Mark Twain describes his picaresque novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as one where “a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat.” Huckleberry Finn, the protagonist, struggles with an internal conflict between his heart’s instincts and the distorted views of society that justify slavery. Huck’s deformed conscience is unhealthy and curses him with a misshapen sense of morality which juxtaposes his healthy sound heart that blesses him with a morally correct soul and instincts.
As Huck escapes his home town with a runaway slave by his side, many trials and tribulations force him to decide between following societal norms or his own inclinations. Twain depicts a constant internal battle between Huck’s ideas of right and wrong, while his sound heart ultimately overpowers his deformed conscience.
Early in the novel, it is evident that society has doomed Huck with his deformed conscience. Growing up in the early 1800s in a culture where slavery is seen as acceptable, Huck begins to develop twisted views from what society deems as right and wrong.
His teachers, Miss Watson and Widow Douglas, also contribute to Huck’s distorted conscience as they teach him how to be civilized and have righteous and moral views. Huck displays this deformed conscience throughout the novel, and in one instance, Aunt Sally, Huck’s friend Tom Sawyer’s aunt, asks Huck if anyone was hurt during a boating accident that supposedly delayed his arrival to her house. He follows up with “No’m.
Killed a nigger.” (221), and Aunt Sally responds back with “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” (221). Here, Huck shows his lack of understanding that slaves are people; he and everyone else think of the whole African American race as property because of society’s dominant racist values.
Huck’s deformed conscience is challenged for the first time after he runs away from home and travels down the river with his friend Jim, a runaway slave. As he eventually agrees to help Jim escape, Huck begins to sense that he is acting immorally. Society had taught him that slaves were only to be treated as objects, and by helping Jim, Huck was treating him as a human being which he believed would earn him a spot in Hell. Huck eventually does decide to keep helping Jim get closer to his freedom, but he reassures himself of his decision with his belief that Jim is indeed “white inside” (275). This only furthers the idea of Huck’s distorted conscience that is influenced by society’s racial prejudice and discrimination. Huck knew there was no other explanation to the fact that he was able to respect Jim. With this, Huck never truly realizes that all African Americans are people; Jim was an exception.
Although Huck is raised in a culture that defends slavery, he begins to develop a sound heart as he spends more time with Jim. As Huck’s conscience disturbs him again about helping Jim escape from his rightful owner, he finally decides to travel up to shore and disclose Jim’s whereabouts. This changes, though, when Jim admits to Huck that he is his best and only friend. Huck’s sound heart overpowers his conscience here, and he realizes that he was “paddling off, all in a sweat to tell on [Jim], but when [Jim] says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of [him]” (88). Jim’s words appeal to Huck’s emotions which prevent him from doing what his deformed conscience originally told him to do. With this, Huck takes a step towards separating with the power of traditional conventions.
Twain is also hinting here that Huck is ultimately a good person underneath his deformed conscience. This breakthrough from society, though, is solely for Jim; Huck is just being loyal to his friend. In another instance, Huck’s sound heart shines through as he lies about not having a runaway slave to two men on the river who are searching for them. After this, Huck thinks to himself, “I knowed very well I had done wrong, and I see it warn’t no use for me to try to learn to do right” (91). He then says to himself, contradictorily, “s’pose you’d ‘a’ done right and give Jim up, would you feel better than what you do now? No, says I, I’d feel bad–I’d feel just the same way I do now” (91). Here Huck knows he has done wrong by the values of society, but he begins to recognize and respect Jim as a person, which opposes everything that society has ever taught him.
Though Huck’s values are inconsistent, his own instincts from his sound heart finally decide the direction of his growth. At the turning point of the novel, Huck begins to write a letter to Miss Watson to force Jim into slavery again by finally revealing his whereabouts. He then remembers multiple times where Jim protected him, cared for him, and called him his only friend. Huck begins thinking to himself and knows that he will have “to decide, forever, betwixt two things” (214), which refer to giving Jim up for slavery again or helping him escape to freedom. Huck then concludes, for the first time without guilt, to ultimately follow his heart and do anything to be loyal to his friend. He says aloud to himself, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (214), as he tears up the letter that could have potentially betrayed Jim.
He is willing to sacrifice his life to protect Jim which shows the tremendous amount of personal growth that Huck has endured. He then decides to fully aid Jim in his escape to freedom and says, “if I could think of 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” (214). Here, Huck decides to go the “whole hog” and finally defies the societal norms; he ultimately comes to listen to his heart’s values. He cares more about Jim’s freedom than being civilized and shaped by society. This decision to rescue Jim out of slavery symbolizes the final victory of Huck’s sound heart over his ill-formed conscience.
Examining the character of Huck Finn, it is evident that although his principles waver throughout the novel, he ultimately rejects societal norms to follow his own beliefs. With this though, he treats only Jim with this respect of a person; he eventually continues to justify slavery and believes that the entire black race should be treated as property. Huck’s deformed conscience brings the question if he should be fully responsible for his degrading actions. Do societal values justify Huck’s attitude towards the black race? Is it exclusively his fault? Twain set the book in the early 1800s when society fully excused slavery, and Huck treats African Americans the only way he had ever been taught: as property. Even though Twain portrays him to have a sound heart toward Jim in the end, it is believed that Huck doesn’t fully develop respect toward slaves in totality. In this case, society, not Huck, should be held accountable for these degrading actions. Through Huck Finn’s character, there is a valuable lesson to be learned; society can have an everlasting impact on an individual’s moral growth unless he follows the instincts of his heart.