Reason v.

Social Conventions in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain examines the conflict between man in a free and natural condition and man in a civilized condition. Throughout the novel, there are examples of societal influences - religion, racism, sense of social class – all of which substitute blind faith in doctrine for the reasoning process. Twain presents his idea that the sacrifice of the ability to reason has a dehumanizing effect on the society’s members. The eyes that Twain uses to examine society belong to a young boy, only thirteen or fourteen years old. Huck’s mother was dead and his father was a violent alcoholic who often deserted his son for long periods of time and then returned only to abuse him. Twain presents Huck as someone who has grown up outside of society, free of its biases and illogical influences. Huck often tells us in the novel that he has had no “upbringing” and that he is “uncivilized.” With a combination of the wily smarts of an urchin and the innocence of a child Twain shows us the difficulties that arise when man is removed from his natural state and thrust into the civilized world (though Huck isn’t himself perfect as he is still influenced by superstition and the idiotic ideas of Tom Sawyer; we see he is triumphant when he uses his reason and fails when he does not.) Huck’s first collision with formal society occurs early in the novel when the Widow Douglas takes Huck into her house as if he were her own son. Huck tells us how restrictive and confining life can be in a formal setting. Satisfaction and happiness are found in freedom. At his friend Tom Sawyer’s urging, Huck tries for a second time to fit into a civilized environment: She put me in new cloths again and I couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped. The widow rung the bell for supper and you had to come to time. When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating but had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble over the victuals…(29) This is the beginning of an attack on formal religion, one of Twain’s favorite targets. The widow tells Huck about the bad place and he wishes he were there. He feels that there is no advantage in going to the good place and decides he won’t try for it. He has an innate, uncivilized desire for freedom that does not mesh with formal religious beliefs. Huck, from his position on the outside of society’s conventions and norms, uses reason to approach religious belief: She told me to pray everyday and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t no good without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times but couldn’t make it work…One day I asked Miss Watson to try for me but she said I was a fool. She never told me why...(35) Huck here uses his natural reasoning power to find answers to his questions. The widow and her sister, who operate from inside society, use preconceived notions to avoid thinking. In passages like these, Twain seems to be telling us that religion, as well as many other aspects of society, are an impediment to reason. In seeking the truth or attempting to solve problems, people avoid using the most valuable tool they have, which is their natural reasoning power. By clinging to the “truths” of religious dogma the characters of the novel are often humiliatedan innocent prank by Huck and Tom Sawyer on Jim is changed from something funny into a sinister and destructive thing by the slaves superstition. Perhaps Twain is hinting here that the Widow Douglas might have decided to sell Jim Down river because of his change due to his own imagination falling prey to his fears, insecurities, and ignorance. Twain, however did not turn to the story into a one dimensional sermon of his own ideas regarding organized faith, upperclass sensibilities, and unthinking reliance on what amounted to superstition. Twain was quick to turn his sharp mind to the dark underbelly of the society and forms of deviance he found to be particularly distasteful. Huck’s father uses alcohol to avoid thinking. He sees money in terms of how long he can stay drunk. “I got enough for two drunks and one delirium tremens,”

