One of society’s favourite figures of speech is that it takes an entire town to raise a child. Such is true in Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Through Huck’s journey down the Mississippi River, Twain illustrates the influence society has on undeveloped morals. As Huckleberry travels he becomes “the impassive observer” and aware of the corruption in the values of society (Eliot 330). Encountering these societies gives Huck a selective morality. No particular social class is left out of his observations. From the poor, lower-class to the elite, upper class, Huck observes inconsistencies in morality. In the end, Huck realizes that society is imperfect and corrupt, which ultimately causes him to “light out for the Territory” (Twain 229). Huck Finn develops a selective morality from the corrupt social classes he encounters on the Mississippi River.
Before Huck sets out on his raft adventure, he is exposed to the values and morals of his poor, drunken father. Pap Finn instills a “Southern race prejudice” and leads Huck to believe “that he detests Abolitionists” (Smith 374). Huck comes into conflict with this philosophy as he journeys on the raft with Jim. He can not decide if he is wrong in helping Jim escape slavery or if the philosophy is wrong. The education of Huck also stirs some values from Pap. When Pap tells him that education is useless, Huck is confused because the Widow Douglas told him that education was important. As a result, Huck’s values towards education are uncertain. Pap Finn, as a figure of the lower class, does his part to confuse the growing morals of his son.
Together with Pap, the King and the Duke do their share to put putrid moral ideas into the immature mind of Huck. The King and the Duke earn their living pulling scams on their fellow Americans. For instance, they advertised the “Royal Nonesuch” as a “thrilling tragedy” and charged the farmers in the area fifty cents to come and see it (Twain 121). But, the entire production consisted of the King walking around on all fours naked. They had promised a good show to the crowd, the King and the Duke did not think it was wrong to give the crowd nothing except for an empty pocket. The message they sent to Huck is that it is acceptable to cheat and lie. Even worse is the crowd’s reaction to being cheated. Instead of exposing the con men to the rest of the town, they decide to “sell the rest of the town,” rather than face the ridicule of other townspeople (Twain 122). Huck is, therefore, lead to the conclusion that “his fellowmen are likely to be dangerous and wicked” (Trilling 322). Huck’s morality is exposed to a lack of respect or decency towards others. The King and the Duke establish a moral code to take people for what you can get from them and then run off without any consequences.
In addition to the “Royal Nonesuch” scam, the so-called royalty cheats yet another group of unsuspecting townspeople along the river, and further establish their corrupt values. The two con artists come across the opportunity to pose as the brothers of a wealthy, deceased man. To Huck, the family of the deceased, Mr. Peter Wilks, seems “stupid and grotesquely illusioned” by the King and the Duke’s escapades (Cady 394). As the scam continues, Huck recognizes “how deeply he is involved” in the plot to deceive honest people, like Mary Jane, out of their inheritance. Consequently, Huck corrects this by “doing ‘wrong’” and telling Mary Jane, which is not “’right’” according to the morality the King and the Duke represent (Trilling 324). Meanwhile, the con artists “reveal their moral idiocy” and are forced to flee with no reward. In Huck’s mind, this failure of the King and the Duke brings forth more controversy regarding his own mortality. Clearly, the con men live by a corrupt set of values.
The elite, upper class as well as lower class, influenced Huckleberry with immorality and a deformed sense of value. Colonel Sherburn is a good example of the upper-class society. Huck notices the Colonel is “a proud man” and easily “the best dressed” in town (Twain 115). After Boggs yells, “O Lord, don’t shoot!” Sherburn aims his pistol “steady and level” and kills Boggs (Twain 116). It is amazing to Huck how calmly the Colonel takes the life of a neighbour and then just turns “on his heels and walk away” (Twain 116). He can not imagine the morality behind the lack of “a great sense of sadness” for Boggs (Trilling 321). The crowd follows Sherburn back to his house and Huck sees “civilization murderously turned into anti-civilization” as they decide “Sherburn ought to be lynched” (Twain 117). However, when confronted by Sherburn, the crowd backs down and it becomes apparent that there is no sense of values urging the crowd. The townspeople are simply a “bully circus” who do not live “a conscious life of their own” (Twain 119.Smith 366). Colonel Sherburn and the rest of the town show Huck that morality is not what drives men; it is the idea of having morals that drives them. If morality is not convenient then values will not be followed.
Among the upper-class society is the Grangerford family who do not allow their ethics or Christianity to get in the way of their family’s feud. Huck’s first impressions of the Grangerford family “may be picturesque” since he sees the Grangerfords as “cultivated Christian ladies and gentlemen” (Ferguson 312.Cady 391). Values and morals, however, do not pertain to the feud they are involved in with a nearby family, the Shepherdsons. Buck speaks casually about the feud and sees nothing wrong with the fact that “by-and-by everybody’s killed off” (Twain 89).
His casualness is “suicidally irrational” to Huck (Cady 392). Furthermore, Buck does not know what the feud is about and does not think he needs to know. Huck cannot understand the morality behind such a feud and why it is valued in the Grangerford family. Therefore, Huck concludes that the “feud possessed the best of citizens” (Cady 391). The Grangerfords once again prove that immorality does not exist merely in the lower classes of society, as Huck finds out, the upper class is just as deformed in their value system.
Accordingly, the Grangerfords do not set their feud with the Shepherdsons aside even for church on Sundays. As the preacher talks of ‘brotherly love,” Huck watches how the family holds their guns “between their knees” or “handy against the wall” (Twain 90). Huck is astonished further by the after-church discussions of the sermon and grace. It is hard for Huck to understand how a group of people who take their guns to church can have “such a powerful lot to say about faith” (Twain 90). In the eyes of the Grangerford family, morality does not apply to the feud because the feud is simply a part of life. It is clear to Huck that the Grangerfords have contradictions in their morality and value system. Indeed, the fact that the Grangerfords are from the high class does not leave them immune to corrupt morality.
Truly, in this case, society as a whole is not doing a proper job in raising a child. They demonstrate a lack of consideration for others, a lack of respect for human life, and a lack of morality in general. Clearly, Huck’s struggle with immorality in his own conscience comes from “the attitudes he has taken over from his environment” (Smith 371). By the end of his adventure, Huck decides to be “completely uncritical” of the “social satire” along the Mississippi (Smith 371.364). Huck “does not question its moral authority,” he simply “escapes from society” (Smith 371.Trilling 321).
That is, Huck reflects on the “scraps of ‘conscience’” he observed throughout his journey on the raft and concludes that society will never achieve what it “ideally dreams for itself” (Cady 391.Trilling 321). As a result of Huck’s new understanding of the immorality in each social class, he “lights out for the Territory” (Twain 299). A low sense of values and morals is not limited to any specific social class and no civilized society is immune from it. Perhaps it is the imperfection in their morality that makes them human.
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