“That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth” (1).
Those are among the first lines in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so it’s obvious from the very beginning that the truth, or lack thereof, is a major theme in the book.
Huckleberry Finn is a liar throughout the whole novel but unlike other characters, his lies seem justified and moral to the reader because they are meant to protect himself and Jim and are not meant to hurt anybody.
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Mark Twain shows four types of lies in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: vicious and self-serving lies, harmless lies, childish lies, and Huck’s noble lies.
An example of lying is presented right at the beginning. After Tom and Huck play a joke on him, Jim lies to all the other slaves about how his hat got taken off his head and put on a tree limb above him while he was sleeping. He tells an incredible yarn about some kind of spirits visiting him, gaining him an almost-celebrity status among the slaves. Some may argue that this is a self-serving lie. Although it is harmless to others, it certainly isn’t a noble lie. Another set of harmless, somewhat clever, lies Jim tells are of his famous hairball. He claims it can predict the future and only he can tell what it’s saying. Not only that, but this hairball doesn’t work unless Jim gets paid first.
The king of childish lies would definitely be Tom Sawyer. Through Tom’s ridiculous lies, Mark Twain makes the reader begin to hate this impractical, unrealistic, unoriginal adolescent. His immature lies are to gain a sense of adventure like in his books and they occasionally hurt people. Tom tricks Huck into coming with him to see the caravan of “A-rabs and Spaniards.” Huck doesn’t want to go until he learns there will be elephants there too. They go, and of course, nobody is there but young, Sunday-schoolers. Huck is disappointed and says, “So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies” (14).
Tom’s major lying, though, doesn’t start until chapter 33 and doesn’t end until the last part of the book. When asked to help Jim escape, instead of saving weeks and weeks of trouble by telling Huck that Jim is already free, Tom has to glorify rescuing Jim. He frightens the whole Phelps family and 15 men with shotguns through his childish games. He gets shot and puts poor Jim through all sorts of obstacles. His lying is definitely not portrayed as positive in any way.
The most negative liars in the whole novel, though, are the Duke and the King. They are accomplished con-artists who make it their life to lie and trick the naïve public out of their money. In fact, they are introduced to Huck and Jim while they are fleeing from an angry mob: one for selling a paste to remove tartar from teeth that takes a good deal of the enamel off with it and the other because he was caught drunk after running a temperance sobriety revival meeting. Every lie of theirs is completely self-serving and wicked. The Duke and the King are truly antagonists because they are able to betray everyone, including the people who save them and take care of them, Jim and Huck. When their cons don’t work well, they sell Jim to the Phelps, telling them he is a runaway. But to the Duke and the King’s knowledge, Jim belongs to Huck. When Huck questions the Duke about Jim’s whereabouts, he slips and says the Phelps’ farm, but quickly lies and says Jim’s on a farm 40 miles down the road. The other very despicable string of lies they tell trick three young daughters out of their deceased father’s 6000 dollars and all his property; That is enough for Huck.
It is true that Huck Finn is so accustomed to lying Jim and himself out of trouble that he says, “I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place, is taking considerable many risks, though I ain’t had no experience, and can’t say for certain” (152). He is even uncomfortable telling the eldest of the orphans, Mary Jane, just what he is doing in the company of the Duke and the King. He doesn’t want her to be robbed but doesn’t know how to tell the truth from lack of practice.
One of Huck’s biggest lies was faking his own murder. It was necessary for him to put the good people through the mourning of his death because he was protecting himself from the crazy drunk Pap and “sivilized” society. Based on Huck’s consistent concern for others, he might have later sent a letter home explaining that he is alive and well, but there is the situation with Jim. Writing a letter could compromise Jim’s well-being and Huck doesn’t want to risk Jim being captured.
In the instance where Huck dresses up as a girl and speaks with the farmer’s wife in an effort to find out what is being said about their situation, the information that he gets ultimately saves them from the capture of a search party. Even though he is caught in the first lie and it is discovered that he is actually a young boy rather than a girl, Huck manages to convince the woman that he is simply a runaway. He quickly creates a new and better lie, and she has no idea about his true identity. In this instance of lies that Huck tells, there is no victim. Huck learns crucial information that he would have never gotten through honesty, and with this information, he is able to continue on his journey with Jim.
Another one of Huck’s lies is one that he tells the watchman on the steamship. He knows that this man is the only person who can help the group of murderers that were soon going to drown in the river. Under the circumstances, Huck cannot tell the man the truth because he has stolen their boat to save Jim and his own life, Jim would be in danger of being captured, and most likely the watchman would not bother to go save a band of murderers. Since the truth is not an option, Huck creates an elaborate story of women in distress and reward for money. After all is done, in reflection on his actions Huck says, “I was feeling rather comfortable on accounts of taking all of the trouble for that gang, for not many would a done it” (74). He clearly believes here that he has done a good thing in telling that lie. He knows that he saved these men’s lives, and he would not have been able to do so with the truth.
The one lie that Huck clearly regrets telling is the one that he tells to Jim. After their accidental separation, Huck returns to the raft and acts as though he hasn’t been gone. Huck goes on to claim that Jim imaged the entire thing. In response to Jim’s delight in seeing Huck alive and well Huck says, “What is the matter with you Jim? You been a drinking?”(84). Jim asks Huck to look him in the eye and say that he had not been gone anywhere, and Huck does as he asks. Jim soon realizes that Huck is not telling him the truth. Jim says to Huck “en trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er dey fren’s en makes ’em ashamed”(86). This makes Huck feel terrible and after apologizing to Jim, he claims that he wouldn’t have done it if he knew how it would make Jim feel.
When Huck finds out that the King and the Duke are frauds, he doesn’t tell Jim, but for a good reason. This reason is so he does not make Jim feel ignorant or gullible. The truth, at this point, is for the good of someone else.
Several lies are told to save Jim from being captured. As soon as the Duke and the King get on Huck and Jim’s raft, they ask if Jim is a runaway. Huck makes up a story about how he was orphaned and tells them that he and Jim have been forced to travel at night since so many people stopped his boat to ask whether Jim was a runaway. One of the cleverest lies Huck tells is to protect Jim. Huck comes upon some men in a boat who want to search his raft for escaped slaves. He pretends to be grateful, saying no one else would help them. He leads them to believe his family, onboard the raft, has smallpox. The men back away, telling Huck to go further downstream and lie about his family’s condition to get help. Out of pity, they leave forty dollars in gold. He not only saves Jim, but they get some money too, and no one is hurt.
Once again, Huck’s lies are noble, Tom’s are childish, Jim’s are harmless, and the Duke and King’s are vicious and self-serving.
The above are not the only lies that are told in this story. Huck is actually quite good at telling lies and continues to tell them up until the end of the story, but what the majority of Huck’s lies have in common is that they protect both him and Jim from the society of southerners that he has turned his back on. His lies are noble when no other characters’ lies in the novel are. Huck chooses to follow what he feels in his heart rather than what he has been taught by those around him. The lies he tells are told so that he can continue in his search for happiness, truth, and freedom. For the most part, Huck’s lies are morally good which may seem like a contradiction, but as Twain shows, is not.
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