Depiction of Social Issues in Mark Twain’s Work

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

Literacy is traditionally viewed as a gateway to knowledge and to a more informed perspective on social issues. In many classic novels, literature is often portrayed as a path towards bettering oneself, and allows characters to gain new insight and levels of understanding towards a myriad of topics. However, while this is a common trope, it is all too easy to conflate literacy with actual knowledge. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the protagonist Huck, is seen as uncivilized, dirty, and generally naive. From a combination of his upbringing from the lowest tiers of society along with his general distrust of education, he is often marked off as naive and gullible. However, it is actually these characteristics that contribute to his ability to intelligently question the world around him rather than stick with predefined social schema. In the novel, Huckleberry Finn is a traditionally illiterate character, yet he uses his distance from traditional learning in order to forge a unique, individualistic moral code which manifests itself in actions traditionally negatively viewed by society where he lies, swindles, and defrauds numerous people when staying with the Grangerfords, defending the Wilks sisters, and harboring a runaway slave, all actions keeping in tune with a moral compass developed through intuition and intelligently question social norms.

When staying with the Grangerfords, Huck’s character is put into sharp contrast with theirs, as he doesn’t understand the feud which is merely a byproduct of the social norms of the aristocracy. The Grangerfords and Sheperdsons were both wealthy families caught in a feud over a lawsuit. As a result, they attempt to kill each other whenever possible. Interestingly enough, the Grangerfords possess a quiet admiration for the Sheperdsons, maintaining that they are not cowards. Furthermore, both families act hypocritically when attending church, and listening to a sermon about brotherly love. Huck observes this ironic sermon, commenting internally that, “It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home” (Twain 117). Even in his uncivilized state with his distrust of religion, Huck relies upon his own internal moral compass to realize that this feud was ultimately foolish, and that the families who strongly believe in the sermon on brotherhood have yet to realize that this extends into their own feud. Indeed, when the families begin to shoot at each other, Huck feels “so sick [he] most fell out of the tree” (Twain 117). Twain uses Huck’s monologue to illustrate his objection to the feud, and his disgust with its violent nature. Despite his deprivation of a school education, his attendance to church, or his lack of the other trappings of civilization, Huck is still able to recognize the hypocrisy inherent to the feud, and knows enough to judge it as foolish. In comparison to the aristocratic, highly literate families, Huck is not influenced by tradition and social conventions, and as such is able to distance himself from the biases they create. This illustrates that literacy does not always translate into intelligence, and that Huck’s reliance upon his own moral beliefs instead of church sermons and social traditions makes him ultimately wiser when judging this conflict.

Another example of Huck’s inherent intelligence despite his illiteracy comes from his ability to attempt to help the Wilks sisters. Huck briefly assumes the company of two con men, who pose as the Wilks sisters’ uncles in an attempt to defraud the family of their estate and property. Huck, realizing the immorality of their actions, eventually confesses to Mary Jane, one of the sisters, and takes concrete actions towards returning the money and exposing the two men for the frauds they are. While observing the con men dupe the townspeople into believing they are the uncles, Huck believes the sight, “was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race” (Twain 165). This is yet another example of an internal conflict within Huck, although this time it is between his own morality and the actions of the con men rather than the actions of the nobility. While the con men themselves aren’t necessarily bookish, they possess a large deal of cunning as well as the ability to read and pose as educated men. They use these talents to conduct a large amount of unscrupulous behavior which Huck finds himself morally opposed to. Once again, the education of the con men isn’t a tool towards bettering their character, but rather a means of hurting and exploiting others. Huck, in contrast, isn’t educated at all but most of his lies are relatively benign, and he possesses a great deal of empathy for the targets of the con men. Furthermore, he thwarts their plans and in doing so, reveals that he remains true to his moral compass. While literature traditionally equates being well read with having a great depth of character, it is clear that Huck is moral because of his distance to such things. Due to his background and general opposition to being civilized, he relies on his own wit and pragmatism, and uses his internal beliefs to guide his actions, making him purer of character than anyone else.

