Conflict In Literature: Twain’S The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn 

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer


Conflict in literature has always been treated very passionately throughout the annals of history. It has been used as a governing force by the writers to express their penchant for a particular cause or a movement. Finding its existence in ancient Greek literature, the conflict has always shaped the narrative of a particular work. It has honourably been mentioned by Aristotle as a basic pillar of a particular work of art. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (1835-1910) has constructed a social microcosm to depict the harsh realities of a society engaged in social segregation and racial discrimination prevalent in the antebellum or the pre-civil war period in the United States of America. Though the novel was published in 1885 in the United States of America, the story is set in the year 1835-1840 in the fictitious town of St. Petersburg. This chapter expounds the use of conflict as a platform in the novel to manifest the inner rage and feelings of the writer against the zeitgeists of the 1840s in the United States of America. Though seen as an anathema by most of the institutions in the United States for its repeated use of harsh words like “nigger”, the novel is based on the story of Huckleberry Finn, a boy of fourteen, who struggles with his inner demons as well as the external forces of the society trying to manipulate his conscience to implement their own-favoured agendas. The protagonist tries hard to liberate his conscience from the shackles of the moral conventions of society. Keywords: Conflict in Literature, Pre-civil War, Racial Discrimination, Antebellum.


Conflict as a noun is derived from Latin word Conflictus which means “a contest”. The literal meaning of the word is “a lack of agreement or harmony between absolute freedom and personal responsibility. ” (Merriam Webster). All the conflicts in literature fall under two categories, Internal and External conflict. As the name suggests, Internal conflict is something that the main protagonist has to deal with in his own mind, a sort of condition in which the protagonist is trapped in a moral dilemma. Whereas, in External conflict, the protagonist has to deal with the external forces with whom he/she disagrees. Furthermore, conflict in literature can be classified into 6 more sub-types. It can be between Man and Man, Man and Self, Man and Nature, Man and Technology, Man and Supernatural, Man and Fate. These different types suggest different ways in which the conflict drives the story forward. There are some notable works in literature in which writers have combined multiple types of conflicts together to create a more sophisticated and complex plot. The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd stands as an example of extraordinary artistic excellence. The story is based on the conflict of Man versus Self, Man versus Fate, Man versus Society. The most famous literary work based on the conflict of Man vs Self is probably Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

The presence of conflict in a story is very important. The protagonist relies on it to respond to his/her circumstances. In fact, it can be rightly said that if a story is a machine, then conflict is a cog in the system that runs it. Its importance has been stressed by Aristotle as something that holds the interest of the readers in a story. Prof. Michael Nicholson (1992) defines conflict “ as an existing state of disagreement or hostility between two people. ” William H. Coles (1937), an American trauma surgeon and a writer of literary fiction defines the importance of conflict as the epicentre of change and happening, and something that is pivotal in developing the conscious, outlook and psyche of the characters. The conflict, he says grasps the attention of the readers, and working in unison with action can achieve comprehensiveness unfathomable by a simple narration of the story. Every conflict evolves under the penumbra of a particular type of theme and a plot. In order to create a story, the troika works together. In fact, a bare storyboard is first pioneered by the plot followed by the theme and at last filled by the conflict.

To absorb the nature of conflict in the literature on a much deeper level, a shallow perusal of conflict is sociology is necessary. It has been best defined by Nigerian author Remi Anifowose in his book Violence and Politics in Nigeria (1982) as a sort of contradiction of political groups which ends in political violence and is an acceptable weapon to ventilate anger. But in some cases, conflict can be a simple difference in views totally deprived of any violence or physical confrontations. Conflict in sociology and conflict in literature are the two sides of the same coin. Just like the former encompasses the concept of duality, the latter is an exact copy of the same. This multi-directional stand of conflict in literature can be best described in the drama Hamlet by William Shakespeare in which the main protagonist engages in physical violence to reach the stage of resolution in the conflict whereas in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the main protagonist fights with the odds of the society, respectfully disagrees with it and leaves the society for a better life free of all the oddities.

