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Huckleberry Finn’s moral conscience

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Few authors could spin words as well as Mark Twain, but the image of the chronicler of the Mississippi is perhaps one more of style and storytelling than of depth. We don’t read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn and expect to find great moral insights or penetrating philosophy. Twain’s own preface to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn runs: “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”

Not meant entirely seriously, of course, but it’s true that I wasn’t reading the book in search of any of those things. One chapter particularly struck me, though, and has continued to come to mind in the years since I first read the book. We see Huck wrestling with what he has always been taught is right, as opposed to what his conscience—and, admittedly, his emotions—tell him is right.

Jim, the runaway slave traveling down the Mississippi with Huck, is recaptured and put up for a reward. The moral course of action, according to Huck’s upbringing, is to write to Jim’s owner and let her know where he is, but Huck can’t bring himself to do it. He tries to pray, but feels he can’t, and so decides to write the letter and then see if he can pray. “I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking…” Huck again tries to justify the letter to himself, but all he can think of is Jim’s goodness, his generosity and friendship and gratitude. Reading Twain’s description, I couldn’t help but think that this train of thought is Huck’s real prayer, though Huck himself doesn’t know it.

“But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against [Jim], but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now….”

What makes the scene most striking, for me anyway, is Huck’s ultimate acceptance of hell rather than betraying Jim. (There is, of course, no pretense of theological correctness here, but it’s a memorable conclusion.) And what leads to Huck’s decision is his view of the person—of the specific person of Jim. Their trip down the river has led Huck to see Jim as a person and as an equal, despite what society and the laws of the time have taught him. He sees the person, and understands the person, and this understanding leads him to the truly moral course of action. It is the human person, created in God’s image, that shows us the reality of ethics and of laws, which if understood rightly will always promote man’s true good. Huck’s realization of this leads to his drastic conclusion.

And then I happened to look around, and see that paper [the letter he’s written].

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”- and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said….

Despite what the law says, and despite what Huck’s (limited) understanding of religion tells him, his conscience won’t let him betray his friend. Morality is prior to laws. A moral society will create just laws, and immoral habits will often lead to unjust ones. And no law can make a wrong into a right.

Twain is, with good reason, one of America’s most beloved authors, and one of the most entertaining to read. He also has a more serious side, and invites deeper reflection, than he may generally receive credit for. What I’ve said here is, I’m sure, far from being a full interpretation of what he may have wanted to say through this scene—and in fact, Twain’s own mistrust of organized religion may argue for a darker meaning. Whatever the author himself wanted to convey, though, it’s undeniable that he created a memorable scene, and a poignant illustration of right and wrong.

(Homepage photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.)

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Joshua Gregor Joshua Gregor is International Relations Assistant at the Acton Institute. Before coming to Acton he received a BA in philosophy from the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome and an MA in linguistics from Indiana University.

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