huck finn: a hero for all time

Huck_and_jim_on_raft

Huck and Jim on the raft

I’m listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on audiotape while helping a friend clean her house. It’s the part toward the end where Huck is deciding what to do about Jim, Miss Watson’s runaway slave. Huck and Jim have been rafting down the Mississippi for weeks now — Huck trying to escape his drunken Pa; Jim trying to find freedom — only they keep running into trouble. This time, a couple of vagrants have kidnapped Jim and sold him to Mr. Phelps, a local farmer, and now, Huck is confused: Should he do what’s “right” (and what he “shoulda done all along”) and tell Miss Watson where Jim is and thus betray his friend? Or, should he listen to his heart . . . ?

The inner dialogue that ensues is what, in my mind, makes Huck Finn one of the greatest heroes in all of literature, and, maybe, for all time.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, (part of) Chapter 31, by Mark Twain

Click the arrow below for an audio recording of this passage. It’s a little long (about six minutes), but it really adds to the reading by showcasing Twain’s use of dialect in his writing.

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave, and so I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time, and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced.

And then think of me! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further. I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared.

c12-101

Worried Jim

Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to 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.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

huck-finn

Relaxin’ by the river

Huck Finn

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me “honey,” and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Recording downloaded for free at LibriVox.org. Check it out!

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You have my respect, Huck Finn. I’d rather go to hell than go against my heart, too.

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Images: Google

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43 thoughts

    • Haha, Vance. I knew I wouldn’t get a lot of comments on this post. But I couldn’t help it. This passage hit me really hard and I just had to share… Thanks for putting up with me.

      • No, no, no. That wasn’t intended as a non-comment, at all. Not even close. I just think there’s not much more that can be added to your final comment to make it any more meaningful. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read this yesterday morning, about how easy a thing it is to say and how hard a thing it is to do. If I had a nickel for every time I ate an opportunity to do just that, to follow my heart in the face of hell, I’d be a rich(ish) man…and that makes me sad. But it makes me happy that there are others out there who understand the struggle…

        And nobody’s “putting up with you”!:o) Your posts are always a bright spot in my day.

      • Hehe. What a sweet thing to say. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to end this post. Huck’s soliloquy was a bit long as it was, so I didn’t want to make the post a lot longer. I also didn’t want to repeat things he’d said but rather allow readers to ponder over his words themselves — if they took the time to read his thoughts at all.

        The times I’ve gone against my heart have been the times things have gone wrong. You’re right, though, that always following your heart is easier said than done.

    • My thoughts exactly. I wasn’t sure how to approach this post, honestly — didn’t want it to come across as a research paper or analysis — but I LOVE that Huck was a rebel and yet more moral and analytical than the church folk, too! Says a lot about Twain, I think…

      Also, I far prefer practical Huck to Tom Sawyer, too. Tom and his “adventures” are just annoying!

      • Hey Jess, have you ever read any of the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser? Flashman was originally the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Fraser found TB’s Schooldays to be cloying, and had a great deal of fun with Flashman, who far from being keen to throw his life away for King and Country, is a self-serving opportunist primarily interested in his personal pleasure. The books are a rollicking read as Flashman cheats, lies, gambles, commits adultery, begs for mercy and occasionally runs for his life through quite a lot of actual history. There is also a villain with a scorpion pit.

    • I think so, too. And I think it’s all the more powerful because of who it’s coming from. This poor hard-luck boy with a drunk for a Pa who appears, at least on the outside, to be a rebel. But on the inside he is purer and more analytical than all the rest of us. I love it.

      Thank you so much for commenting. It means the world. I hope you have a wonderful weekend! :)

  1. Slavery wasn’t unique to America. Back when human slavery was legal in the Roman Empire, no one felt guilty about slavery. What happened to Huck? Is it because he was in contact with the people from northern states? It took a few conditions for guilt to show up: (1) northern states weren’t involved, (2) they witnessed directly that slaves were suffering, and (3) indignation turned to guilt by the acknowledgment of the fact that southern states and northern states were one nation.

    The road to freedom didn’t play out well. Who shed the blood for the black so that they could be free? The white who died for their freedom but gained nothing for themselves! That’s why it’s always better to turn to Africa to see how Africans actually earned their freedom from the British Empire.

    It’s not a fair comparison, as you may notice. African Americans are the minority while Africans in Africa are the majority, which is a highly favorable condition for movements and revolutions. African Americans were outnumbered back then.

    The Bible says that our conscience is not clean and that it takes the Holy Spirit to cleanse and renew it so that we can tell right from wrong (Hebrews 10:22). It’s not enough to just to listen to our heart. Huck is a fictional character. I am not sure how typical or representative he is for the people in the historical context of the novel.

    I didn’t read the novel. So, let me just stop here and wish you a good weekend.

    • Sweet Sam! Don’t worry about it! This post was not something I expected everyone to love… Sorry I haven’t been by your site in a few days. Will try to catch up soon! Hope you’re having a lovely Sunday!

