Individual vs. Society: Tracing Huck’s Educational Trajectory in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain described Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers a defeat." The book enacts a struggle betwixt Huck’s conscience, a receptacle of societal ideology, norms, custom and law and his ‘innate goodness of nature,’ wherein the contending factions are equally strong and metamorphose Huck’s experiences from simply being ‘playful adventures,’ akin to that of his comrade Tom, into an understanding of ‘nature’s goodness.’ In delineating this transfiguration, Twain sets about the painstaking task of foregrounding the qualities of Huck, that undergo a refinement/education and mark him as a befitting site for the duel to materialize and render Huck’s goodness triumphant. These qualities include compassion, common sense and practicality coupled with his innate goodness and the ability to enjoy simple pleasures in life, all in stark contrast to the unbridled romanticism of Tom. The paper seeks to take issue with the notion of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as embodied in the noble propensity exemplified by Huck’s spontaneous impulse and the experiential education that guides it, and societal paraphernalia and the ideological interpellation it bolsters, respectively. The aim of this paper, then, is to explore and investigate the aforementioned educational process and delineate its trajectory, in an attempt to highlight and assess its role in Huck’s development and the final denouement of events from the vantage point of his ability to transcend societal dictates and do what is ‘right.’ The paper, in embarking on such a journey, wishes to reach its destination of establishing Huck’s spontaneous impulse as an apt guide whilst proving Twain’s satiric conception of society, as an educative force, as ‘unerring mirror’ true to its purpose of enslaving individuals and their conscience and hailing Twain’s rightful coronation of ‘innate goodness and spontaneous impulse’ as an authentic guiding force en route.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn enacts the struggle between Huck’s conscience (conscience here synonymous with societal indoctrination that informs, educates and drives individual conscience’s perception of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’) and his spontaneous and untutored goodness of nature, albeit refined and transformed into a larger, mature understanding of nature, its goodness and ‘human’ experiences through the course of the narrative. Huck, as the character protagonist, vacillates between the dual ends, yet manages to overcome subscription to the dominant ideology and instead, base his actions in a connate and organic impulse that escapes interpellation. This struggle is seen throughout the narrative and Twain intervenes at interims, to inform the reader of the failings of a naivete, uninformed and unrefined by the wisdom that ‘experience’ offers, to mock simple experience of nature, and to foreground how a gradual understanding of nature affects Huck’s nature and transmutes it into a larger and broader understanding of experience.
The first instance of this struggle is evident right at the start, when Huck asserts his aversion to the ‘sivilizing’ mission of the Widow Douglas. He understands that she wishes to imbue him with ‘good, respectable manners,’ an unflinching adherence to religious tenets and that “she never meant no harm by it" (14) and yet Huck fails to accept the lessons imparted to him, and avers “when I couldn't stand it no longer, I lit out. I got into my old rags, and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied" (13). Herein lie the initial seeds of Huck’s repugnance towards a socio-ethical schema that exhorts individuals into silent, tacit acceptance of its dictates. Further when Huck escapes the three-day imprisonment in the cabin and Pap’s brutal and bestial treatment, the dichotomous demarcation of ‘civilization’ and ‘the river’ as exemplifying ‘captivity’ and ‘freedom’ is re-emphasized. When Huck escapes Pap’s confinement, he finds “a good rest and a smoke out of his pipe” (52). Of his new-found freedom on the raft, he states, “It’s lovely to live on a raft,” with “the sky up there, all speckled with stars” (57). One finds the simple things in which Huck finds pleasure, unlike the vicarious imitations Tom enacts from romances he reads. There are instances where Twain’s authorial voice mocks the simplicity and naivete of Huck, in that his ‘lovely’ life on the raft discounts upon the floods and life-threatening experiences. Such complacence and sense of safety and security is due to Jim, whose presence aids in raft-repair and makes the experience ‘sea-worthy.’ However, this mockery is not a simplistic good-humored laugh at Huck’s untutored goodness but marks the initiation of Huck’s foray into learning from ‘discussion’ and experience. This kind of experiential learning that engages, informs and helps his personal conscience to grow is reflected in the multiple conversations Huck has with Jim and the numerous self-reflection moments he is occupied with. Jonathan Bennett in his article, “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn,” provides proof for the case of Huck’s education and his growth by situating Huck’s final overcoming of socially imposed conscience within the dichotomous paradigm of ‘captivity’ within civilization (a social code) and ‘freedom’ (as represented by life on the raft). Bennett places emphasis on the fact that Huck’s inability to discard social impositions were in owing to a constant confrontation and/or close proximity to civilization. He states that once Huck (and even Jim) step onto the raft, they become free of the stifling and oppressive voices of civilization which ‘die out’ as the river’s gentle murmur blocks out the noise. It is in the enactment of the play of physical freedom that the corresponding freedom of a personal conscience from the clutches of a socially conditioned and overpowering one is played out. Bennett states that “unreasoned emotional pulls” overcome “general moral principles” (Bennett, 127). Of course, the term ‘unreasoned’ does not translate as irrational, but denotes Huck’s strong emotional desire for freedom that finds its manifestation on the raft. In a symbolic dissociation from society and all its organizing principles, Huck’s social/collective conscience is able to detach itself from its ideological clutches and instead, base his decisions in a far more superior and moral code, founded on grounds of human experiences, relationships and innate goodness.
