Study Guide

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Morality and Ethics

By Mark Twain

Morality and Ethics

Chapter 4
Huckleberry Finn

"Please take it," says I, "and don't ask me nothing—then I won't have to tell no lies." (4.15)

Oh, Huck. There's nothing like the open road to rob a boy of his scruples. Pretty soon this kid is going to be lying like Frank W. Abagnale.

Chapter 8
Jim

"But mind, you said you wouldn' tell—you know you said you wouldn' tell, Huck."

"Well, I did. I said I wouldn't, and I'll stick to it. Honest INJUN, I will. People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum—but that don't make no difference. I ain't a-going to tell, and I ain't a-going back there, anyways. So, now, le's know all about it." (8.52, 8.53)

Huck vs. the World, and it doesn't involve any do-overs. Meeting Jim thrusts him right into conflict with the ethical system he's used to… and kudos to Huck for standing up for the right.

"Well, I b'lieve you, Huck. I—I RUN OFF."

"Jim!" (8.45, 8.46)

Pot, meet Kettle. Huck is outraged that Jim has run off, because apparently Huck doesn't remember that he's also run off. Why is it okay for Huck to escape an abusive situation and not Jim?

Chapter 12

"Well, my idea is this: we'll rustle around and gather up whatever pickins we've overlooked in the state- rooms, and shove for shore and hide the truck. Then we'll wait. Now I say it ain't a-goin' to be more'n two hours befo' this wrack breaks up and washes off down the river. See? He'll be drownded, and won't have nobody to blame for it but his own self. I reckon that's a considerble sight better 'n killin' of him. I'm unfavorable to killin' a man as long as you can git aroun' it; it ain't good sense, it ain't good morals. Ain't I right?" (12.44)

This is one of the thieves Huck meets on the steamship, and apparently even thieves live by some sort of moral code: don't kill. You know, unless you have to. You've got to have standards.

Huckleberry Finn

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)

Huck just can't seem to avoid these moral conflicts. On the one hand, his dad's system of morality: as long as you mean to pay it back, it's just borrowing. On the other hand, the widow's system, which is—taking anything at all that doesn't belong to you is stealing. (And probably sends you straight to hell.) So, Huck finds his own middle ground: take some things, but leave other. Conveniently, he decides to leave crabapples and persimmons—which, take it from us, aren't nearly as delicious as watermelon and cantaloupe. It's like robbing a candy store and then making off with the Twix and Snickers while leaving the Circus Peanuts and Wax Bottles to make your conscience feel better. No one wants to eat that stuff, anyway.

Chapter 13
Huckleberry Finn

"The first light we see we'll land a hundred yards below it or above it, in a place where it's a good hiding-place for you and the skiff, and then I'll go and fix up some kind of a yarn, and get somebody to go for that gang and get them out of their scrape, so they can be hung when their time comes." (13.17)

Huck definitely has standards, and his standards include making sure people get their proper punishment. Like hanging.

Well, before long here comes the wreck, dim and dusky, sliding along down! A kind of cold shiver went through me, and then I struck out for her. She was very deep, and I see in a minute there warn't much chance for anybody being alive in her. I pulled all around her and hollered a little, but there wasn't any answer; all dead still. I felt a little bit heavy-hearted about the gang, but not much, for I reckoned if they could stand it I could. (13.50)

Huck may not be much for rules and laws, but he does have a strong moral compass. He may have been ready to get the thieves hung, but he doesn't them to drown without a fair trial. Confused? Imagine how Huck feels.

Chapter 16
Jim

"Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on'y white genlman dat ever kep' his promise to ole Jim" (16.16)

Oops. Well, gee. Now Huck can't tell on Jim, because Jim has made him feel super guilty—and also pointed out to us that, despite all the lies, Huck is probably the most moral person in the entire novel. Or maybe even in the entire pre-Civil War South.

Huckleberry Finn

Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he WAS most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, ME. I couldn't get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn't rest; I couldn't stay still in one place. It hadn't ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn't to blame, because I didn't run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn't no use, conscience up and says, every time, "But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody." That was so—I couldn't get around that noway. That was where it pinched. (16)

Talk about moral crisis. Huck realizes that, according to the laws of the land, he's the wrongdoer, because he's helped Jim escape. And Huck may be a liar and a runaway, but he's not sure he should be breaking any laws. His internal system of morality is in head-on conflict with the external system of laws that he's learned from the widow. Which one's going to win?

I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, "Let up on me—it ain't too late yet—I'll paddle ashore at the first light and tell." I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone. (16.9)

We hate to break it to you, but almost everyone is happier going along with the dominant social practices—like helping out the Nazis before World War II, or agreeing that black people really should be enslaved. It's way hard to go against everything that you've been taught, and everything that your family and friends believe. No wonder Huck feels better when he decides to rat Jim out.