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An Enlightened Runaway

Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” published in 1885 was a gentle poke at society’s justification of slavery. Twain used a wild, backwards, superstitious, runaway boy to demonstrate the struggle of conscience required to endorse and practice slavery. Despite the society that he was in and because Huck spent so much time with Jim in a relationship of equals, he realizes that Jim should not be a slave. His enlightenment rebukes his entire society from the kind widow who owned Jim to Huck’s bigoted violent father.

Huckleberry Finn was a untamed boy who was raised by an abusive drunk father. Although he was raised dirt poor, money was not important to Huck. After receiving a reward for finding stolen money, he invested it and earned interest of a dollar a day, which Huck calls, “more than a body could tell what to do with” (9).

After finding a body believed to be Huck’s father, the widow Douglas, “took me for her son”. She tried to teach Huck to be “sivilized” and to wear new clothes instead of the rags he was quite comfortable with (9). He reported that she and taught him to “pray everyday and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it”(19). In addition to teaching him religion, she sent him to school long enough that he “could spell, and read, and write just a little and could say the multiplication table up to six times seven is thirty five” (20).

This was a new lifestyle for Huck, who was used to being free of many of the constraints of regular living, such as going to bed at a regular time or having regular meals. He records, “it was rough living in the house all the year round, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways” (9). Although this was difficult for his free spirit, Huck continued to make the best of it until finally he “was a getting sort of used to the widow’s ways, too, and they warn’t so raspy on me. I liked the old ways best, but I was feeling so I liked the new ones to a little bit” (24). Huck is a good and humble boy who, describes himself as “ignorant and so kind of low-down and ornery” because of his rough upbringing (20). Despite this Huckleberry Finn learned to make peace with his conscience by doing what he, and society, thought would damn him to hell. He decided to free a runaway slave who became his friend.

The widow owned one slave named Jim who, like Huck, was extremely superstitious. Huck spoke of his need to “throw (salt) over my left shoulder to keep off the bad luck” when he spilled the salt (24). Jim taught Huck not to “count the things you are going to cook for dinner” or shake “a tablecloth after sundown” because it would bring bad luck (55).When Huck’s father returned to town alive, he recognized his father’s boot prints in the snow by the “cross in the left boot heel to ward of the devil”(25). Superstition was a stronger motivator for Huck than Widow Douglas’s religious teachings. He deperately wanted to avoid bad luck.

Huck describes his father as “there warn’t no color in his face… a white to make a body’s flesh crawl” a vivid indicator of his lifestyle of drinking and violence. (28). Huck’s father seemed to suffer an intense inferiority complex which flared right up when he confronted Huck in his new home. He accused Huck, “you think you’re better’n your father now, don’t you” and when he found out Huck could read and write he angrily ordered Huck to immediately “drop that school” (29). He heard about Huck’s money and demanded, “You git it. I want it. You just shell it out”, threatening to “cowhide me til I was black and blue if I didn’t raise some money for him.” (30-31). He forced Huck to turn over the dollar he had in his pocket and promptly went out and got drunk. Despite the violent treatment from his father, Huck seemed to have a good conscience. Huck did not develop the anger or desire for revenge that we associate with his circumstances.

Huck found a way to escape his fathers abuses by making everyone believe he was murdered so he could runaway down the Mississippi. At the same time, Jim, who believed the widow was going to sell him down river, was also running away. They found each other on Jackson Island and together fixed up a raft to float down the river. They had many adventures as they went. Huck met up with people who wanted to settle him down or who just wanted to use him. But he always managed to get away safely and continue down the river with Jim who was always so delighted and relieved to see Huck safe when he returned from his land adventures. Jim did not dare leave the raft lest he be caught and returned to slavery.

The bond that Jim and Huck developed as they spend day and night peacefully together on the river, hiding out and avoiding people, finally caused a dilemma for Huck. Two of the scoundrels they ran into on their trip sold Jim off for “forty dirty dollars” (226). Huck had come to see Jim as a man and not a slave, and couldn’t understand how they could “make him a slave again and amongst strangers too” for money (226). He figured, “as long as [Jim’s] got to be a slave …it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was,” and Huck determined to write to the widow and tell her where Jim was being held (226). But he had helped a runaway slave and felt like, should he ever meet someone who knew it, he’d “be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame” (226).

Huck had been indoctrinated in the values of a slave holding society that what had been doing to help Jim was very wrong. He felt “wicked and lowdown and onery” for helping Jim (226). He tried to pray, as the widow taught him to do, but just couldn’t get the words out. “I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing…but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie and he knowed it. You can’t pray a lie” (227). He tried to “harden” himself against Jim by bringing up angry memories, but he “couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him but only the other kind” (227). Huck was at a turning point in his life. “I’d got to decide forever betwixt two things and I knowed it” (228)..

At this crucial turning point, Huck realized Jim’s value as a human. He decided to rebel against what his culture believed was right. He decided to “go to work and steal Jim out of slavery” (228). He had been trained by his upbringing and culture that this was heinous, but he couldn’t fight his conscience which told him Jim should be free. He decided, “alright then I’ll go to hell” and went off to free Jim (228). In making this decision, without realizing it he showed his righteousness.

So the irony of this story is that Huck, the poor son of a drunk, did a singularly noble thing. Although his society would scoff at his decision he was confident that he could only live with himself if he freed Jim and he decided his own peace of conscience was worth more to him than the widow’s teachings of heaven. Following the crowd would not bring him peace and he knew it.

In doing so, Huckleberry Finn was far braver than the people of his time. Mark Twain gently poked at the prejudice of the people in this region with a simple, ragged, “wicked, low down and onery” boy (226). We can all learn like Huckleberry Finn did, to follow our conscience despite our culture and upbringing.
Works Cited

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

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