What "Civilized" means in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      The principal idea of the novel is the conflict between civilization and natural life. Civilization is represented by the likes of Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, Judge Thatcher, etc. Huck represents natural life through his soul that hungers after freedom of all kinds. An uncivilized lad, he has a desire to escape from civilization. Ever since early childhood, he's had bad experiences. He has been brought up in an environment that offers him a constricting atmosphere. The efforts of people to civilize him annoy him no end. Right from the first chapter, this conflict becomes obvious. Widow Douglas tries to force Huck to wear new clothes, sit and eat in a particular way, give up smoking and learn the teachings of the Bible.

      It is not just Huck but also Jim who has a desire to run from the prejudices and inequality of society. Both are skeptical about the civilization around them. Though their respective reasons for this rejection of society are somewhat different.


      Huck is an uneducated and uncouth boy, constantly under obligation to adhere to the demands of civilized society. He hankers after the carefree and tension-free life that he is accustomed to. This Is not just the story of a boy running away from home. It is the story of a boy, conscious of what he wants in life; one who attempts to run away not just from society but also from all the so-called lopsided values and morals that it embodies. More than any other character, he has learned that Jim, besides being a nigger, is also a human being; a human being who deserves the right to a dignified and free life like the rest of us.

      The society that Huck rejects is not only that which is infested with people like Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Almost none of the inhabitants are worthy of reverence. There is not a single character in the novel that Huck wants to emulate. Miss Watson is a hypocrite, scolding Huck for wanting to smoke and then using snuff herself and yet, firmly believing that she would go in heaven.

      Another representation of civilization is Pap. Despite being Huck's biological father, there is nothing, either by way of love, financial assistance, or emotional support that Huck can look forward to. Pap is quite unpleasant to look at. "His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines. There warn't no color in his face where his face showed; it was white; not like another man's white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body's flesh crawled tree-toad white, a fish-belly white".

      It is not just his nauseating looks that repel Huck. Huck's skepticism regarding the so-called civilized world all started with Pap. Huckleberry Finn has been given a raw deal in life. Emotional security, the most vital feature of childhood, is what Huck lacks. During most of his childhood, Huck has been abused, both physically as well as mentally by his father. A detestable character, he has failed miserably at the job of being a father and has given Huck enough reason to feel disgruntled with society. Pap's brutal treatment is what is the last straw and drives Huck to contemplate leaving home.

      As if this were not enough, the "King" and the "Duke" emerge. They are detestable characters. They embody the immorality and wickedness of society in its most intense form. They represent the viciousness of the human race in its most severe manner. They are not only thieves and swindlers but also sell Jim to the Phelpses for a paltry sum. From the moment that they make their appearance, Huck and Jim's journey downriver worsens. Their act of swindling the innocent Wilks girls is one that Huck feels most ashamed of. His feelings that "It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race", (chapter 24) speaks volumes of how disgusted he is with these symbols-of societies. If such people are what society constitutes of, then Huck does not incline, and rightly so, to be associated with it.

      It is all these people that Huck rejects and wants to run away from. A rendezvous with all these characters reinforces our belief that Huck cannot be blamed for his desire to run away and find refuge elsewhere. What has society given Huck after all? It is chockablock with people like the cowardly townspeople in the Boggs incident, swindlers, and hypocrites How could a self-righteous boy like Huck relate to such a farce?


      Jim too has had a bitter experience with society. He is a slave and by virtue of this fact, is not even considered a human being. He is not given the right to freedom, which is everybody's birthright, on the contrary, Miss Watson attempts to sell him to the slave trade from New Orleans, for a paltry sum of eight hundred dollars. He is more of a "property" owned by the more affluent "whites"

      Therefore, Huck seeks to run away from this civilization and its corrupting influence and take refuge in the river. Life on the river is relatively tranquil. Except for a few incidents such as the invasion of the King and the Duke, life on the raft is reasonably untainted. "...we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee-deep, and watched them come. Not a sound anywhere-perfectly still-just like the whole world was asleep.... then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers".

     The river is where he finds his sanctuary. This is the only place where he feels safe and assured in the company of Huck.

      No wonder, then, that the two boys seek refuge in the Mississippi River. The river is the only place that lets them be their natural selves. It doesn't have any expectations from either of them. It doesn't care about how refined you are in your social mannerisms. It is not judgmental about whether or not Huck behaves in a refined way; it doesn't take away Jim's right to be happy with his dear family; it doesn't dupe people and give anyone a reason to be ashamed of being a human being. While the river is freedom, the land is symbolic of oppression, and that oppression is true in the case of Jim more than anyone else.


      At the end of the story, Aunt Sally proposes that she could "adopt" Huck and "sivilize" him. More wary of such proposals than ever before, Huck refuses. He says "I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally, she's going to adopt me civilize me, and I can't stand it. I've been there before" His re-entry into society in chapter 32, has not changed his impressions of it. Though he has regard for the Phelpses, he can discern a mild racist streak in them as well Huck decides to choose against society because of all the harsh realities that he has seen with his own eyes.


      Throughout the novel, Twain seems to suggest, though discreetly, that the natural way of life is much better than the civilized way. The former is purer and less contaminated with human vice. In line with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Twain seems to communicate that society and civilization have a more corrupting influence on human beings.

      Through Huck and Jim's rejection of society, Twain forces us to go through a session of self-introspection and judge our credibility as human beings in the true sense. Not many of us would be able to turn a blind eye to the fact that we are not very different from the characters that we encounter during the course of the story. Self-introspection also leads us to believe that we are one of the mobs that stood outside Colonel Sherburn's house or the gullible townspeople that are so easily duped. Our reading of the novel makes us question the world we live in. There are more incidents of trickery and fraud than ever before. There are more people like the "King" and the "Duke" than those like the Wilks sisters, Hunter Jim.

      Delving into the profundity of Twain's message, we realize that he is making a powerful statement. As social animals, no doubt, we cannot break away from society. At the same time, there is an imperative need to break free from what others assume to be "correct" and "just", and make decisions for ourselves. The courage of conviction to stand up to what we feel is right, is the need of the hour.

University Questions also can be Answered:

Huck begins and ends the novel by resisting being "civilized". Why, in your opinion, does he do this? What does he do to resist being "sivilized?"
Huck begins and ends the novel by revealing his discomfort with being "sivilized." What do you think Twain's message is?

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