he says repeatedly. Pap is nothing more than an animal. He is concerned only with getting enough money for his next round of drinking. Pap’s alcoholism dehumanizes him by destroying his ability to reason. As the story unfolds, Huck remains outside of society’s suffocating grasp by questioning everything around him. He uses his reasoning power to find answers. In an inhumane society, he maintains his humanity and his personal freedom. Twain uses images of a state of nature to help us see the flaws of everyday society. The progress of the novel takes Huckleberry far down the Mississippi River on a raft. During the course of the long journey, Huck forms a true friendship with Jim, a runaway slave. Their friendship deepens in the midst of the great beauty and splendor of the powerful river. The river is like a god, a source of beauty and natural power that the two raftsmen can see and feel. They can trust in the rivers powerful current. The river gives them canoes, rafts, food, clothing, and when they need it, peace and rest. Traveling at night on the river, they are isolated from the evils of the society that exists on the banks of the river. Sometimes we’d have that river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water;… We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them and wonder if they was made or only just happened.(110) In scenes like this one, which are repeated throughout the novel, Twain seems to be presenting an ideal of natural goodness. Such scenes of natural beauty and tranquillity are in stark contrast with the societal depravity at the edge of the river Eventually, the darkness of the society on the shore eclipses the joy and beauty of life on the raft. The resulting conflicts between man in his natural state, as represented by Jim and Huck, and the evils of society, provide Twain with additional opportunities to ridicule the unquestioning resignation to societal influences. One such occasion occurs when a collision with a steamboat forces Jim and Huck to the shore, where Huck finds himself in the midst of a feud between two wealthy families. In the home of one of the feuding families, Huck sees paintings and writings that honor and glorify death. He correctly concludes that the dead girl who created these works of "“art" and her family are more comfortable with death than they are with life. They respond to a false sense of honor, as illustrated by a young boy who turns face towards his approaching murderer, so that he will be shot in the front and not in the back. The family members are controlled by conventions they do not understand and events they can not remember. The feuding families have reduced themselves to the status of animals by suspending their use of reason. They even speak of themselves as if they were animals. Huck is told that “the Shepherdsons don’t breed cowards.”(103) The hypocrisy of this unreasoning lifestyle is illustrated when the families attend Sunday church services with loaded guns to hear a lecture on brotherly love. After the service, they talk about “faith and free grace and preforedestination.” All of these concepts serve as substitutes for freewill and the ability to reason. When Huck returns to the church later in the day after the people have gone home, he finds a group of hogs have gone into the church to get cool. Huck shows us the irony of the situation when he says “If you notice, most folks don’t go to church only when they’ve got to, but hogs is different.” The feuding families are less honorable than even the hogs.(103) Huck constantly tries to do right by those around him, but even this natural response can be problematic. Huck’s natural desire to help others brings him in contact with the “king” and the “duke.” These two con men bring the evil of social class to the raft. Huck and Jim have discussed royalty on previous occasions, where Huck pointing out that “they don’t have to do nothing except if they want to start a war sometimes.” On the subject of King Solomon, Jim reasons that King Solomon was not wise because he would destroy a child rather than do an investigation to see whose it was. “De real point is down furder – it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollerman was raised,”(121) Jim says. The “way Solomon

was raised” is another example of the negative influences of society. Members of a society elevate some people to a higher level and then assume that the “royalty” they have created possess a higher wisdom. This higher wisdom replaces the free will and the ability of the populace to reason for themselves. Even Jim, the lowly, uneducated slave can see the stupidity of this. Twain uses the king and the duke to highlight his case against royalty and other forms of class distinction. The king and the duke are motivated by greed and jealousy, their actions are dishonest and they are totally immune to the pain and suffering they may cause for others, and they are complete hypocrites. “They gave a lecture on temperance,” Huck tells us, “but they didn’t even make enough money for both to get drunk.”(118) Huck and Jim see the king and the duke for what they are, but they put up with them because, as Huck says “If they wanted us to call them kings and dukes, I hadn’t no objections, as long as it would keep peace…One thing you want on a raft is that everybody get along.”(134) The raft is like a miniature society, a society that functions efficiently and happily until the king and the duke impose their pretense of social class on Huck and Jim. Eventually, the king’s greed and insensitivity lead him to sell Jim to a slave trader. This event leads to the final resolution of the novel’s main conflict. Huck throws society’s conventions aside, returns to the town where Jim is being held prisoner and sets in motion a series of events that eventually lead to Jim’s freedom. Throughout the novel, Huck is torn by a struggle between his natural affection for Jim and his duty to follow society’s conventions by treating Jim as a slave. Huck tries to pray, but finds he can’t: I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie – I found that out.(168) Huck writes the note and feels “good and all washed and clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.” He has tried the path offered by society, the pre-programmed, unreasoning path, and it feels good. But then Huck comes back to his position outside of society’s influence. He starts to think and reason about his predicament: I got to thinking over our trip down the river; I took up the note and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things,… holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’ – and I tore it up. (168) In this passage, Huck resolves the conflict in his soul by using his power to reason things out logically and by resorting to his natural sensitivity and compassion for another human being, even though society would claim that the black man was not really human. For Twain, the ultimate in human activity is the ability to reason. The ultimate in human emotion is compassion, the ability to feel what others feel, the ability see others as equals, as an extension of self. Twain saw society’s conventions and prejudices as an impediment to free will and free thought, and without these, society’s members were nothing more than animals, pursuing bestial interests. These attitudes were certainly not representative of the prevailing opinions of Twain’s times. Many of society’s upper crust must have recoiled at Twain’s biting sarcasm. Twain probably found their reaction quite pleasing. Works Cited Clemens, Samuel L. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition/Volume 2. Ed. Reidhead, Julia, et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1998. 28-216.