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Huckleberry Finn Moral Development & Changes

Includes various Huckleberry Finn Quotes

In the book Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain the main character Huck has the continuing problem whether to do what society says he should do or what his own conscience says he should do. The book is about how society tends to corrupt true morality, freedom, and justice, which exist in nature, and how the individual must follow his or her own conscience. Huck has to make many moral choices; these moral choices help the author shape and develop Huck throughout the novel. One example of this is when Huck has to decide whether to turn Jim in to the slave hunters or not. Huckleberry is a rough, truly uncivilized boy. He rebels against the restraints of civilization-artificial, middle-class society-- and its delusions, represented by cramped clothing and religion. Huck's complete sincerity, which leads to his dislike for hypocritical civilization, is his defining quality. Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, meanwhile, are the representatives of the society Huck rejects.

Twain develops Huck's character by the choices Huck makes as the novel progresses. Huck Finn goes through many moral developments. In the beginning of the book, Huck is careless, he plays jokes and tricks on people. When Huck's adventures grow to involve more people and new moral questions never before raised, it is clear that he has started to change. By the time the book is almost over, we can see a radical change in Huck's opinions, thoughts, and his views of "right and wrong".

Sometimes, serious events can affect a person's moral opinions and values. This is clearly shown in Huck as his adventures progress further into seriousness. Hucks opinion about religion shows his lack of concern for serious things. Several passages written in 1876 deal with problems of morality: in these was the germ of the chief thought to be developed in the completed novel. Huck’s attacks on prayer and his concepts of heaven in chapters i-iii introduce the motif (Blair, 134).

When he was told about heaven and hell (he refers "good" and "bad" place respectively), he thinks about going to the "bad" place because he finds dull singing and praying to god, while the bad place appeals to him as he hears that his friend Tom Sawyer is going to the bad place (37). He is not serious in praying and instead of praying for help in finding faith, he prays for a fishing line and he is upset when he finds that there is fishing line but there are no fishing hooks (39). Mark Twain expresses Huck's wildness and confused morals. His careless and wild ways are expressed with his superstitions as well. This is shown with his throwing salt over his shoulder (43) and his other superstitions such as burning the spider, about the snakeskin, and talking about the dead (61). Huck never tells the truth. One of his bloated lies is about being a girl and he keeps bloating and bloating to cover up his old lies (75).

As the book progresses his seriousness develops. By the middle of the book, we can see Huck’s improvement. He now realizes that Jim is more human than he was supposed to believe. His view of "right” and “wrong" have changed. He continuous lying and playing jokes, but now he feels some guilt whenever he does this. For instance when he tricks Jim into believing he was dreaming about the fog. When Jim says:

…When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’t k’yer no mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin’, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid lie. Dat truck dah is trash; en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren's en makes 'em feel ashamed (99).

Lionel Trilling in his work The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn says, “The pride of human affection has been touched, one of the few prides that has any true dignity. And at its utterance, Huck’s one last dim vestige of pride of status, his sense of his position as a white man, wholly vanishes” (195).

Jim’s words make Huck feel bad enough to apologize and he finally realizes that Jim has feelings too. Most Huck’s growth and visible friendship to Jim is seen through this apology.

It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a black person; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterward, neither (100).

This is extremely important because it shows the closing gap between the two despite their wide class range. Before that, Huck had lied to save Jim from being caught

by saying that Jim was white and had a disease so that people wouldn't look for Jim and probably catch him.

“In chapter viii, on agreeing not to report Jim has run away Huck shows how his moral standards are influenced by his upbringing by accepting the fact “people would call me a lowdown Abolitionist and despise me.” This point had been made briefly in chapter xxviii of Tom Sawyer, where Huck had agreed with the popular view that he did wrong when he sat and ate with a Negro”, says Blair (138).

Huck’s conscience is awaken when he is helping Jim escape. Here is the passage from chapter xvi:

...conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could ‘a’ paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so-I couldn’t get around that, no way…Conscience says….”What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you that you should treat her so mean? Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how. That’s what she done.”

I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead (101).

Huck has to decide either to obey society or not. At this point his own conscience seemed to have no good answer. Through his judgment though, we see the growth of his

character as well as his friendship with Jim. As he paddles toward shore and decides to tell about Jim, he hears Jim shout , “You’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now” (102). At this time his conscience pulls Huck equally hard the other way.

Another example of Huck’ moral seen in the Grangerford family, which admits him when he comes to the house after their raft was splintered by a steamboat. He becomes their guest and stays with them for some time. His seriousness grows after he sees Buck Grangerford death because Buck had been somewhat of a friend to him.

When I got down out of the tree, I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the too bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces and got away as quick as I could. I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face, for he was mighty good to me (123).

The senseless killing between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons made him question civilized ways that perpetuated a feud where basically good people foolishly follow old customs rather than changing tradition.

Later, when he encounters the "King" and the "Duke" (128), and even later when he finds out that the King and the Duke are frauds, he does not tell Jim, but for a good reason (130). He doesn’t want Jim to feel ignorant. This shows an improvement in Huck. He still keeps the truth away, but he does it for the good of others now.