Conflict in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Born to John Marshal Clemens and Jane Lampton Clemens on November 30, 1835, was a boy named Samuel Langhorne Clemens also known later by his pen name Mark Twain, who went on to become one of the best story-teller in the whole of the United States of America. His contribution to American literature is immense and appreciable. Often regarded as the father of American literature, Mark Twain was born in Missouri, a place where slavery was prevalent. This had a permanent effect on his psyche, it would be appropriate to say that his magnum opus The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the direct manifestation of this effect. Mark Twain wanted to achieve much in life just like an ordinary folk but fate had something different for him. His father died when he was only eleven and this had an adverse effect on his upbringing. He left school at the age of twelve and went on to work as a delivery boy, a store clerk and at some local printer shops to earn bread and butter for his family. Mark Twain first started writing for local newspapers. His first major work was The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaeveras City (1865). His first novel The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) was a satire on the corrupt environment of the post-civil war era in the United States. Though the novel did not become famous, it revealed the rebellious side of Twain’s psyche as someone who would take the support of pen and paper to fight all the social evils than to be a mute spectator. Twain was known for his interest in entrepreneurship, and invested every dime he had earned in a science project, the project failed and Twain eventually filed for insolvency.

Twain’s anti-slavery stance was obvious in his letters, pamphlets, books and other pieces of writings. Twain as a child interacted with many people who had been victimised by this plague of slavery. Twain was an American writer to have experienced both sides of the conflict. Mark Twain was a staunch follower of American imperialism in the beginning, but as things began to appear sharper, his imperialistic ideology was transmogrified into something humane. He not only attacked the institution of slavery but also castigated the society for not showing the true side. It took time but at last, Mark Twain successfully understood the elite’s control over the majority of the population and their manipulation for the greed of money. In one of his speech “The New Dynasty”, Twain publically attacked and exposed the elites, “Who are the oppressors? The few: the king, the capitalist and a handful of other overseers and superintendents. Who are the oppressed? The many: the nation of the earth; the valuable personages; they that make the bread that the soft-handed and idle eat. ”

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a story of a fourteen years old boy, who in the course of becoming a programmed robot, following each and every convention that the society of megalomaniac tyrants has imposed, develops internal as well as external conflicts, and rejects the society. The first conflict that Huck develops is the conflict with society. Huck in his mind questions the notion of organised religion. When Widow Douglas tries to inculcate the idea of religion, heaven and hell in his mind, Huck sees it from a practical point of view and starts praying for material possessions. Eventually, Huck fails to absorb this idea and changes his stance on religion. This event of fictional life is historically relatable with Mark Twain’s personal life.

The most important part of Huck’s conflict with the society is his ultimate attachment with the runaway slave Jim. As discussed earlier, Mark Twain in his childhood had multiple interactions with slaves, this showed him the true side of the society. So, there could be no other way, that could awake Huck’s conscious about the true side of the society than to make Huck feel the pangs of slavery and violence, that’s what forced Twain to create the character of Pap, his drunkard father who kidnaps Huck and beats him all day. Huck’s adventurous escapade showcases his penchant to be a free man just like Jim. So, it becomes very easy for Huck to understand the pain and agony that Jim undergoes every day. Moreover, Huck and Jim spend some quality time together on the raft in the middle of the Mississippi River. In this course of time, Jim becomes a father figure and best friend to Huck. As Huck says, “Jim this is nice. I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here. ”

Huck is in the stage of life, in which a person’s outlook of the society is moulded with respect to what his eyes can see and what his mind can feel. Carefully observing the violence and chaos in the society around him, and the goodness of Jim, Huck makes it quite obvious to the readers on which side he is. Huck says, “It was mighty cool and shady in the deep woods, even if the sun was blazing outside”. This statement when analysed symbolically, suggests Huck’s view of a rustic and independent life as cool and shady while living with the society as blazing and cruel.

