Twain’s Perspective on Individual’s Mora Development
Mark Twain examines the relationship between moral codes and their effect on society through the characters he develops in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain constructs a unique moral code for each individual character based on that character’s expectations from and treatment by society and his personal experience. In this novel morals mainly pivot around either compliance or defiance, which have the capacity to either blindly support or shrewdly undermine any societal institution, respectively. The young Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, pivotal characters in the novel, personify these moral opposites: one as a troubled societal outcast, the other as a typical white boy with an affinity for fun and games.
Huck struggles with conflicts between his own conscience and the moral expectations from society throughout the novel, especially regarding Jim and slavery. He knows he is breaking the law in helping Jim escape: “Conscience says to me, ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?’”(100). Huck does not realize that his sensitivity toward freedom is what causes him to want to help Jim, for it is more developed than that of the average white boy of the period. Huck’s first hand exposure to abuse, fear, and violent imprisonment at the hands of his alcoholic father “Pap” force him to subconsciously identify with the slave-like horrors of imprisonment, loneliness, and violence. Huck misses the underlying fact that he wants to help Jim because he knows the pain of oppression – all he perceives is his own cruel undermining of the stable set of morals his society provides. Huck’s turbulent upbringing is hardly a basis for stable moral development, and the morals he developed independently in his vile life with Pap are in near constant contrast with those of the antebellum Southern United States; for example, the fundamental idea that black people are subhuman, unworthy pieces of property. Huck tries in vain to find a reason to treat Jim as such:
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 [he] would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, … and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now … (227-228)
Through his actions, Jim shows himself to be not only a human, but a benevolent and loving human who has been more of a father to Huck than Pap ever was. Why should “rapscallions” like the Duke, the King, and Pap – all abusive and detestable – be granted more freedom and respect than the loving Jim? Such questions rattle Huck’s conscience in the beginning of the novel, but eventually settle into a rebellious, even subversive, ideal of equality and freedom based on merit rather than ethnicity; an ideal which, if widespread, has the potential to shatter the economic and social structure Huck’s native South had known for decades.
Tom Sawyer’s character, though less developed in this novel than Huck’s, presents a starkly different moral code formed by virtually incomparable life experiences. Like Huck, Tom has no mother, but rather than having a dangerous alcoholic as a substitution, Tom lives with his doting Aunt Polly. As a bright boy who has never known abuse or been a social outcast, Tom becomes a leader among village boys. He previews his odd ideas yet undeniable leadership after reading classical novels such as “Baron Trenck, Casanova, Benvenuto Chelleeny, Henri IV.”(253), in declaring: “Now we’ll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer’s Gang” (15). Tom’s leadership does not include innovation, as all the goals and regulations of the gang are taken directly from his novels; in fact, by relying so heavily on the romance novels, he becomes the personification of stagnant tradition and unquestioning acceptance. Tom’s moral code is build upon what he perceives as the epitome of style and perfection: romance novels. Tom imitates his heroes not only in their glamour but in their deception when he craves “style” to the point of risking Jim’s life. In formulating a plan for him and Huck to free Jim, Tom says there’s “Nothing to do but hitch your rope ladder to the battlements, shin down it, break your leg in the moat – because a rope-ladder is nineteen foot too short, you know – and there’s your horses and your trusty vassals…”(253), and continues to create increasingly ridiculous – though amusing – plots for staging Jim’s escape. It appears that Tom’s efforts are noble and selfless until he reveals that he has known all along that Jim had already been set free, and Tom had just wanted to have an adventure. His stubborn, irrational insistence on tradition is a commentary by Twain mocking those who cling to trite practices – such as slavery – and foreshadows their capacity for danger.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn promotes progressive thinking and encourages societal action as Twain uses discreet metaphors and symbols to illuminate moral and social issues, especially slavery. Citizens with values similar to those of Huck – fairness, tolerance, and inquisitiveness – would help a free and democratic society thrive, but would be a threat to a stagnant society that relies on unjustified, exploitative institutions to survive. Conversely, Tom’s morals allow generous room for the hypocritical aspects of society, simply by accepting and promoting them. Institutions such as slavery thrive on those who blindly endorse them; by making Tom this “endorser” and also making him unreasonable, Twain declares slavery to be unreasonable – and unjust.
Society provides a basic moral code, but that code’s development into a complex, individual web depends on independent thought and personal experience. Mark Twain uses protagonist Huck Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer to show that the development of moral qualities such as inquisitiveness versus blind acceptance and reason versus stubbornness have the capacity to create or condemn even the most ingrained societal institutions.
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