What is civilization in the mind of Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To Huck, civilization represents repression and lack of autonomy. It also represent the rule of women. To Huck, it is cluttered with rules and rituals that don't make much sense. As he puts it, about living with the Widow Douglas:

The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them.

On the river, in contrast, Huck experiences a sense of freedom. It's not that he lives a disordered life, but that he is in charge and can follow a routine that makes sense to him. As he describes it:

Here is the way we put in the time. It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up . . . Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come.

On the river, Huck no longer has to live by other people's rules and expectations. He is his own boss.

But more profoundly, civilization represents a moral quandary for Huck. He has innocently imbibed its "morality," such as that it is a sin to help a slave escape to freedom. On the river, living outside of the constraints of civilization, he is able to develop a wider moral vision. The morality of his civilization condemns him and makes him feel guilty: he worries he will roast in hell for helping Jim. While we can laugh with and at his chafing under table manners and such conventions, we feel for the way the larger evils that are domesticated in the civilization he knows cramp the very possibility of the kind of expansive, humane relationship he is able to develop with Jim in the liminal space of the river. It is this deep sense of relationship we tend to respond to as readers, and we can understand the value of stepping outside of the boundaries of the known (i.e., the civilized) and into a world that allows our souls to expand. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Huck considers civilization hypocritical.  It means that people tell him what to do, and what they say is right and wrong is not necessarily what he considers right and wrong.  It means uncomfortable clothes and rules.  It is the opposite of freedom.

At the end of the book, Huck comments on why he left.

But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before. (ch 43)

This is a common motif throughout the book—the contrast between civilization and humanity.  If civilization means confining clothes, boring school, and stifling religion, Huck can do without it.

Although Huck cannot stand his repulsive and abusive father, he still prefers being able to fish, eat stew, wear comfortable clothes, and sleep outside to being "cramped up" with the widow (ch 6).  Huck has grown up wild, and since most people cannot explain why the rules of civilization exist, Huck sees no reason to follow them.

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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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