The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn't go right to eating, but you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn't really anything the matter with them (1.3)
Well, when you put it like that, it does seem silly. On the other hand, do we really want to be eating from a trough? Don't these rules help make us human—or, are they just silly examples of "sivilization"? What's the difference between these rules and the rules that let one half of humanity enslave or oppress the other half? Deep thoughts.
The Widow Douglas
"How you talk, Huck Finn. Why, you'd HAVE to come when he rubbed it, whether you wanted to or not." (3.13)
The Widow's rules (i.e., society's) are arbitrary, and now we see another system of arbitrary rules: fiction. And Tom Sawyer knows what's up. Genies may not exist, but if they did, they'd definitely follow the rules.
The judge and the widow went to law to get the court to take me away from him and let one of them be my guardian; but it was a new judge that had just come, and he didn't know the old man; so he said courts mustn't interfere and separate families if they could help it; said he'd druther not take a child away from its father. So Judge Thatcher and the widow had to quit on the business. (5.30)
Sometimes it's fairer to break the rules. Huck is learning this, but the new judge doesn't know it yet. Sure, the laws say not to separate families. But Huck is definitely better off without his dad.
"Well," says Buck, "a feud is this way: A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man's brother kills HIM; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the COUSINS chip in—and by and by everybody's killed off, and there ain't no more feud. But it's kind of slow, and takes a long time." (18.26)
Ready for another ridiculous, arbitrary set of rules? Buck's got one for you: the rules governing feuds. Only, in this case, the rules just leave you dead. We're pretty sure we'd rather follow the rules about sitting up straight at dinner.
That night they had a big supper, and all them men and women was there, and I stood behind the king and the duke's chairs and waited on them, and the n*****s waited on the rest. Mary Jane she set at the head of the table, with Susan alongside of her, and said how bad the biscuits was, and how mean the preserves was, and how ornery and tough the fried chickens was—and all that kind of rot, the way women always do for to force out compliments; and the people all knowed everything was tiptop, and said so—said "How DO you get biscuits to brown so nice?" and "Where, for the land's sake, DID you get these amaz'n pickles?" and all that kind of humbug talky-talk, just the way people always does at a supper, you know. (26.3)
Huck is our little social observer here, and he knows what's up. There's a whole set of rules governing dinner: the hosts have to talk smack about their food, and the guests have to rave about how awesome it is. Admit it: you do this too.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway n***** Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. (31.21, 31.22)
Would you drive down the left side of the street? Absolutely not! (Unless you were in England, in which case—please drive on the left.) Not only is it illegal, it'd be dangerous. To Huck, helping Jim escape is like driving on the left. It might feel exciting for a while, but he knows he's doing something wrong and dangerous. It feels a lot better, at least temporarily, to follow the rules. Even if they're arbitrary lines painted on the ground.
And then think of ME! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a n***** to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. (31.19)
Huck knows there are consequences to his actions—like when you blow off studying to go see the midnight release of The Hunger Games, and then you fail your econ test the next day. Or when you help a slave escape and then everyone makes fun of you. You know. Consequences.
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. 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. (31.26)
Talk about doubling down. Huck figures that if he's breaking one rule, he might as well break all of them. (Don't try this at home, Shmoopers.)
Silas and Sally Phelps
"But we won't LET you walk—it wouldn't be Southern hospitality to do it. Come right in." (33.37)
Some rules of Aunt Sally's Southern hospitality are nice, like being friendly to your guests. Others, like owning slaves, are… well, not so nice.
"It don't make no difference how foolish it is, it's the RIGHT way—and it's the regular way. And there ain't no OTHER way, that ever I heard of, and I've read all the books that gives any information about these things. They always dig out with a case-knife—and not through dirt, mind you; generly it's through solid rock. And it takes them weeks and weeks and weeks, and for ever and ever. Why, look at one of them prisoners in the bottom dungeon of the Castle Deef, in the harbor of Marseilles, that dug himself out that way; how long was HE at it, you reckon? (35.56)
Oh, Tom. It may be easy to follow the rules when it's just a game, but it's a lot harder when you actually feel like you life is at stake. We're getting the feeling that Twain doesn't think too much of kids who read too much (or play too many video games?).