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Morality of the Minor Characters of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain makes two social outcasts, in the form of Huck and Jim, the most moral characters of his novel. Huck and Jim are the real templates of correct behavior. Yet, the rest of a hypocritical and essentially immoral society devotes itself to either catching or civilizing these characters. By showing how more socially acceptable characters minor characters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are often less moral than Huck, who is the son of a drunken father, and Jim, who is a slave, Twain shows how conventional societal morals are completely awry with what is actually truthful and intrinsically good. After all, for all of their faults and lack of conventional education, Jim and Huck at least strive to be loving and loyal to one another. Thus, in the forms of Huck and Jim, by contrasting them with people like the Widow Douglas and Buck Grangerford, Twain creates to great heroes of unexpectedly ethical behavior for 19th century American literature.

The minor characters of the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are more often than not are motivated by greed, a lack of civility, a lack of true morals and values and a lack of respect for fundamental human dignity -- as well as common, ordinary racism. Instead, Huck and Jim are propelled forward by a drive and desire for freedom, loyalty, and mutual respect. The first and most benign example of a minor character with a lack of true moral understanding is the well intentioned but misguided Widow Douglas. Although she is well meaning in her attempts to civilize Huck, the Widow Douglas does not understand the true needs of a young boy. The Widow Douglas "took me for her son, and allowed she would civilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time," begins Huck, "considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn't stand it no longer I lit out ... The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb, and she called me a lot of other names, too, but she never meant no harm by it. She put me in them new clothes again, and I couldn't do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up. Well, then, the old thing commenced again. The widow rung a bell for supper, and you had to come to time." (1-2)

Unlike Huck, the widow has never know what it is like to be truly hungry, and to want for food. Thus, 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, -- that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better." (2) Although the widow means well, Huck has a wild and vital appreciation of nature, and the widows manners constrain and shut the boy out from nature, rather than nurture him -- she attempts to teach him to appreciate food, fine clothing, and education, but assumes her approaches to the world are better than Huck's love of eating when he is hungry, and running about when it is fine outside, simply because she has no money.

Twain lets the reader know that Huck is not stupid, regarding school: "At first I hated the school, but by and by I got so I could stand it," but he cannot deign to shut himself off from nature and his natural impulses. "Living in a house and sleeping in a bed pulled on me pretty tight mostly, but before the cold weather I used to slide out and sleep in the woods sometimes, and so that was a rest to me." (20) Huck can learn, but he only feels alive when he is outside and unobstructed by society and societal dictates that have no intrinsic meaning to him, like living by a time clock and saying grace in words he does not comprehend.

Of course, the 'civilized' Widow Douglas and Miss Watson are so 'civilized' that they own slaves, a doctrine even Huck unquestioningly accepts at first, given that his social and financial betters and benefactors endorse such behavior. The constraints they place upon Huck, however well intentioned mirror the truly dastardly constraints of owning another human being, body and soul, as Miss Watson says she owns Jim. Even Huck, because he has been so taught by the minor characters of the novel to accept racist conventions, is shocked to hear Jim talk against Miss Watson: "Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn't sell them, they'd get an Ab'litionist to go and steal them." (118)

Huck has been taught he ought not to steal, and Miss Watson's teaching that slavery is right, and that for a slave to run away is theft, highlights the absurd constructs of Huck's society. The natural instincts that cause Huck to love to sleep in the woods and trust Jim as a true friend are Huck's honest, natural impulses, not the moral teachings of the society around him. Ironically, Jim's plan is one of thrift and good sense -- he resolves to work hard, to save money, and to farm -- unlike the spendthrift but free White men, such as Huck's father or even the Shakespearean actors who the pair later encounter, who squander their freedom, lie, and live to cheat others to live in a free and easy fashion.

Whenever Huck trusts his own impulses, rather than the morality of common society, as espoused by some of the tale's minor characters, he acts correctly. Huck only judges wrongly when he judges by the standards of false society. When he is first running away, Huck instinctively trusts Jim, even though the 'correct' minor characters holding themselves up as moral teachers say otherwise. This is because society bases its estimation of an individual's moral goodness on appearances. Consider society's evaluation of a man said to be a "gentleman all over" and "his family," too. Cornel Grangerford, " was well born, as the saying is, and that's worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the Widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied that she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it, too, though he warn't no more quality than a mud cat himself. The Cornel, for example, is described "as kind as he could be -- you could feel that" (140) for he "didn't ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners -- everybody was always good-mannered where he was." (141)

The reason for his children's good manners, however -- is fear. Cornel Grangerford's moral superiority comes not out of his actions but from his dissembling appearance, because the man "was very tall and very slim, and had a darkish-paly complexion, not a sign of red in it anywheres; he was clean shaved every morning all over his thin face, and he had the thinnest kind of lips, and the thinnest kind of nostrils, and a high nose, and heavy eyebrows, and the blackest kind of eyes, sunk so deep back that they seemed like they was looking out of caverns at you, as you may say. His forehead was high, and his hair was black and straight and hung to his shoulders. His hands was long and thin, and every day of his life he put on a clean shirt and a full suit from head to foot made out of linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it; and on Sundays he wore a blue tail-coat with brass buttons on it. He carried a mahogany cane with a silver head to it. There warn't no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn't ever loud." (140) Because he is White, and speaks and dresses like an aristocrat and is of high birth, Huck initially respects him -- but really, the Cornel and his family are involved in a brutish family conflict.

The appearance of gentility and morality belies the violent nature and conflicts of the Grangerford family. Both the Shepherdsons and the Grangerfords are highfalutin, aristocratic families of great manners and worth. But…[continue]

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