Sometimes making a stand for what is right, especially when it is totally against the customary beliefs of your society, is not an easy accomplishment. In the novel Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the main character Huck encounters many situations where there is a question of morality. Considering the traditional protocol of his society, Huck has to choose either what his conscience feels is right versus what the customary public views are. In many cases Huck goes with what his conscience feels is right, which always is the proper selection. Ironically, what Huck believes in, unapproved of in the 19th century, is the basis of accepted beliefs in our modern world. Huck lives with the guilt that all his choices are immoral based on his society, yet really his beliefs are the correct ones when considering man’s basic goodness. Three of the major instances in the novel when Huck’s beliefs contrast those of the 19th century are when he questions the outcome of Jim, when he tries to comprehend the concept of the feud, and when he has to decide whether to save the men on the Sir Walter Scott.
Although Huck’s choices concerning Jim’s life are the moral and proper choices, Huck is pounded by his society’s teachings the black men are property. When Huck first escapes from Pap and sets up camp on Jackson Island, he finds Jim has also found refuge there from the widow and Mrs. Watson. Huck is stunned at first when Jim tells him he escaped, because Huck knows that Jim is Miss Watson’s rightful property. “People would call me a low-down Abolitionist and despise me for keeping mum,”(pg.43) Huck knows that if he helped Jim that would make him an Abolitionist, which was not exactly an accepted role in the 19th century. Huck decides that he would help Jim escape, as he would never return to the town so it wouldn’t matter if he took Jim with him. After a long raft-ride, Huck and Jim are finally about to reach Cairo, which on their arrival would make Jim free. With the smell of freedom, Jim rambles on about how he would buy his wife and then steal his children. This sets off a spark in Huck, igniting his conscience and making him very uneasy. Huck couldn’t believe that Jim would steal property from a man that hadn’t done him any harm. Huck then begins feeling guilty about helping Jim escape from Miss Watson, since she had never done anything to him and didn’t deserve for Jim to be stolen from her. At his departure for the town, on a mission to turn Jim in, Jim leaves Huck with these words. “ Pooty soon I’ll be a shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’t it ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now”. (pg.86-87) Hearing these words, Huck realizes how much Jim’s friendship means to him and decides not to turn in Jim. Finally, the last test of Huck’s conscience comes when he finds out that the “king” and the “duke” have sold Jim. Huck gets to thinking about how wrong he was to help Jim escape, and decides he should write a letter to Miss Watson. He then changes his mind, seeing that Jim would be worse off as a runaway slave because he would be treated horribly, and Huck himself would always be known for helping the runaway nigger. Then he changes his mind again, wanting to accept the consequences of his actions, and wanting to confess his sins because he new Providence was watching him the whole time. But Huck, after writing the letter to Miss Watson, suddenly has a flashback of how good Jim had been to him this whole time, rips up the letter. He makes a final to choice to rescue Jim. In this last bout with his conscience, Huck finds out after a very long and tedious period of pointless toil, that Miss Watson had died and freed Jim, thus making his attempt to save Jim unnecessary, as he was already free.
The next confusion between Huck’s conscience and 19th century society came when Huck found himself at the Grangerford’s household, amidst a long-going feud between them and a rival household, the Shepherdson’s. The initial first-hand experience Huck had with the feud occurred when he was accompanying Buck Grangerford through the woods. When Buck got into a gun duel with Harney Shepherdson, Huck was confused and later chatted with Buck about the incidence. Huck had trouble understanding why Buck wanted to kill Harney, if Harney had never done anything to him. “Did you want to kill him, Buck?” “Well, I bet I did.” “What did he do to you?” “Him? He never done nothing to me.” “Well then, what did you want to kill him for?” “Why, nothing-it’s on account of the feud.” (pg.104) This question brought on a troubling conversation about the feud, a practice that was common in the 19th century. Buck didn’t understand how Huck had never heard of a feud before, and Huck couldn’t understand why such a practice was so common. He asks Buck what started the feud, and Buck doesn’t know. After hearing this answer, Huck steps into an even deeper hole of confusion, now wondering how these people could be killing each other for over thirty years, but not even know who or what started the quarrel. “Has this one been going on long, Buck?” “Well I should reckon! It started thirty year ago…” “What was the trouble about Buck?-land?” “I reckon maybe – I don’t know.” “Well who done the shooting? Was it a Grangerford or a Shepherdson?” “Laws, how do I know? It was so long ago.”(pg.105) This confusion on Huck's part shows the ironic reason the boy’s conscience possesses. He is the only person out of many intelligent and successful individuals that can see how insensible and passionless this common custom really is. It is too bad that this young man’s conscience hadn’t shined on more souls during this time, and it is even more a shame that American society had to endure such a long period of irrational killing and feuding.
The last dilemma Huck goes through involving his conscience and society was partially due to Huck’s undying curiosity. After persuading Jim to accompany him onto the Sir Walter Scott, a crashed steamboat, they encounter a struggle occurring between two men, who had tied up another man. The two men were planning on leaving the other man to die, by leaving him on the shipwrecked boat. Jim and Huck decided to leave the boat at once, not enjoying the company of murderers. On their way to the raft the two discover the heartbreaking news that the raft was gone, and they would have to find other means of retreat. Rummaging through the steamboat, Jim and Huck find the escape boat and barely get away. As they are rowing off, Huck begins to think about the situation they left the men in. In contrast to the customs of his society, Huck believed that even murderers didn’t deserve to be in such a fix, stranded on a crashed steamboat. “I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix.” Huck empathized for the men, imagining if he was a murderer, and knowing that he would not want to be killed on a stranded steamboat. So Huck decides to make up some wild yarn and tells it to a ferryman, who instantly sails to the wreck in hope of receiving a hefty reward. After warning the ferryman, Huck felt very comfortable with himself. He knew that few other people in that society would have done what he did. “But take it all around, I was feeling ruther comfortable on accounts of taking all this trouble for that gang, for not many people would ‘a’ done it.” (pg.73) Huck also wished that the widow could have known about this deed, because she would have been very proud of him. Rapscallions and dead-beats are the kinds that the widow and most good people take the most interest in, according to Huck, and for this reason too Huck was proud of himself for trying to save the gang. This attempt on Huck’s part to save the gang shows how his conscience was not influenced by the opinions of his surrounding world. He believed that no man deserves to die no matter what crime they commit, and I believe this opinion is one of truth and intelligence, and one that should be entrusted in every person’s soul no matter if they are living in the 19th century or today.
This combination of the three instances shows the dramatic difference between Huck’s conscience and the standard customs of the 19th century. Huck showed great maturity and integrity in standing up for what he believed was the right choice. Although he believed his choices were immoral or unethical, we now know that it was quite the opposite, as the moral standards of this time were in essence the unethical choices and Huck’s were the proper choices. Huck could see the importance of friendship over possessions, and risked his life saving a run-away slave because of the uncomfortable emptiness he would experience had he turned in Jim. This portrayal of childhood knowledge can be examined in today’s society also. People grow to be prejudiced against certain types of people, just as Huck was as he was growing up. Luckily, Huck overcame this inborn prejudice by examining what really counts in life, and this is a lesson that everyone, from previous societies to today, needs to listen to.