Of course, the most pivotal moment of Huck’s education and the blatant surfacing of the hithertofore subdued strife it elicits, is in relation to Jim. The social indoctrination that has filled in his conscience posits before him a moral dilemma he is incapacited to resolve, until much later in the book. This dilemma is a concretized manifestation of the duel between the social dictums of the ‘righteous’ and ‘wrong’ and his own natural impulse. On one of the nights spent on the raft, he feels an overwhelming sense of guilt and ingratitude towards Ms. Watson, and felt that he was wronging her by keeping the information of Jim’s whereabouts from her. He states how “wicked, and low-down and ornery I got to feeling [and felt] the plain hand of Providence slapping me  whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm” (222). And yet his inner voice deters him from taking an action that society shall applaud. This is one of the instances where Huck realizes the insufficiency and even, incorrect nature of socially prescribed morality tenets. His conundrum is shown to be intensified further, when the aforementioned strife between the contending forces operative within Huck’s being, transmutes into an acute struggle for victory: “Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking.  My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever  I just felt sick” (88). The ultimate resolution of Huck’s dilemma and climax of the battle is played out in chapter 31, wherein Huck battles caving in to the social dictates of the ‘ideologically moral’ and paying heed to his personal conscience, a force over and above the dictates of social codes. He decides that he would resolve it in the following manner:
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. (222).
Huck writes the letter to Ms. Watson and thinks of how “clean of sin” he felt, and yet his thought processes drift away to a consideration of Jim and his ‘goodness’ and he decides, in a moment of crucial importance and immense signification (for himself and the narrative), “ “All right then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up” (223). It is in this moment that Huck’s ‘innate goodness,’ ‘his spontaneous nature,’ refined by experiential learning and a taste of nature’s goodness emerges victorious over his social conscience. In developing, vis-à-vis gradation, from being compassionate to suffering of human beings, he becomes sympathetic and develops an admiration for human excellence, irrespective of race. This transcending of societal codes, is the moment that Lackey, in his paper “Beyond Good and Evil: Huckleberry Finn on Human Intimacy,” describes as “the moment [Huck] rejects conscience and decides not to re-enslave Jim, [is the] point in the novel that [Huck] begins processing and articulating the transformation” of his own conscience “occurring within him” (Lackey, 495) and adds “Huck’s feelings for Jim outweigh his respect for the moral law, [as] he chooses human friendship” (Lackey, 497). In attaching a premium to human goodness, human bonds and emotions and deriding social conditioning and ideological interpellation that enslaves individuals and exercise a hegemonic control over conscientious working, Twain approves of Huck’s choice and uphails the choice as a morally just and superior one, as opposed to the established norms of morality.
Also, Twain takes care to set up layers of cordon sanitaire between absolutism of any kind, in either case of social conscience or the personal one founded on humane values of affection, sympathy and enriched understanding. This is evinced in the narrative by Huck’s testing of Tom’s romantic endeavors and his yielding to it no more at the end, than at the beginning as much as in his overriding Jim’s attempt to ‘terpret’ what he deemed his dream as ominous signs in favor of physical evidence of the storm on the raft. Thus, Twain takes care to posit a gradual educative process wherein his triumphant ‘sound heart’ is not necessarily divorced from voices of good reason and common sense.
Thus, one finds that the struggle between the twin pulls of right and wrong are complicated by their variable definitions, as embedded in the socio-ethical fabric of society, and as informed by the intrinsic call of ‘personal conscience,’ pervades throughout the rubric of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and propels the narrative forward. One finds how the forces contend and grapple for victory, and how Twain rightfully allows Huck’s personal conscience to prevail. As such, one clearly deciphers Twain’s purport in delineating such a turn of events, that is to deflate the notion of absolutes, deride the social paradigm of ideological interpellation and emphasize on the ever-so-more and perennially significant notion of ‘human freedom.’
Bennett, Jonathan. “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn.” Philosophy 49 (1974): 123-34. JSTOR. Web. 19th May, 2014.
Lackey, Michael. “Beyond Good and Evil: Huckleberry Finn on Human Intimacy.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 47 (2002): 491-501. JSTOR. Web. 19th May, 2014.
Levy, Leo B. “Society and Conscience in Huckleberry Finn.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 18 (1964): 383-91. JSTOR. Web. 19th May, 2014.
Nichols, Mary P. “Huckleberry Finn and Twain’s Democratic Art of Writing” Viva Modern Critical Interpretations: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Ed. Harold Bloom. Viva Books. 2008.
Taylor, Craig. “Huck Finn, Moral Reasons and Sympathy” <http://www.academia.edu/2106410/Huck_Finn_Moral_Reasons_and_Sympathy> Accessed 19th May, 2014.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition. 3rd, ed. Thomas Cooley. Ohio State Univ. Press. 2004.