      • No worries Jessica, I have been having trouble with wordpress and so was irregular with my post. My comments were also not registered and I realised it when I observed that’s there’s no “awaiting moderation” for some sites.Slept through Sunday, lol… Just woke up in fact :D

      • Oh, goodness. Hope you’re feeling okay! I’ve been having trouble with sleep a lot lately, too. Keep going to bed and sleeping in late. It’s a cycle I’m having a hard time breaking… Anyway, well I hope you are well rested for the new week!

      • I’m also having trouble with my sleep cycle but I catch up once in a while with a long sleep.We should exchange countries, perhaps we’ll sleep right, lol…

  2. Interesting comment by twdyen about the why’s and wherefore’s of Huck’s moral predicament.

    Here’s my two cents: Huck Finn is a character in progress throughout the story. No matter the historical and political differences between one nation, country or people and some other. The bottom line here is that Huck got to know Jim as a person, not a “slave” or a “property”. He saw the “humanness” of Jim, the fears and joys that were shared by the two of them, and experienced the loyalty that developed each to the other. He knew that Jim was just like he was. How could he betray that friend? He couldn’t.

    If we were slower to accept the mores of current society and cultural barriers that exist for unsound reasons, and get to know the real people underneath, we would be better people and a better society for it. Huck Finn illustrates why it is difficult for us to do this.

    And, as an aside, as a Christian, I agree with Hebrews 10:22. On the other hand there are millions of people who never considered or even heard of Christianity who face these same moral dilemmas because of an awareness of inherent right and wrong.

    • Another thing is that Huck was a child, who could have been too complicated for his age. History is the evidence. There were not enough people in the south who felt guilty to trigger a change. The change came from outside, through a war with northern states. Compared to most countries and peoples in the world, Americans are relatively peaceful. The inevitable civil war explained how resistant the southern states were to abandon slavery. We like to go with the flow. If the majority does not feel guilty, we tend to compromise and eventually become the same. It’s never easy to fight the majority, whether there’s an observable physical difference at the surface to set us apart immediately. As soon as we interact, we constantly decide what to say and what to do. The struggles are always there when we embrace different values. In the case of Huck, the consequence is serious: it has to do with the loss of freedom of his friend.

      I am not saying you are wrong. It’s just that a good historical novel is supposed to pick a main character representative of his time. Is Huck typical of his time? I can’t be too sure based on the outcome of the American history.

      Lots of Christians die for their faith throughout the history and around the globe. They don’t have to look different. They just have to be different to face persecution. Look is skin-deep outside of romantic love.

      • Guilt, widespread or otherwise, changes nothing. War is about control of resources, and always has been. The wealth of the South consisted in its natural resources, and its ability to exploit these was contingent on slavery. In order to rule, Lincoln and friends had to break the Confederacy. Initially they did so by force of arms, but garrison forces are expensive and eventually develop local sympathy. They consolidated their victory by abolishing slavery, simultaneously depriving Southern states of their workforce and (quite deliberately) creating social conflict between races. The North was just as inclined to slavery, but implemented it with mortgages and consumer culture.

  3. “Alright I’ll go to hell!” There was a song from the play Big River (based on Huck Finn) that started with these words. One night when Ken picked up a bunch of kids from pathfinders who lived in Greenstone these words boomed out over the car stereo and everyone laughed. Were you in the car?

    • I haven’t! I will look it up. I am seriously in need of new books to read. Never know where to begin when I go to the library or bookstore. I really like Twain, too. His writing and use of dialogue is incredible.

      Thanks, Lucas. Hope you’re having a sunshiney weekend…!

  4. This is a wonderful reading selection, that perfectly illuminates the difference between morality and ethics. It provides a fascinating glimpse into a very sophisticated mind. Thanks, Jess.

    • I thought so, too, and am glad you agree, Peter. Others may argue that it is too sophisticated for a young mind, but I disagree. I believe even very young children can be very analytical if they choose to be… Or, if not, this at least provides insight into Twain’s mind. It *is* a fictional story, after all.

      Thanks for your comment, Peter!

  5. This is one of my favorite books…as a kid I went as Huck Finn several times during Halloween, as he was a bit of a rebel ~ and just did the right things. Your last quote is special: “I’d rather go to hell than go against my heart, too” and while I think everyone would like to believe that in themselves (as I do) it takes a special person to do it… You nailed it with Huck.

    • Thanks, Randy. I was just so touched by this whole passage that I had to share. Huck’s gumption to stick to what he knew in his heart should be a lesson for us all.

      It’s a great book, too! I hadn’t read it in years. Was so glad for the refresher. :)

  6. I thought Huck Finn was banned because of the racist content. I will have to re-check the banned booked list. In my opinion “Mark Twain” attempted to make good of slavery through the guilt of a white child, whom was not responsible.

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