Monday, October 10, 2011

Huck and Robinson: Heart and Conscience

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February 4, 00

COM 445

Huck and Robinson Heart and Conscience

In 185 while on a lecture tour, Mark Twain stated that the twelve year old protagonist of his controversial novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, suffered from a moral conflict in which a “sound heart and a deformed conscience” collide (cited in Say it, Jim). Perhaps one of the reasons his book is still widely read, taught in schools, discussed and criticized is because Twain’s depiction of this moral conflict, given life through Huck’s colorful cultural language, was so honest. The book brings into question the subjective cultural moral codes that we each build our conscience around and shows us an individual who is willing to dismiss that conscience, at least momentarily, in order to follow his heart-felt instincts. Unlike the popular hero of American fiction who defies society to do what he knows is right and just, Huck does what he believes to be wrong and sinful. Essentially, he is willing to risk damnation, not for a cause or abstract ideal, but for a friend.

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One of the trademarks of a novel is the focus on a internal or external struggle. Huck’s struggle broke new ground in this area. Another novel that broke new ground in a very different way was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Accepted by many as being the first American novel, Defoe’s hero struggles with his moral code as well. Cast ashore on a deserted island, Crusoe is forced to come to terms with the sins of his life and lives through a series of trials, both failures and successes, as he attempts to understand God’s plan for him. While Huck follows his “sound heart,” Crusoe turns to religion as a kind of escape from the sins of his past. Ultimately, he turns to religion for literal escape from the island. While Twain might have enjoyed the adventurous tale of Robinson Crusoe, the message conveyed by that tale contradicts the message conveyed in Huck Finn. Both novels ask the question, “How do human being define morality?” Crusoe’s moral code is the result of a guilty conscience, and not of a “sound heart”. Although Huck does not always do the culturally defined “right” thing, I would argue that his spiritual journey results in a more truthful definition of what I believe it means to be moral.

Unlike Robinson Crusoe, Huck is frank about his views on religion from the beginning of the story. He talks of the Widow and Miss Watson teaching him all about Moses, the “good place” and “the bad place” (4). It becomes clear that Huck is not someone who can be persuaded into submission to an idea. In one of his first statements about how he feels about religion, he says, “She said it was wicked to say what I said [...] she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldnt see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldnt try for it” (4). This is an important passage, because the attitude Huck expresses governs his actions throughout the course of the book. It’s not that he doesn’t know what to do to be “moral” and go to Heaven, but instead he doesn’t feel as if Heaven is a place where he wants to go. He also says that he is happy when Miss Watson attempts to threaten him by saying his best friend Tom Sawyer is going to the “bad place”; he is happy because then the two of them will be together.

In fact, throughout the novel, Huck bases his decisions and convictions upon his feelings for the people who are most important to him. He is not concerned with abstract ideas such as religion, but instead finds importance in relationships and what is earthly and tangible. This is most clearly demonstrated in his numerous interactions with Jim, as they travel down the Mississippi River. It is here that he wrestles with his heart and conscience, choosing to commit what he believes is a terrible sin in order to help Jim. He considers turning Jim in on a few separate occasion, but never is able to follow through. At one point, Huck attempts to pray in order to “give up sin” and turn Jim in, but he realizes that he can’t do it. He admits that the reason he can’t honestly pray is that, “ heart werent right[...]I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all [...] deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie - I found that out” (05). The endearing honesty of this passage speaks volumes about Huck’s intrinsic moral code. He believes enough in Christian values to stop himself from lying to God and believes enough in the conviction of his friendship with Jim enough to not take ‘the easy way out’. After considering the kind words and camaraderie that Jim has conveyed to him, Huck tears up a letter of confession of Jim’s whereabouts, making the conscious choice to go to hell, if that’s what it takes.

