In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, what place does morality have, and from where does it derive? 

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Despite all the early controversy over the issue of Twain's subversion of morality in his novel and the continuing controversy over the presentation and issues of race, the narrative of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is one that affirms truth and integrity and respect for the individual in its ribald satire of hypocrisy and inverted morals. With the purpose of satire being the exposure and ridicule of human folly with the purpose of bringing about reform, Twain attacks certain aspects of human life:

  • Religious hypocrisy:

The hypocrisy of the those who profess to be righteous and and good, because they read and follow the teachings of the Bible is exemplified in Miss Watson, who attempts to teach Huck right from wrong, encouraging him to work towards going "to the good place," while at the same time she owns slaves. Indeed, much of Huck's guilt throughout the narrative stems from his aiding a runaway slave, a violation of the moral code of his environment. For instance, in Chapter 31, Huck is ridden with guilt after the duke steals Jim; for, he feels that Providence was "slapping" him in the face for having taken Jim with him initially,

Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could 'a' gone to it; and if you'd 'a' done it they'd a learnt you there that people that acts as I'd been acting about that n----r goes to everlasting fire.”

Nevertheless, Huck cannot bring himself to write Miss Watson, observing about himself, "You can't pray a lie." Remembering the friendship and love that he and Jim have shared, Huck decides, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" and decides to rescue Jim, demonstrating a more Christian attitude toward human life than Miss Watson or others possess.

  • The hypocrisy of Society

While the white man is considered superior to all others in society, he often exploits and harms his fellow man. Pap beats Huck and is incredibly cruel to him; he tells Huck there is no wrong in stealing as long as you mean to pay it back. The Duke and the Dauphin are absolute scoundrels who exploit anyone they can, taking advantage of gullible people such as the those at the "camp meeting" who contribute to the duke's taking up of a collection to reform pirates. Later, they exploit the family of the deceased Peter Wilks by pretending to be his brothers, William and Harvey and stealing the inheritance of Wilks's daughters.

In another episode, the pretensions and hypocrisies of families is exposed with the narrative of the aristocratic families of the Shepardsons and Grangerfords who are engaged in a deadly feud, yet they sit in church listening to a sermon on brotherly love while holding their guns "between their knees."

This inhumanity of the people against one another is contrasted with the humanity of Jim, a mere slave. While he tends the injured Tom Sawyer in Chapter 42, Jim remarks,

I never see a n----r that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was risking his freedom to do it...

And, of course, throughout Twain's narrative, Huck struggles constantly with moral values such as honesty and justice. For instance, in Chapter 13 while he at first feels that the thieves on the wrecked ship deserve to die, Huck cannot bring himself to be responsible for their death, so he lies to a steamboat captain to get him to rescue the men and take them to justice.

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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