Mark Twain and the Morality of Huckleberry Finn

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: WHY EVIL EXISTS

By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1885. It is about a boy’s adventures on the Mississippi River. But, at the emotional heart of the story is Twain’s brilliant, clearly sincere protest against the kind of moral corruption that Huck both represents and is victimized by; a moral corruption that infected the whole of his society.

An image of the Mississippi River.
In the novel, Huck, a white boy, and his friend, the slave Jim, are travelling along the Mississippi. (Image: Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock)

Huck and Jim

Huck, who’s just a white boy who lives along the river, and his friend, the slave Jim, are travelling along the Mississippi. As they travel, it is revealed that Huck has helped Jim escape from Miss Watson, his master. After Huck does this, he comes to believe that he has ‘stolen’ Jim, who is $800 worth of commodity.

What’s worse, now that Jim believes he has his freedom, he means, and he tells Huck so, that he will go back and help his wife and children escape, which Huck understands to be more theft. In fact, Huck says, upon hearing of Jim’s plans to rescue his children from slavery, “I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him.”

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Huck’s Conscience

Huck comes to believe that he has committed and enabled to be more committed still a massive crime against a person who cared for him and trusted him. Memories of Miss Watson’s many kindnesses come back to him. What Huck takes to be his ‘conscience’ is wracking him about this, making him think he is an utterly immoral person. Why? Because he can’t turn his friend back in to a life of chattel slavery. That’s the central irony in Twain’s story.

The problem for Huck is precisely that he understands himself to be morally wrong, not just bad or weak. He thinks he knows the law—the law is you turn property—he sees Jim, and his culture has taught him to think of Jim as property; he also sees Jim, though, and sees him as a human. His sympathy for Jim wins out over his sense of the law.

Learn more about  the intrinsic potential for evil.

The Anti-moral Power of Affection

Much later in the story, Huck has a second chance to do what he thinks is the right thing, to turn Jim in, and he writes a note letting people on the shore know where he and Jim are; but again, he reencounters the terrible power and, to his mind, the anti-moral power of his affection for Jim.

Only this time, he frames the decision as one about the ultimate fate of his soul, because he knows that unless he obeys the law, God will certainly condemn him to Hell for disobeying:

I took it up [the paper, the note he had written], 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 and Milton’s Satan

It’s a great moment in American literature: Huck determining, almost like Milton’s Satan, that “I’ll go to Hell”; but in this case, unlike Satan, Huck is doing the right thing, but he doesn’t think it so. He thinks he’s going to Hell.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t [the other being the good line, the line of being a good person]. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

The Triumph of Conscience

An image of Mark Twain.
The conscience should be fed, Mark Twain seems to be implying, both by rigorous and skeptical argument and by concrete attention to realities. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Some readings of the novel present this episode as a triumph of conscience over a wicked set of social mores, as if Huck understood himself as a heroic rebel. But that’s not what he thinks; Huck understands himself to be a moral failure, a calamity for not following the moral law.

The conflict here is between what Huck sees as his pre-rational, problematic, untutored, undisciplined sympathy, for Jim and the proper, upstanding, Victorian morality that Huck has been bred to or has been tried to be bred into by his society.

Learn more about sin and redemption.

The Moral

The moral of this story, such as it is, is more or less oblique; Twain has some suggestions for guidance, though not many. Most basically: We ought not ever to let ‘morality’, our beliefs about what’s right and wrong, float too free from ordinary human empathy, lest our agency become wholly captive to unreal abstractions at the cost of attending to the real world.

Twain thinks that’s what happened in Huck’s world; people were taught to see other people as property, not as real humans. He worries that any culture that can do that can go insane in very dangerous ways (apart from the fact that it enslaves human beings; it goes insane in other ways, too).

The conscience should be fed, Twain seems to be implying, both by rigorous and skeptical argument and by concrete attention to realities brought to our awareness by our vital human affections.

The danger is in not seeing that any one version of morality, our version of morality, may need to be changed; and if it is not changeable, we may end up, like Huck, jettisoning our concern about morality altogether.

Common Questions about the Morality of Huckleberry Finn

Q: In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, once free, what does Jim intend to do?

In the novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Jim believes he has his freedom, he tells Huck that he will go back and help his wife and children escape.

Q: What makes Huck think that he was utterly immoral?

Huck thinks that he is an utterly immoral person because he can’t turn his friend, Jim, back in to a life of chattel slavery. That also becomes the central irony in Mark Twain’s story.

Q: In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, what does Huck do when he has a second chance to turn Jim in?

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when Huck has a second chance to turn Jim in, he writes a note letting people on the shore know where he and Jim are.

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