“Huck perceives King and Duke more simply and naively, making his troubles with them all the more disturbing, to him and to us. When Huck first sees them, they are

fleeing from a mob. Assuming that all outcasts are like Jim and himself, Huck helps the two strangers without question”, says Carrington (76). “With the King and Duke, Huck goes through long relationship. At first, on the raft, Huck is the spectator, amused, aware that the men are frauds, but unaware that he might become unpleasantly involved with them. At Pokeville camp meeting Huck is still the pure spectator; at Brickvillehe becomes a minor collaborator, helping with “our show” and enjoying the Nonesuch swindle. At the Wilkses, however, Huck is forced to play an active, demanding part. After the Wilks episode, when the rascals fail at every trick and begin to talk “low and confidential” in the wigwam, Huck and Jim do not “like the look of it,” but are far from anxious for themselves”, continues Carrington (39).

Huck was angered when the whole town was duped by King and Duke, but as Blair noticed “Huck’s last sight of his rascals comes in chapter xxxiii after he has gone to the Phelps’ place to rescue Jim. They have become victims of the very mob spirit they have been “working.” Once too often they have tied “The King’s Cameloperd” and “…here comes a raging rush of people with torches, and an awful whooping and yelling, and banging tin pans and blowing horns….I see they had the king and the duke astraddle of a rail that is, I knowed it was the king and the duke, though they was all over tar and feathers, and didn’t look like nothing in the world that was human─just looked like a couple of monstrous big soldier plumes.” A heretofore the military metaphor, in “soldier plums” betokens a mob. Huck, as he has so often recently, offers an explicit summary: “Well, it made me sick….It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (341).

By the late part of the book, Huck shows more seriousness to religion and actually thinks of how religion and his morals are contradicting. He stops to think of which should overrule. Religion, as he understands it, tells him stealing is wrong, and combined with what he was taught, it makes helping a slave escape appear as stealing. On the other hand, Huck sees Jim as a human and wants to help him. Jim is his friend, and Huck now holds staying with his friend as one of his values.

“Huck’s debate about writing Miss Watson, as if to recapitulate, goes over this ground. Then it takes a turn, which offers a highly significant contrast. Accordingly, it falls into two parts. In Part I Huck decides not to write, but reverses his decision and writes the letter. In Part II he makes his final choice: he destroys the letter and accepts the consequences. So Huck writes the letter and feels “all washed clean of sin”, thinks Blair (342). However, when Huck remembers their trip he says:

… and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day; and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me … and see how glad he was when I come back out of the fog … and such like times … and how good he always was … and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

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.

… 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 (201).

“The phrasings which precede this second decision are not mouthings of snippets from sermons. Their concreteness, their naturalness, their simplicity, their originality, indicate deep-felt emotion.

Both Huck here and Jim in his remorseful memories in chapter xxiii illustrate the concept which Mark Twain had developed in 1876 when showing Huck’s previous conflict with his conscience─the a “sound heart” promts a right decision. What makes both scenes more striking than the earlier one is, first, the author’s clearer formulation and therefore his clearer articulation of the contrasts involved; second, his placing these sound and moral conclusions cheek-by-jowl with many stupid and immoral ones. The putting into words of his thought was influential; so was his recently defined technique of using juxtaposed scenes to embody “silent but eloquent comment”, says Blair (343).

So after thinking seriously about it and even writing a note to Miss Watson, he eventually decides that his values overrule religion (by then ripping up the note), even though religion is still a force that should be thought about. In his eyes, he is going to go to hell and suffer eternally because of helping Jim escape and not returning him back to his "owner". This later shows that Huck is an "all the way" kind of person (meaning if he does something wrong and is going to have to suffer consequences for it, he might as well enjoy doing it). When he figures out that the "King" has sold Jim, he goes out to find Jim (190). Huck’s compassion emerges when he sees the duke and king tarred and

feathered, and what we subsequently hear are Huck’s true feelings without the constrictive disguise that he has donned in order to effect the rescue of Jim. We are inside his mind, listening to his thoughts, thoughts no one but the reader knows”, says Chadwuck-Josua (116). We can see that Huck is caring over his friends now and that he sticks by his morals as much as he can, and Huck's morals have changed alot since the beginning. He does not seem to enjoy lying to people anymore if it hurts others. As I said above his dislikes of hurting others with lies started from when he tricked Jim about the fog and felt bad.

At the end, I just want to say that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an excellent example of how people can change over time and events. This is shown in the above reasons. Huck generally feels that "humans are good and trustworthy, but you always have to watch out for people that always want to make a benefit at others loss" (203). He is shocked by the fact that people have a tendency to do incredibly kind things (like when he helps Jim) and the fact that people can do terrible things to hurt others emotionally (as shown by the King and the Duke's heartless ways to get money, which even include disrespect to the dead). Huck talks to his conscience in many of the previous statements. He talks with his conscience to find what choice is better, turn in Jim or help Jim. As a general whole, the human race is generally good and kind, but there are always some exceptions.

Huckleberry Finn References

  • Blair, Walter. Mark Twain &Huck Finn. California Library Reprint Series ed. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973.
  • Carrington, George C. The Dramatic Unity of Huckleberry Finn. Ohio State ed. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976.
  • Chadwick-Josua, Jocelyn. The Jim Dilemma. Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998.
  • Trilling, Lionel. The Greatness of Huckleberry Finn. 2nd ed. Chicago: 1960.
  • Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2004.

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