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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by Mark Twain

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Essential Quotes by Theme: Moral Law vs. Civil Law

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Essential Passage 1: Chapter 8

“How do you come to be here, Jim, and how'd you get here?”He looked pretty uneasy, and didn't say nothing for a minute. Then he says:“Maybe I better not tell.”“Why, Jim?”“Well, dey's reasons. But you wouldn' tell on me ef I 'uz to tell you, would you, Huck?”“Blamed if I would, Jim.”“Well, I b'lieve you, Huck. I—I run off.”“Jim!”“But mind, you said you wouldn' tell—you know you said you wouldn' tell, Huck.”“Well, I did. I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest injun, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways. So, now, le's know all about it.”


Huck has escaped his father by going to Jackson Island. After a few days, Huck notices signs of some other inhabitants on the island. Frightened that it might be his father, he hides for a few hours and then goes in search of who it might be. He comes across a figure sleeping by a fire and discovers it is Jim, Miss Watson’s slave. The two join forces and prepare a meal. Huck explains to Jim his deception in order to escape. He then asks Jim how it is that he is alone on the island. Jim confesses that he has run away, which had been a crime in the slave states prior to the Civil War. He begs Huck not to turn him in. Huck has promised he would not and he intends to stick by it. This promise is problematic because Huck can be held liable for not reporting a runaway slave. However, at this first instance of a moral choice, Huck refuses to turn Jim in to the authorities, even if he is called a “low down Abolitionist,” a term that is of high contempt in the South.

Essential Passage 2: Chapter 16

“Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white genlman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim.”Well, I just felt sick. But I says, I got to do it—I can't get out of it. Right then along comes a skiff with two men in it with guns, and they stopped and I stopped. One of them says:“What's that yonder?”“A piece of a raft,” I says.“Do you belong on it?”“Yes, sir.”“Any men on it?”“Only one, sir.”“Well, there's five niggers run off to-night up yonder, above the head of the bend. Is your man white or black?”I didn't answer up prompt. I tried to, but the words wouldn't come. I tried for a second or two to brace up and out with it, but I warn't man enough—hadn't the spunk of a rabbit. I see I was weakening; so I just give up trying, and up and says:“He's white.”


As Jim and Huck approach Cairo and freedom, Huck becomes more bothered by what he is doing. On the one hand, Jim is fast becoming his friend. Jim has confided in Huck, relating to him his plans to buy his family eventually. On the other hand, Huck feels bound by the law, which states that it is a crime to aid an escaping slave. As Huck prepares to go to shore to ascertain their exact location, he decides his conscience is leading him to report Jim to the authorities. He feels the heaviness lifting somewhat; he is feeling that he is doing the right thing. Almost sensing the choice...

(This entire section contains 1806 words.)

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that Huck has before him, Jim mentions that he can count on Huck, who has promised not to tell of Jim’s location. These words are still in Huck's ears when he approaches men who are looking for escaped slaves. When the men ask Huck if the other man on the raft is white or black, Huck is presented with a moral choice, more insistent than before. With some hesitation, he chooses once again to stick to his promise to Jim. He goes against the law and tells the men that his friend is white.

Essential Passage 3: Chapter 31

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.HUCK FINN.I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And 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. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.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.


Huck has learned that the king has sold Jim back into slavery on the Phelps Plantation for forty dollars. Aside from the anger that the king would do such a thing, Huck has been brought to the final point where he must deal with his conscience. He feels terrible for “stealing another person’s property,” namely Jim, who as a slave was indeed Miss Watson’s “property.” He has tried to pray for forgiveness so that he can be the kind of boy he knows he should be, but his prayers seem empty and unheard. Thinking that he cannot pray because of his “sin” of breaking the Fugitive Slave Law, he writes a letter to Miss Watson, informing her of Jim’s whereabouts. Immediately he feels washed and clean of sin, until he thinks about the adventures that he and Jim had on the river. He remembers the many times that Jim saved his life and watched over him, even sacrificing his own comfort for Huck. He remembers that Jim claimed that Huck was his best friend, and only friend, in the whole world. 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.

Analysis of Essential Passages

Throughout the novel, Huckleberry Finn is routinely faced with a choice: to follow the civil law and turn Jim in as a runaway slave, or to follow the moral law, which instructs him that it would be wrong to betray a friend. In the antebellum South, following the civil law (embodied in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793) was akin to moral law. To do right was to follow the law. In this case, the law states that Huck is obligated to notify the authorities of the location of an escaped slave. To fail to do so makes him liable to prosecution; to aid in a slave's escape was even more serious. Huck is not ready to seriously consider that disobeying the law would be the right thing to do.

Initially, Huck is more than willing to keep Jim’s escape a secret, even if he should be called a “low down Abolitionist.” However, this is not yet a moral choice, but rather the choice for adventure. The thrill of defying authorities is the benefit that he sees, not taking a stand against slavery. It becomes an uneasy choice throughout the course of his adventures, as time and time again he is confronted with the possibility that he is committing a sin by breaking the law.

Huck has little use for organized religion, but he still has a sense of “sin,” though it is seriously skewed in its interpretation. He views God as just one more authority figure, bent on making sure that His laws and man’s laws are adequately followed. Huck makes little distinction between the two, and he definitely has not developed his philosophy to the point that civil law and moral law may in fact be in conflict. Although he does not consciously realize this, he does identify the difficulty of the choice.

As Jim is finally sold back into slavery on Phelps Plantation, Huck has come to the crucial point in the dilemma. He must make a final choice. At first, he feels relieved that he has stepped onto the side of civil law. Huck has written a letter to Miss Watson informing her of the location of her escaped slave, but while doing so, he remembers the humanity of Jim throughout their adventures. The love that Jim showed to Huck begins to tip the balance. Though Huck does not come to the point of separating moral law from civil law, he nevertheless recognizes that moral law is in fact a higher law. If breaking the civil law is a sin, resulting in his eternal condemnation, he is willing to accept it. He chooses moral law and refuses to betray his friend. Huck chooses love over law.


Essential Quotes by Character: Jim