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Huck has led a pretty tough life. He is considered an orphan because his drunken father, Pap, doesn’t take care of him on a regular basis and because his mother is dead. Huck sleeps in a hogshead (a large barrel) and runs off to the woods for hunting and fishing. He is, in essence, homeless. Huck is also uneducated and doesn’t go to school or do anything considered “civilized” (Huck spells it “sivilized") by society. When the Widow Douglas takes him in and tries to make him wear “scratchy” clothes and go to school and church, Huck is so ornery that he runs away and “lights out” for the woods.
Huck thinks he is ignorant and low-down because society tells him he is. Because Huck doesn’t live by the same rules of society, he considers himself an outcast. Huck is even ready to break the law (The Fugitive Slave Act) and not turn Jim in. In Huck’s mind that act makes him unfit for society, and he guesses he will “go to hell then.” It’s the old idea that if someone tells you something enough times, you begin to believe it. Huck believes these things in himself because of his background and because he doesn’t agree with the values and beliefs of society.
However, as readers, we know that Huck is not “low down” or “ornery” but is simply being an individual who doesn’t play by the rules of society. We know that many of the decisions he makes go against society’s conventions, but we know he is right to do them. Not turning Jim in and telling on the King and the Duke are just a few incidents where Huck shows that he is just the opposite. He is a good, innocent boy trying to find his way in a society that discredits his worth.
Huck is the son of the town drunk. As the child of an alcoholic, he exhibits many of the same traits as children of alcoholics do today. He often sees himself as the problem and suffers from low self-esteem. In addition, Huck is poorly educated and does not have much experience with polite society. However, he has been taught that Blacks are on an even lower social level that he and his father are. So, when he helps Jim escape, he considers this an act of disobedience to society as well as a sin. In his eyes, he must be "ignorant" and "ornery" to help allow Jim to escape. In actuality, Huck is following his heart, not his head, and his heart allows him to do the right thing.
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