How does Huck's having a moral dilemma about Jim and his realizing that Jim is actually a human being rather than property convey Mark Twain's purpose ?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is no question that Mark Twain satirizes the sanctimony of religious hypocrites in his seminal novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson who proselytize charity and other Christian virtues, but feel justification about people's owning slaves represent this religious hypocrisy.

After Huck runs away from the Widow Douglas, throughout the entire narrative of his adventures, he struggles against his heart, which wants to treat Jim like a man; and his conscience, which has been corrupted by the skewered ethical system of his society into believing that Jim is nothing more than a piece of portable property. At first Huck accepts the conventional wisdom of his environment, especially when he witnesses Jim engaged in some superstitious manoeuvring of objects. But, as he travels down the Mississippi River on the raft, Huck's perspective begins to alter as, for instance, Jim speaks longingly of his family from whom he is separated, or when he cries after he and Huck are separated because Huck did not tie up the raft well enough when they came ashore one night. When Huck locates Jim and the raft the next day, he plays a practical joke on Jim, who has exclaimed "It's too good for true," pretending that Jim has only dreamed that Huck was lost. But, when Jim scolds him and says that his heart

"wuz mos' broke bekase you wuz los', en I didn' k'yer no mo' what become er me en de far'.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 old Jim wid a lie. Dat truck [trick] dah is trash...."

Huck feels shame as he realizes the depth of feeling which Jim has because he did not know "it would make him feel that way" he again begins to perceive the real humanity in Jim.

Finally, Jim and Huck develop a deep friendship and Jim is loving and fatherly towards Huck, who returns the affection because he cannot let Jim be reclaimed as a slave. When, for instance, some men hunting runaway slaves approach the raft in a boat, Huck lies and tells them that his family is on the raft, suffering from smallpox. Becoming dreadfully fearful of any contact with this family or Huck, the two men hunting float two twenty dollar gold pieces to him to insure that Huck does not come near them. In another instance, when the reprehensible King sells Jim, Huck and Tom Sawyer search for Jim and free him.

Then, after the King and Duke steal Jim in order to sell him, Huck is entirely disillusioned. In Chapter XXXI, he wrestles with his conscience as it opposes the moral code of his environment that makes him feel guilt for having harbored an escape slave. He rationalizes that since the two flim-flam men are going to make Jim a slave again, he may as well notify Miss Watson and get Jim sent home. But, he considers how an "ungrateful n****r would be punished and Jim would be made to feel "ornery and disgraced." Furthermore, he himself would be shamed as having helped a slave to escape, and feels the

plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched....whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's slave that hadn't done me no harm. 

Huck concludes that he is wicked, and that those who act as he has done go to "everlasting fire." But, when he writes the letter informing Miss Watson that Mr. Phelps will release Jim for the reward, at first he feels good knowing that he will be saved from hell. But, when he recalls all the loving act of Jim towards him, Huck acknowledges that he is the only friend that Jim has now. Shaking as he holds up the letter, Huck holds his breath, then says aloud, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" and tears up the letter, rejecting the social mores over the genuine values of love and friendship and respect for another human being.

Read the study guide:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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