Perhaps most obviously, Huck uses his internal code of ethics while aiding Jim in his escape. It is important to note that during the time period the novel takes place in, slavery was a common institution and slaves were extremely valuable and expensive property. Theft of a slave could be roughly compared to stealing someone’s car in the sense that slaves represented valuable assets which could be used to work on many different tasks. Huck, obviously, feels conflicted about this. In comparison to numerous other characters who are educated and feel that runaway slaves should be captured and returned, Huck feels differently, choosing to help Jim despite the mandates of social conventions. While obviously affected by the social stigma around slavery, and realizing that “People would call [him] a low-down Abolitionist and despise [him] for keeping mum”, he still decides to help Jim (Twain 45). In this sense, Huck is distrusting the typical social conventions inherent to most educated characters, and instead choosing to follow his own version of morality. This is further apparent when he decides to not send a letter informing Miss Watson about the whereabouts of Jim, her slave, and instead saying “All right then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain 217). In doing so, Huck reveals his true inclinations towards following the actions that he believes are correct. He is pitted against another dominant force characteristic of civilized people in the South, that of religion, and has consigned himself to accepting the hypothetical consequences of his actions – going to hell – because he strongly believes that what he is doing is correct. Once again, Twain highlights that in comparison to many of the educated and religious characters in the novel, Huck follows his own code which turns out to be almost paradoxically more ethical than the one displayed by the other characters.

Ultimately, these three events and the decisions Huck takes are, in part, a product of his own upbringing. Living with his alcoholic father, living with the civilized widow, and living with Jim, the runaway slave, are examples of the constantly changing environment he lives in and major contributors towards his actions reliant upon his individual moral code. He understands that education and literacy may be important when observing his father, and realizing that they do contribute towards assuming a position in society. However, when exposed to the widow along with numerous other civilized characters, Huck realizes that education and religion may also not be the best methods to act righteously. Often times, characters who are religious take it at mostly face value, using it to justify current social traditions rather than as tools for acting righteously. Whether it is Miss Watson owning a slave or the Grangers in their feud, it is important to note that many actions are not always consistent with the religious codes touted proudly by these educated individuals.

Twain uses this internal conflict in another novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, to illustrate that being right, and following social conventions aren’t always the same thing. Both texts revolve around highlighting the absurdity of the “grownup” world of educated adults through observing the world using a child’s naivete. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom assumes responsibility for the destruction of a book over Becky. Members of the classroom, “could not believe what they had heard. This was madness.” (Twain 62). Ultimately, Sawyer commits a dishonest action in order to assist Becky and in doing so, is following his own ethics rather than what was conventionally accepted by the rest of the class. Ultimately, Twain illustrates that perhaps because children are naive and romantically inclined, they are more willing to fly in the face of social norms. While the adults are as a whole educated or literate, it does little to assist in their development of character. Instead, Huck, and Tom, act more pragmatically in that they are much less hypocritical, and stick to individualistic rules.

Ultimately, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Twain illustrates the internal conflict felt by Huck in several situations of varying moral turpitude. He emphasizes the contrast between the boy’s humble origins with that of many of the adults he encounters, and implies that it is perhaps because of this lack of education and his relative innocence that Huck is able to make the correct judgement in most situations. Huck is still a child, and is still fallible, but it is in owning up to his actions and fixing those consequences that he proves himself to be “literate” by having a strong character. Often times, literacy is associated with character development but Twain illustrates a different type of literacy prevalent to many of his characters, as also displayed in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom sets himself apart from other individuals through his willingness to act radically and fly in the face of traditional conventions. As a whole, through both novels. Twain displays that literacy, education, manners, and religion – the trappings of a “civilized” individual – do not necessarily equate to doing the right thing. Instead, it is the open willingness to question social conventions – a trait that literacy is supposed to foster – that makes Huck and Tom so wise, and in a sense more “literate” than many of the adults in their world.


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