Another instance of Huck’s conflict with society is about the religious hypocrisy in which the society has entangled itself. Huck’s religious views are on the brink of collapse at the beginning of the novel, when he doesn’t pay any heed to Mosses, as he is dead and according to Huck, he is of no interest to him. Huck knows that fear is the greatest weapon in God’s arsenal, and that’s why with the help of our cognitive abilities we have created hell. Widow Douglas’ hypocrisy crystallises Huck’s doubt into reality when she scolds Huck for his usage of tobacco products and warns him of being dragged to hell while sniffs tobacco herself. Furthermore, upon entering the Grangerfords estate Huck encounters well-mannered, rich and sophisticated people. But as Huck spends some time there, he becomes aware of a feud, which has taken many innocent and naïve lives and which exists only because of hollow dignity and honour. Huck observes that both the families go to church to preach ‘brotherly love’ along with their guns in order to protect themselves from each other. This according to Huck is the extremeness of hypocrisy. Huck renounces such a religion and craves for physical as well as mental freedom.

Another conflict that haunts Huck is the conflict with his own self. This conflict starts on the raft when he suddenly has an epiphany of doing wrong. Huck is caught in moral conflict because helping a run-away slave was the biggest crime one can ever commit. It was considered as a direct ticket to hell. During their time on the raft, Huck’s conscious as sculpted by the society forces Huck to write a letter to Widow Douglas about the whereabouts of Jim but as he finishes the letter, he realises that Jim cared about him more than his own father, and he as a nigger is much better than many of the white men he has come across. Huck’s conscience at once kicks in and eliminates all the ideas of informing Widow Douglas and decides to go to hell instead of betraying his friend Jim. Huck says, “Alright then, I’ll go to hell”. Huck is ready to standby Jim in all difficulties. He has broken all the shackles of moral conventions that the society has put upon him, thereby recognising the true side of Jim. Huck, therefore, fulfils the task of liberating Jim from slavery on any cost.

Characters such as The Duke and The King also represent an outgrowth of the society that arises from the loopholes of the society itself. They are conmen who exploit silly and idiotic members of the society who pretend to be intelligent enough not to be fooled. Huck sees the gullibility of the religious fraternity of a society when The Duke and The King rob them easily of their monetary possessions. This particular event in the novel acts as a catalyst in converting Huck’s doubt into a belief that organised religion is only a realm of fantasies and lawlessness created by fanatics who can’t justify their own actions.

Huck’s conflict throughout the novel works closely with his conscience to add to his moral development. Huck may be an outlaw, a renegade or a desperado for the rest of the society but no one can deny the fact that he is the hero of the novel. Someone who is more serious, mature, rational, reasonable, and practical than all the blindfolded fools of society. Someone who weighs his actions of the scale of justice instead of the hypocritical conventions of the society. Someone who would do anything, or go to any extent to do what’s the need of the hour. As James Allen has said in his book As a Man Thinketh (1903),

“Thought in the mind has made us, what we are

By thoughts we wrought and built. If a man’s mind

Hath evil thoughts, pain comes on him as comes

The wheel the ox behind… If one endure in purity

of thought joy follows him as his own shadow-sure”

Huck’s decision to leave society forever is well thought and executed at the right moment. Because the society was incompatible with Huck’s inner conscience, keeping in mind the fact that Huck appears to be an ardent follower of James Allen’s philosophy.


Huck in the novel has become subservient to the adjuration of his conscience to reinvigorate his moral vestige. His conflicts, inner or outer result in resistance against the subterfuges used emphatically by society. Mark Twain has raised his voice against slavery prevalent in those days due to multiple encounters with people. Huck in some way or the other is a direct manifestation of Twain’s inner conscience. The development of Huck’s inner conflict in the novel has an uncanny resemblance with Twain’s circumstances during his childhood. Huck’s destruction of the letter in the novel is his winning moment against society. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn thus becomes a platform for Mark Twain to express his views on the religious hypocrisy of the society as well as the true face of the people suffering from a never-ending delusion of megalothymia and schadenfreude. Huck leaves the society with honour and respect, never to return, saying “ I been there before”.


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