Conscience vs. Societal Pressure in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn
The novel Huckleberry Finn (1876), by Samuel Clemens (published under Clemens's pen name, Mark Twain) contains myriad personal and social conflicts, mainly on the part of its narrator, Huck, between what his conscience tells him and what society of the time (the pre-Abolition American South) believed. In this essay, I will explore various incidents in which Huck decides between what he instinctively feels (his conscience) and what he knows society considers right.
The story of Huckleberry Finn is "essentially a process by which the hero gains self-knowledge and finds his own identity. In the process, he also learns about the world in which he lives and the nature of evil" ("Major Theme"). Huck often finds himself having to disobey social conventions and rules in order to follow his conscience. Usually, however, he feels guilty and sinful afterward, but also knows he could not have done otherwise.
This is especially true of Huck's decision, fraught as it is with risk and danger to himself and Jim, to help his friend Jim escape from slavery down the Mississippi River. While out on the river with Jim, Huckleberry comes to know Jim as an individual human being, with emotions, hopes and dreams, a family, guilt, and regrets, just like those of any white person. As a result, Huck, each time he must maker a decision about either turning Jim in or continuing to help him flee, cannot possibly treat Jim any differently than he would a white person, whatever society happens to consider the "correct" thing to do.
But Huckleberry also realizes that since Jim happens to be black; society will see him only as a runaway slave who must be captured, and whose social responsibility it is for him, Huckleberry, to help capture him. The opening words of the novel indicate the real voice of conscience in the book: that of its author, Mark Twain. In Huckleberry's voice Mark Twain states: "The book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth" (p. 220). Moreover, according to the Harvard University Gazette, Mark Twain intended, within this work, to encourage people to stop and think about issues of conscience and social convention, and slavery in particular: "Twain did not write a novel that's meant to make you feel good" (Powell).
In this sense, then, the "truth" to which Mark Twain refers, lies beyond the book itself: it is the social truth that he, like Huck, clearly believes: that all human beings, including slaves, are entitled to dignity, equality, and personal freedom. It is due to this conviction that Huckleberry continually operates against the grain of his conventional, pro-slavery, intolerant, and unimaginative social milieu. In that vein, Huckleberry Finn's "unpretentious, colloquial, yet poetic style, its wide-ranging humor, its embodiment of the enduring and widely-shared dream of innocence and freedom, and its recording of a vanished way of life" (Baym et al., p. 214) have won enduring popularity and praise. Above all, the novel tells the truth: about both true social justice and the endless possibilities of social hypocrisy in the name of "justice."
Mark Twain, born in 1835 (30 years before Abolition) grew up, like Huck, along the Mississippi. Like Huck, also, Mark Twain's impulses defied those of his environment. Less well-known are his are satirical sketches like "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" (1985), but in this piece, in his greatest work Huckleberry Finn, and in all of Twain's other writings, Mark Twain was in every way a realist and a social critic. Like Huck, he was true to himself, even when it hurt.
Huck's own cynicism about "right" and "wrong" likely begins with his bereft relationship with his own father. Society, after all, considers it a father's role to love, protect, and cherish his child. But Huck's own father does none of that:
Pap, he hadn't been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn't want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he
was sober and could get his hands on me; though I used to take to the woods most of the time when he was around. (Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
In fact, Pap Finn shows back up only when Huckleberry…