Loyalty and Trust in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Huckleberry Finn – Loyalty and Trust


Huckleberry Finn does not address questions of law as directly as the other novels that we have read. Ostensibly, Huck is torn between disobeying the slavery laws and honoring his conscious.  However, Huck shows a disregard for other laws throughout the story, so I think that his conflict stems not from a belief that one must obey the law because it is the law, or on a social contract theory.  Huck is never overly concerned with the truth or the norms of society, he adheres to the mores of society because of the consequences as opposed to any fundamental acceptance of them or authority.  Unlike Billy Budd, however, Huck does not seem to be influenced by the fear of corporal punishment, as much as he is concerned with the social consequences that would result if his disobedience was discovered.  The choice that Huck eventually makes is deeper than just choosing to accept the social consequences, he is willing to `go to hell' for Jim, rather than betray the loyalty and trust that has grown between them. 


I think that Mark Twain choose an excellent vehicle for the presentation of a sharp, social satire. By letting Huck tell the story, Twain was free to present the ignorance underscoring the mores that were passed onto to children.  Huck interprets the world literally, which starkly contrasts with the romanticism of Tom Sawyer and spiritualism of the widows.  Huck's literalism also allows him more leeway than a third-person narrator can have.  Mark Twain could have presented his criticisms in an essay, or a more sensational, fictional novel; however, he has chosen the most powerful form because the realism of the scenes and Huck's literal perception of the world make the events seem truthful and their description seem unvarnished.  


This does seem incongruous with Huck's casual disregard for the truth but as one gets to know him, the disregard seems more pragmatic than casual. He lies when he has to, but not for personal gain, or even for purposes of a game, for example, he saw no point in calling vegetables jewels so he quit the game.  Moreover, he does not condone the lying of the duke and the King when it hurts the innocent daughters as opposed to licentious men in town and more importantly he makes efforts to remedy the perceived hurt.  All of these factors lead the reader to trust Huck and his presentation of the story. 


It seems to me that Huck learned a great deal along his journey and learned nothing at all.  He was from the beginning an essentially good and earnest young man, the childish pranks were a result of his ignorance of their effects, not from any ill intent.  He does not like to see people get hurt, and he tries to help whenever he can, even trying to warn the King and the Duke of their impending feathering despite their bad acts and betrayal.  He is little like Billy Budd with experience, he is fundamentally good but society has taught him the wrong things, i.e., that slaves are not like him, and do not feel emotions.  

From the first few days on the island until the very end, every time that he was confronted with Jim being in danger, his instinct was to protect him.  As the trip went on, the choice became more deliberated and purposeful as Huck began first to see Jim as a human and then as a true companion, deserving of faith and loyalty.  The climatic moment, to me at least, is not Huck's conscious decision to free Jim, which is arguably different from the prior decisions to protect him from discovery because it is actively  rejecting society's mores and breaking the law.  To me, the moment is Huck's genuine sorrow at having hurt Jim's feelings, and his willingness to apologize.  


While the subject of Jim's expertise is superstitions and that may seem to be an oxymoron, the larger point is Huck's first realization that Jim is even capable of having expertise.  It is also clearer to the reader, that Jim bases some of expertise on common sense and awareness of his environment.  Actually, Jim seems one dimensional for a large part of the story.  However, when one considers his earlier actions with the full knowledge of the book's later revelations, it seems that the character was three dimensional throughout and the reader got failed to see to it until Huck did. For example, shielding Huck from the sight of the dead man is fatherly and protective, but knowing that the dead man was Huck's father makes it even more poignant.  I think that the beginning scenes where Jim explains his kidnapping by witches are more indicative of capitalizing on the situation (especially as the story grew in a positive correlation to the recognition he received) than ignorance.  


 Speaking of ignorance, I said that Huck learned nothing because he assented to Tom's escape plans despite the plainly apparent absurdity. He changed his personal perception about Jim, but he still accepts the authority and rightness of the society that misled him about the very humanness of slaves. He knows that Tom's way appears to be wrong,  but defers because Tom is educated and there must be a reason for doing it that way even if he does not see it.  This applies equally to Jim, I do not think that his acceptance of the scheme was a result of his confidence in Huck's loyalty, as much as it was acceptance Tom's way, without question and despite the indignities.


I think that given the time period, that this was Twain's larger point, physical freedom and/or recognition as humans, as opposed to property, is a veneer--that it alone, is not enough to remedy the wrongs because the underlying prejudices and ignorance runs so deeply.  This point is driven home hard, by the revelation that the popular and beloved Tom Sawyer, could be so callous as to subject Jim to continued imprisonment and to intentionally create a dangerous situation.  It is these unthinking, unintentional acts that so convincingly demonstrate the depth of the damage that ignorance and prejudice have instilled on the psyche of the young generation that will become `society' during the Reconstruction era as well as the slaves themselves.  

The dialect does much to contribute to the realism of the story and thus enhances its apparent authenticity.  Huck does not have a motive to color his portrayal of his environment, so even if he embellished some or understated his involvement, it is not important for Twain's purposes. The story is not really about Huck or Jim, its about exposing the ignorance that pervades the South at that time, and showing how deeply ingrained it is.  


I think that Tom's actions are necessary to make readers fully comprehend the magnitude of the problem and so I forgive Twain for deviating from the realism of the storyline by utilizing a fantastic coincidence that seems more appropriate for the Romantic pieces so subtly satirized in this very work.  He could have chosen another foil for Huck, but given the popularity of Tom at that time, and indeed today, no newly introduced character could provide it so unexpectedly, and thereby powerfully.  


However, I do have an issue with how smoothly things end.  Jim ran away and he tried to escape without knowing of his freedom, so he intended and attempted to break the law even if he was by good fortune not actually do so.   I do not think that Twain had to answer the question of whether intent or actuality or both should be required for culpability or if they  and/or after-the-fact-good deeds should excuse or mitigate it.  I think could have explored the legal questions involving mistake more thoroughly and he should have raised them.

I find that Tom's assertion regarding the irrelevance because Jim was in fact free, to be somewhat contradictory to Tom's general character which places more value on appearance and form then   reality. It seems more in line with Huck's literal outlook and interpretation of the world. It may well be that the novel is darker than it appears, because it is possible that Tom's disregard was not based on unintentional, ignorance but rather was intentional and selfish.

I will have to re-read Tom Sawyer to consider that question, I remember that was my view the very first time I read the book because I did not read Tom Sawyer first.  I think I changed my mind upon learning that Tom was such a well-known and beloved character, I did not think the audience would accept it.  However, today, I am not sure why I thought the audience's expected acceptance/rejection is indicative of the authors intent. Twain was very dark in his later years, and his use of the dialects, inclusion of the (arrogant, taunting?) notice/explanation (challenge?) and his biting satiric tone indicate that he would not feel constrained by the audiences expectations, and might seek to shock them. 


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"Loyalty and Trust in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." 123HelpMe.com. 07 Feb 2016

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