How do Twain and Hawthorne address the constant struggle between our obligations to ourselves and to collective society?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his essay "Self-Reliance," Ralph Waldo Emerson proposes that the impediment to man's freedom and individuality is society that

...everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members,...a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.

It is this conformity against which Emerson rails, as does Huckleberry Finn of Twain's classic and Hester Prynne of Hawthorne's magnum opus.  For, in the society of man, Huck and Hester are restricted and their individuality suppressed. In society, Huck is returned to the custody of his reprehensible father; he is subjected to the subterfuges of the King and the Duke and the senseless, deadly feud of the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords; in society, he is bound by man's laws and he is under an obligation to inform on the runaway slave, Jim. It is only on the Mississippi River that Huck lives under halcyon skies and escapes the often hypocritical restrictions of society:

I was powerful glad to get away from the feuds, and so was Jim to get away from the swamp...We said there warn't no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.

After spending so much time with Jim, Huck realizes the man has emotions just like him; Huck develops a friendship with Jim, who loves and cares for the boy. After he learns that the King has captured Jim and sold him to the Phelpses, Huck considers writing to Miss Watson about her slave, but then he remembers that she has intended to sell him "down the river":

And [I] got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. (Ch. XV)

Rejecting the immoral code of his society, Huck tears up a letter he has written to Miss Watson, feeling, " I knowed he was white inside." He, thus, decides he will just "go to hell" because he will not report Jim.

In a similar fashion, Hester Prynne rejects the laws of the Puritan society in which she dwells where the prison is symbolic of moral evil, or sin, while the cemetery symbolizes natural evil, or death. In Chapter XIII of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne writes that "the scarlet letter had not done its office" of inhibiting the independent spirit of Hester. While "some attribute" in her has been lost, Scarlet feels "[T]he world's law was no law for her mind." Like Huck, therefore, Hester rejects the moral evils of her society and its laws. Moreover, just as Huck and Jim are free from the restrictions of their society, Hester frees herself in the forest with Arthur Dimmesdale as she casts off her scarlet letter and her bonnet, allowing her hair to fall freely upon her shoulders.

She assumed a freedom of speculation...thoughts visited her such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England....At times a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl at one to Heaven, and go herself to such a futurity as Eternal Justice should provide. 

After this rejection of the scarlet letter's "office," Hester decides that she will provide the minister whatever solace and aid she can.

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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