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Huck Finn’s crisis

Huck Finn’s crisis of conscience in chapter 31 is the most dramatic and clear example of one of the central themes of the book. As Twain famously said in his notebooks, the novel was “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat”. Huck’s environment has filled his mind with attitudes and judgments that he is unable to question; it has created his “deformed conscience” which sees it as his first duty to obey the rules of his society and hand Jim back to his slave-owner.

To him, Jim is of a different species, and he too owes a debt of gratitude and loyalty to his owner. Even Jim himself believes this, and is shocked at his own behavior in escaping – “I – I run off. ” (96). Huck gradually learns, though, that Jim is a human being with his own dignity, affections and loyalties, but twice the conflict between the trained conscience and the promptings of his “sound heart” drive Huck into bewilderment. In chapter 16, as they approach the Ohio River, where the opportunity really exists for Jim to escape into the free states, Huck feels he should betray him, but cannot do it at the last moment.

Then, in chapter 31 comes Huck’s most profound and searching mental crisis, where he makes the choice to “go to hell” for failing to betray Jim to the slave-owners. It is a moving and powerful moment in the book, but it is uncertain that it can be called a moment of conversion or liberation, for Huck blames himself for what he sees as his failure to do his “duty”, and indeed decides that what is in fact a display of loyalty, human sympathy and friendship will send him to hell.

The truth is that Huck is as much a slave as Jim is in the way that his mind is imprisoned in the rulings of his society, even though he is, like Jim, an outsider, and finds little to love in the world of the widow and Miss Watson, and little to admire in the follies of Tom Sawyer. In the first great crisis in Huck’s mental and spiritual progress, in chapter 16, Twain shows with fine irony the absurdity of the civilized society’s values by acting out their workings in the innocent mind of Huck.

Huck is naive and is no hypocrite; he is unaware himself of the ridiculousness of blaming himself for giving Jim freedom. The plainness and honesty with which he tells us of his problem brings its stupidity to the surface. “I begun to get it through my head that he was most free – and who was to blame for it? Why, me. ” (145) The word “free” has lost its meaning for society; otherwise it would not be possible to feel guilty for giving freedom to someone. “Conscience” is the voice of society, and it tortures Huck.

With similar absurdity he feels guilty about offending Miss Watson by taking away her nigger – “Conscience says to me, ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes? ’” (145). It drives us to see that Jim’s feelings too ought perhaps to be considered, and that Miss Watson’s guilt in “possessing” Jim is what should be the decent objection. It raises the whole outrageousness of treating human beings as objects (comparable in value to the “irresistible” 800 dollars she is offered for Jim).

Equally bizarre is Huck’s perverted horror at Jim’s promise to steal his own children – “children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know” (146). How can children “belong” to anyone except their parents? The mistakes – or crimes, perhaps – are clear in this peculiarly blind use of words. Typically, Huck’s thoughts here fall into the pompous language of the society he has in fact left behind: “I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him” (146).

At the last minute he cannot go through with the betrayal, though he does not understand why. All he can do is condemn himself for his cowardice, as he sees it, “I warn’t man enough – hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit” (147). Later, in chapter 31, when the king and the duke sell Jim to the Phelpses for 40 dollars, Huck goes through the fullest and most explicit of his battles of conscience and heart, and comes to the open realization that he loves Jim, and is willing to defy the codes of Miss Watson’s church and Tom Sawyer’s village for his sake.

In the previous crisis, in chapter 16, when he told the men that his father had smallpox, he changed his mind about giving Jim up only at the last moment, and without any explanation. Here he is alone, and we see the whole process of thought leading up to the deliberate moral choice. The force of the battle between deformed conscience and sound heart lies largely in the fact that the corruption is inside Huck himself.

When he thinks like a member of society he fails to see that there is anything ridiculous about accusing Jim of ingratitude to his slave-mistress from whom he has run away, just as the Wilks girls can’t see that it’s no good complaining about the negro family being split up when they accept the principle of selling them (252). Ridiculously, Huck describes his actions of humane pity and sympathy as shameful. It is a clear condemnation of a sick society. Brilliantly Twain expresses the conflict above all in terms of language. When Huck is thinking with the deformed conscience, his thoughts drift into religious jargon.

Such words as “wicked” (281) are foreign to Huck’s real vocabulary. He thinks about “Providence”, “One [with a capital O] that’s always on the look out” (281); about Sunday School and “going to everlasting fire” (282) for helping Jim; of doing “the right thing and the clean thing” (282), of “being washed clean of sin” (282), and “being lost and going to hell” (283). By putting these strange phrases into Huck’s brain Twain indicates that they are merely learned pieces of cultural habit, fossilized, meaningless phrases, containing no shred of real religious feeling.

They are parts of the conditioning of a society in which powerful people don’t want to see change. In contrast to this, linguistically, is the phrasing of Huck’s recollection of Jim, and of their mutual affection and trust on the river. We see the very language of society being cast off. His thoughts wander on the very edges of grammar: “…and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me…” (283).

It is the image of the mind wandering spontaneously, where the truest reactions come naturally to the surface, and the sound heart triumphs. The climax comes in the half-comic, half-tragic (for it implies his social isolation) decision: “All right then, I’ll go to hell” (283). But of course it is not a total victory because Huck doesn’t realize that his brand of morality is superior to that of the shore. He thinks he will go to hell, and the only explanation he can find is that he just is a vicious person: he decides “I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t.

” (283). Further signs that this is not a conversion but the action or thought of a rebellious slave are that he is shocked when Tom Sawyer says he will help to rescue Jim; he “fell, considerable, in my estimation. ”(296). The irony there is perfect, of course, because we can be quite sure Tom would not have helped in the rescue had he not known that Jim was already “free”, for Tom is the original tax-paying, church-going, prejudiced shore-dweller. Similarly Huck knows how to disguise his real feelings to the duke.

He cares about the sale of Jim, he says, because he was “the only nigger I had in the world, and the only property” (285). No one would believe him if he said that some kind of affection tied him to Jim. One of the most extraordinary moments in the book comes when he arrives at the Phelps farm and explains his late arrival with a story of the steamboat blowing a cylinder-head. Was anybody hurt, asks dear old Aunt Sally. “No’m. Killed a nigger. ” “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” (291). It is not surprising that Twain has earned a reputation for ruthlessness in his satire!

All of these moments come after Chapter 31, and in some ways they are examples of Huck’s instinct for what other people will think rather than of what he thinks, but they do tend to support the argument that Huck’s determination to go to hell does not mark any revelation or sudden conversion, but is rather the sign of a slave in rebellion. But while Jim’s fetters might be made of iron, in Huck’s case they are “mind-forged manacles”, and because of that, even more difficult to escape from.

Works Cited Twain, M. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

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