It is important to note that Huck never states he has strong negative feelings about the immorality of slavery. While this may frustrate some readers, this trait is in keeping with his character. Just as he does not have strong convictions for organized religion, he does not have strong convictions about the fairly abstract idea of slavery. He bases all his actions in the story on individuals, not groups as a whole. In fact, it is when Huck encounters a crowd or group of people that he is met with confusion (for example, the families that he encounters and the townspeople at various stops along the Mississippi). In the end of the book, Huck seems to disrespect his friendship with Jim by playing a series of tricks on him and delaying Jim’s escape, but he does this in response to the urgings of someone he has been friends with for quite some time. He admires Tom Sawyer and wants to please him. Because he can see no harm in Tom’s suggestions, he sees no harm in the game they are playing. In short, Huck feels a genuine compulsion to make those closest to him happy. His moral code is not about what is best for himself, but what is best for those he cares about.

Caring for the well-being of others has little to do with Robinson Crusoe’s morality. Marooned on a desert island for 8 years, he endures the most difficult portions of his struggle in solitude. His moral code adheres to the Christian religion, but it becomes clear that Robinson does not express the same level of honesty as Huck when considering his true feelings. During the first part of his story, Defoe paints a picture of Robinson as a rebellious sailor, looking for adventure and riches. After defying his father and taking to the sea, Robinson meets with hardships and success, but his life takes a momentous turn when his ship is lost during a storm. He is thrown into the sea, and states that “we committed our souls to God in the most earnest manner” (6). This is not the only time he turns to God during moments of grave danger or distress. Initially, instead of being thankful to God for the fact that he is alive, Robinson expresses a frustration with “Providence” and wonders why he has been thrust into such an terrible situation. He struggles with the issue often, but comes to be thankful for the bounty that he eventually acquires.

One of the most important points in the novel occurs when Robinson finds a human footprint in the sand and is struck with such fear that he experiences a loss of faith. He says that he “banished all religious hope” (16), but shortly regains a portion of it. Later, he seriously considers killing a band of savages, then dismisses the idea saying that he didn’t have the authority to judge. In fact, he does kill a few savages and saves one who he teaches English and spends a great deal of time with. Because he has had many years to strengthen his religious convictions, Robinson takes it upon himself to introduce Christianity to this savage, whom he names Friday. After reading about the relationship between Robinson and Friday, I was struck by how different is was from Huck’s relationship with Jim. Robinson grooms Friday into a obedient pet, one that he teaches to say “Master” and he rules over Friday like a God. In fact, Robinson frequently praises the fact that Friday has devoted his life to Robinson’s service. After he acquires a few more inhabitants for his island, he frequently states that they have pledged to live and die by his side, but never come close to feeling that sense of duty to those around him.

For all his religious ponderings, at the story’s end it appears as though Robinson will be returning to the lifestyle he held before his 8 years on the island. Upon return to civilization, he discovers he is now quite wealthy due to the plantation that he owned before his disappearance. Because he now is well off and has everything he wants, he says very little about religion. He expresses very little in the way of feelings of friendship towards anyone, and only briefly states that he marries and has children. It is quite clear that Robinson places a high value on material possessions. He does not wrestle with his heart and conscience in the way Huck does, and instead uses religion when he needs it, placing minor importance on it once he is safe and wealthy. For Robinson Crusoe, religion is a crutch to cling to in times of distress and a way to better himself in an attempt to better his situation. His actions and thoughts are more about selfishness and guilt than strongly felt beliefs. While he does come to some important moral realizations and finds a degree of trust in God, Robinson never demonstrates the same level of conviction and follow through for his beliefs in the way Huck does.

Largely due to the time period in which they written, Huck Finn and Robinson Crusoe reflect different religious and moral codes. When examining the two texts, it is difficult not to think about the genuine meaning of morality. Morality is a highly individual attribute, but I believe a major aspect of morality is being true to one’s self. In Huck’s case, morality came in the guise of accepted immorality. Robinson Crusoe wasn’t able to reflect upon his heart-felt instincts the way Huck did and therefore was not always true to himself. Robinson may have been defined by society as being moral, but I believe that it is Huck who reveals the true meaning of the word.

Works Cited

Bollinger, Laurel. “Say it Jim the morality of connection in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” College Literature .1 (00) -5.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 171. New York Penguin, 185

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. New York Bantam Books, 181.

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