. Her relief, in this context, is extremely impolite and racist especially when she responds, "it's lucky because sometimes people do get hurt". After all, their upbringing has taught them that black people don't count as people, and it doesn't matter if they get hurt (chapter 32).

      Even Mrs. Judith Loftus, in chapter 11, is kind and helpful towards Huck because he is a "white" boy. She condones Huck's act of escaping from the despicable farmer and offers all her help. "I'll help you. So my old man if you want him to. You see, you're a runaway prentice, that's all. It ain't anything. There ain't no harm in it. You've been treated badly, and you made up your mind to cut. Bless you, child, I wouldn't tell on you". If she could help him run away from his "master", why does she have such a stern view of Jim's act of running away from the latter's masters? Hasn't Jim been governed by a similar instinct - that of running away from the uncaring Miss Watson? If "there ain't no harm in it" for Huck, why are there stricter measures to judge Jim with.

      Besides a trace of this goodness, that comes from Widow Douglas and the Phelpses, society doesn't have an iota of contribution towards Huck's morality. Society has taught him nothing but racism and prejudice. Huck Finn indeed grew up in times when slavery was regarded as the right and acceptable thing. It was conventionally right. But it is also true that conformity to traditional values is not always right. Growing up in this society and soaking up its teachings is what leads Huck to a moral dilemma. Had this social conditioning not come in the way, there would have been no question of such a grave predicament for him.

      In chapter 42, when Tom returns safe and sound, the farmers are livid at Jim for having run away. Some of them contemplate hanging him so that it serves as a lesson to other niggers. The others oppose the idea and believe that, since Jim is not their nigger, they should take no such action. The opposition is not because of any human instinct of benevolence but because they fear that the real owners of Jim would "turn up and make us pay for him". Huck's comment, in this context, aptly sums up human nature and gives us a scathing portrayal of society. He rightly states, "the people that's always the most anxious for to hang nigger that hadn't done just right, is always the very ones that ain't the most anxious to pay for him when they've got their satisfaction out of him".

      We realize that these people couldn't have offered honorable moral standards and served as ideals. Society is chock-a-block with such people and the likes of Col. Sherburn, the King, and the Duke. How can one expect a world, so satiated with such people to preach morality? "They are the icons of viciousness and malice. The morality promulgated by society is, therefore, what critics call "flawed morality".


      No doubt, Religion provides us with valuable guidance as to how we must live our life, for personal fulfillment as well as for the general well-being of humanity. But it must be understood that it is not the only way to judge what is right or wrong. Such strict adherence to Religion would be more of Fanaticism and fundamentalism.

      Twain also satirizes Religion. Miss Watson professes to be extremely religious and God-fearing. She talks about the value of practicing goodness towards others and about "spiritual gifts" in chapter 3. Yet, she goes against the tenets of Christianity by holding Jim as a slave and worse still, by attempting to sell him off to slave traders.

      By teaching us about concepts of "Providence", "Heaven" and "the bad place and by recounting "Moses and the Bullrushers", religion is far from establishing any true human values within us. It is important to note that Twain does not condemn religion, per se. All that he is against is the fanatical adherence to it. What Twain disparages is the fact that we, very conveniently, fail to practice what we preach. He seems to be poking fun at the codes of Christian morality, in that, one tends to downsize misconduct by lending it a veneer of integrity.

      It is for this reason that Twain sometimes seems to have an anti-religious streak in his writings. He also condemns rigid adherence to the principles of Christianity through his attack on the gullible masses. Of course, there are religious people like those at the camp meeting in chapter 20. They demonstrate their zeal and indulge in a melodramatic display of emotions during preaching. They get taken in by the claims of the King to be a "reformed pirate" from the Indian Ocean. In the same chapter, we are introduced to the scene of preaching were "some of the old women were knitting, and some of the young folks was courting on the sly". This is the devotion that "devout Christians" demonstrate. These people couldn't possibly have been Twain's idea of exemplary morality.


      Family is the first contact that a child has with the outside world. The first lessons that a child learns about morality come from the family. The image of a family brings to mind a force that cements our relationship with the world and prepares us for it. But, in the world of the novel, family hardly seems to be the anchor that it is expected to be. Family, for Huck, constitutes Pap. The useless, vain drunkard is the last person in the world to bestow his son with the wisdom that a father gives his son. In chapter 12, alter escaping from Mrs. Judith Loftus, Huck and Jim live on food that is either bought or stolen. Occasionally, they feel remorseful and decide to relinquish some of the food as penitence. They "lift" chickens and "borrow" watermelons, etc. But fundamentally, the lucid undertone is that they steal these things. They resort to rationalizing their deeds by relinquishing some of these items. By using the word "borrow", the deed sounds less offensive. Huck admits, "Pap always said, take a chicken when you get a chance because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot". These lopsided codes of morality are what he confers upon his son and make him a confused boy.


      It would, therefore, not be incorrect to say that morality, in Huckleberry Finn, comes neither from church, nor is it propagated by society or the community that we are living in. The community or church are, after all, bursting with human beings - beings who are fallible. They are not free from expected human imperfections and failings. As mentioned at the beginning of this essay, there are no absolute 'rights' or 'wrongs'. The concept of 'right' or 'wrong' depends upon one's experiences and what one prioritizes in life. Morality, therefore, comes from one's deeds. And it is this morality that can be relied upon as more genuine than one that is thrust upon us by external sources.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Discuss the place of morality in Huckleberry Finn. In the world of the novel, who preaches these moral values? The society, family, or the Church? Or is it one's experiences? Why are morals important for us?
How do you think Twain demonstrates his feelings about religion/church, society, and family in the novel, Huckleberry Finn?

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