Huckleberry may have $6,000 and a laissez faire attitude toward showing up to school, but we're not about to switch places with him. This is one kid with a serious ethical dilemma—and we're not talking about that internal struggle over whether to download Game of Thrones because your parents refuse to pay for HBO.
To begin, the boy's trying to sort out about ten systems of conflicting rules. He has to decide to what and whom he feels loyal: follow religion, or follow his gut instincts? Obey his father, or obey the Widow? Listen to Tom, or listen to the Phelpses? Check out this little moral dilemma:
Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time; but the widow said it warn't anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it. Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn't borrow them any more—then he reckoned it wouldn't be no harm to borrow the others. So we talked it over all one night, drifting along down the river, trying to make up our minds whether to drop the watermelons, or the cantelopes, or the mushmelons, or what. But towards daylight we got it all settled satisfactory, and concluded to drop crabapples and p'simmons. (12.9)
We've got at least three different sets of moral values here: Pap's, the Widow's, and Jim's. And there's Huck in the middle, trying to decide which one is right. That's a lot harder than waking up in the morning and going to school because your parents will ground you if you don't.
And he doesn't take it lightly. Once he's decided the right thing to do, Huck does it—even if it goes against society's code. Like, when he realizes that he was wrong to trick Jim (at one of the many points he tricks Jim), he apologizes, even though it takes him "fifteen minutes" to "work [himself] up to go humble himself" to a black man (15.49). So, even though we see Huck do some questionable things (like lie, cheat, and prank his friends), we know he's an upstanding kid.
No wonder Huck takes these questions seriously: no matter how suspicious he is about religion, he's a good Southern boy at heart, and he's been paying attention in Sunday School. Wrong actions earn you a one-way, express ticket to hell, and not the metaphorical kind. The literal kind. The "bad place" (1.6), where he's going to suffer all sorts of not-fun torments.
That's why his little moment of moral crisis is so important. Throughout the whole novel, he's been struggling against his heart, which wants to treat Jim like a man; and his conscience, which has been corrupted by the corrupt ethical system of his society into believing that Jim is nothing more than a piece of portable property. He even goes so far as to write a letter telling Miss Watson where to find Jim.
But he doesn't send it. Instead, he remember that Jim is a good friend who has continually risked his life and freedom to save Huck—and he decides, "All right, then, I'll go to hell" (31.34). He makes the right choice—even though he thinks it's the wrong choice, or the wrong choice by the moral code that he's accustomed to.
Don't underestimate this. It's easy to say, "Oh, sure, of course Huck decided to do the right thing." But in pre-Civil War Southern states, this would be like knowing your friend stole your mom's sweet Lexus and helping him cover it up. Yeah, it's an ugly metaphor, but it was an ugly time: slaves were often the most expensive "property" people owned. They were incredibly valuable, particularly a strong, young man like Jim. Huck deserves major props here.
As you can probably tell from all these moments of moral scrutiny, Huck struggles a lot with his sense of self. In the beginning of the novel, he oscillates between his comfort living in the woods and his realization that, actually, gettin' civilized ain't so bad.
Once he's on the river, he survives by pretending to be other people. He's "George Peters" when Mrs. Judith Loftus wants to think that he's an abused, runaway apprentice (11); "George Jackson" when the Grangerfords ask "Who's there?" (17.6, 17.2); and Tom Sawyer when Aunt Sally asks "It's you, at last!—ain't it?" (32.8). Talk about identity crisis: Huck can't seem to make up his mind who he is, or who he wants to be.
One thing to notice is that, when he's lying about who he is, he tends to spin elaborate stories about fake families, or inserting himself into already exiting families—like the Grangerfords. And who does he pretend to be at the end of the story? His hero, Tom Sawyer.
Throughout the whole adventure, Huck's been thinking about Tom. "I did wish Tom Sawyer was there" (7), he says; and "Do you reckon Tom Sawyer would ever go by this thing? …He'd call it an adventure—that's what he'd call it; and he'd land on that wreck if it was his last act" (12); and, "I reckoned Tom Sawyer couldn't 'a' done it no neater himself" (28). But why does he want to be so much like Tom? Does he succeed? Does he change his mind when he sees how Tom acts? And why doesn't he want to be himself?
There is one place where Huck feels at home: out in nature. When he's out in the woods or on the river, his folksy, questionably grammatical language becomes almost beautiful. Check it out:
The sun was up so high when I waked that I judged it was after eight o'clock. I laid there in the grass and the cool shade thinking about things, and feeling rested and ruther comfortable and satisfied. I could see the sun out at one or two holes, but mostly it was big trees all about, and gloomy in there amongst them. There was freckled places on the ground where the light sifted down through the leaves, and the freckled places swapped about a little, showing there was a little breeze up there. A couple of squirrels set on a limb and jabbered at me very friendly. (8.1)
The way Huck describes the woods, you can tell that this is where he belongs. Even the squirrels are friendly to him. When he and Jim are hanging out by the river, they're "naked, day and night, whenever the mosquitos would let [them]" (19.4).
And why does he love nature so much? It's the only place he can be "free and satisfied" (1.2). We think there are a couple of things to note here:
(1) Out in nature, he and Jim are equal. They take care of each other, and there's no society around to tell them that Tom is a free man while Jim is a slave. By making Huck so comfortable in nature, Twain might be telling us that he knows what's up.
(2) When he's in nature, Huck feels "free and satisfied" (1.2). And you know how he runs off to "Injun" country at the end of the book? Well, Twain might be making Huck into a symbol of America: a little wild, a little rough around the edges, but always ready to push off into new lands. (See our "Symbols" section for more on that.) This myth of rugged individualism was super popular in the nineteenth century. But here's the question: does Twain approve of it?
Or, by making the figure for rugged individualism a wild kid with questionable hygiene, is he ever-so-slightly making fun of it?
One last thing: Huck is a good friend. If Tom Sawyer were our bud, we'd get pretty sick of his harebrained talk about adventures and genies, particularly if we'd just finished a weeks-long actual adventure, one with actual robbers. Not Huck. Huck still looks up to and admires Tom.
And then there's Jim. Huck may prank Jim, and may make fun of his superstition, but in the end he does the right thing. The fact that a boy growing up in the pre-Civil War South is able to think of a black slave as his friend shows that Huck, more than anyone else in the story, is a good friend—and a good person.Timeline