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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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What influences "deformed" Huck's conscience in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and what forces can change such consciences?

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To offer a rather pointed example of Huck Finn's deformed conscience and use it as a means to examine the forces that shaped it, we might look at Huck's sense that he is acting immorally by helping Jim find freedom. 

When Huck agrees to help Jim escape down the river he feels that he is doing something morally wrong. Raised to see slaves as property, Huck believes that his actions are tantamount to stealing (or something along those lines) and is apparently incapable of conscientiously giving aid to Jim, a human being sold into bondage.

Huck's views of justice are formed by his society. In a place and time where slavery was accepted as a social, civic and economic institution, Huck was raised to agree with notions of racial difference, racial superiority and acceptance of permanent servitude as a way of life for certain ethnic groups. Huck is repeatedly shown to be aware of how his decision to help Jim does not match these views he has been raised to hold.

"People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don't make no difference."

Twain's text gives a challenge to the idea that African Americans are less human than Caucasian Americans. Jim is shown to have a very sympathetic character and to be capable of noble action. Huck too is capable of some nobility, despite his impoverished background. The racial prejudices of his culture, however, are a significant impediment to his moral growth. 

Huckleberry Finn does achieve moral growth in the end, at great potential cost to himself. He is unable to overcome the pangs of conscience in one sense, as he believes he is condemning himself to hell for helping Jim, but he proves willing to follow his heart, as Twain suggests.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I'll go to hell”—and tore it up.

In this scene, Huck chooses between heart and conscience. We might phrase this dichotomy as a choice between a spiritual and individual sense of morality versus a socialized sense of economically derived morality (where property rights matter more than human rights). For Huck, humanity wins out.

"Finally making his final moral choice, Huck tears up the letter, proclaiming that he is willing to go to hell if that is what it takes to see Jim on the road to freedom" (eNotes).

What are the forces that deform Huck's conscience? They are a social system that allows for the ownership of human beings, an entrenched racism and racist social philosophy and a rigid, simplistic moral code wherein lying is always a sin yet greed and violence are acceptable.  

Do forces like these still exist in today's world, capable still of deforming one's conscience? The short answer is yes. Systematic racism has been officially stamped out in the vast majority of nations in today's world.

In the U.S., legal changes followed social changes and literally outlawed bigotry. At the same time, entrenched social bias continues to exist and can be identified in various places. Take a look at the news headlines (both in the political sections and in other areas) and ask yourself how many stories relate to inequality, categorical/ethnic social issues and the like.  

What forces are available to try to reform conscience? The heartening truth of the matter here is that bigotry is now derided in many circles. Even those who maintain certain social biases do so while condemning social biases elsewhere. People now believe that bigotry is wrong, morally and politically. Popular culture has helped to make this shift along with protest movements, legal shifts and progressive policies and everyday conversations. 

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The overall influence that has deformed Huck's conscience is society and its values.  Twain is saying that Huck is a good person, but his society has twisted him so that his conscience gives him bad advice.

The most obvious thing that was wrong with this society was its basic racism.  The whole slave system was based, of course, on the idea that blacks did not deserve to be respected like white people.

I guess I would also say that Huck is deformed by his society's version of Christianity.  He is deformed by this idea that you have to act in just such a way or God will send you to hell.

Overall, the idea Twain has is that the society of the time had these bad values and expected everyone to follow them.  That left Huck's conscience deformed.

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