Has Huck Got Religion?

November 13, 2010

The Spiritual Journey of Huckleberry Finn  

Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain.
– Mark Twain, Notebook, 1879

It is pretty clear that Mark Twain was not a big supporter of religion; it is also pretty clear that he was not very fond of humanity as a whole. Twain once said, “Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.” Yet in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn there can be found a spiritual theme deep within the character of Huckleberry Finn; this boy is not just a troubled kid making his way down the Mississippi River who happens to fall into chance adventure; I believe Huck represents a subconscious glimmer of hope that Mark Twain had for humanity. Huck’s journey down the river can even be viewed as an analogy of a spiritual baptism that Huck undergoes. In baptism, a person is submerged under water, symbolizing his death, and he rises up as new person possessing a life of hope and purpose. Huckleberry Finn is an abused child of an alcoholic father who is forced to fake his own death and escape his father by traveling down the Mississippi River. The river could symbolize Huck’s baptism and by the end of the book, after a series of circumstances that cause Huck to grow and mature, he emerges as a new man.

Twain states right off in his introduction that “persons attempting to find a moral in [this narrative] will be banished” (2). Perhaps the author wanted to downplay the spiritual analogy, or perhaps the author wasn’t even aware of it himself; his pen being guided by the hand of Providence just as Huck and Jim were being guided down the river. There is a certain amount of coincidence that is necessary in any work of fiction, yet in Huckleberry Finn there are greater forces at work that guide Huck and Jim to each adventure. Every time Huck finds himself on land he is exposed to negative circumstances, yet just as often an unusual coincidence helps Huck make his escape back to the river all the more wise and mature. Before Huck even thinks about his upcoming adventures, he is already able to distinguish between traditional religion and the principles of truth. Huck tells us: 

“Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there were two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there waren’t no help for him any more. I thought it all out, and reckoned I would belong to the widow’s if he wanted me…” (12).

It is this Providence that Huck commits to which guides him through the Mississippi and through each adventure he has. It is also this Providence that brings Huck to Jim; they were already tied together as it was Huck’s supposed death that caused Jim to run in the first place. It is when he teams up with Jim that Huck begins his spiritual growth into a new man. Jim becomes a father figure to Huck and teaches him about family and relationship. Huck reveals he is in the very beginning of his growth when, after offending Jim, he is able to “humble [himself] to a nigger” and apologize (84).

Huck and Jim miss their turn at the Ohio River and so miss the opportunity to free Jim and part ways. This again can be seen as the hand of Providence, if they were to part ways it surely would have ended the growth of character Huck was experiencing. Instead they are thrust down the Mississippi, deeper into the South and deeper into harm‘s way, where they end up in one adventure after another in which Huck observes the dark side of humanity and is tempted and challenged through many trials. After their raft is struck by a steamboat, Huck survives by submerging deep into the river and when he surfaces he cannot find Jim and believes him to be dead. He is taken in by the Grangerford’s, a good family who happen to be feuding with another family by the name of the Shepherdson’s. The feud was apparently started from offended pride, and the families can’t even remember who made the first offense but neither is willing to make peace. Eventually, Huck watches his new friend, Buck Grangerford, sacrifice himself for a completely pointless feud. The word, Grangerford, represents “farmer” and Shepherdson represents “sheep herder”, making the families analogous to Cain and Able. Their feud represents to Huck the foolishness of the feuding amongst all of mankind. Huck observes the fruit of unforgiveness and learns how ancient traditions keep men from living in peace.

After Huck flees the feuding, he and Jim reunite, but they end up with a couple of “rapscallions,” a “King” and a “Duke.” The King and the Duke are a couple of con-men who take over the raft that Jim and Huck have been traveling on. Huck learns all kinds of schemes from them, and other than the nuisance they are on the raft, Huck doesn’t seem too put off by their scandalous ways. That is until they take a scam too far and try to steal the inheritance from a group of orphaned sisters. Huck is quite taken by one of them, and seeing that they are good people, he decides to steal the money back for the girls. He does this at great risk to himself; if he’s caught, it will be assumed he is just trying to steal the money, and he also risks abuse from the King and the Duke. Huck learns to make sacrifices to protect those he cares for; he also learns that doing the right thing doesn’t always have a good result. Despite trying to help, Huck ends up being accused along with the King and the Duke when their scam is discovered. Though he escapes, so do they, and he and Jim are once again stuck with them on the raft. Huck knows by now that these two deserve justice for their crimes, yet he is still able to see the dignity that every human being deserves. When the King and Duke are finally captured they are tarred and feathered and led off to die. Even after they sell Jim away from Huck, he is able to have compassion for them, lamenting that “human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (222).

The culmination of Huck’s growth and maturity is summed up in his statement, “You can’t pray a lie.” After discovering Jim has been sold, Huck wonders whether or not he has done the right thing in helping him in the first place. Huck’s conscious is being challenged by the traditions and conventions of his time. Many Southern “Christians” at the time Twain was writing had perverted the gospel to justify the sin of American slavery. Huck had seen the hypocrisy of man, but he was taught that its falsehood was truth. While considering whether to write Miss Watson and turn Jim in, Huck feels the guilt of her False Providence condemning him: “…here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time…” (204). Huck tries to pray and ask to be “good” enough to betray Jim, but he can’t do it. He knows that in his heart he does not regret helping him. Not only can Huck not lie to himself, but he cannot lie to God either, yet it is not that Huck can’t hide his “sin” of helping Jim from God; it is, in fact, the Truth which has grown in Huck’s heart refusing to be hidden and emerging through Huck’s conscious. Huck tries to write a letter to Miss Watson, and then pray. At first he feels better, but his bond with Jim keeps him recalling moments of the love that had grown between them. Huck cannot hide from his heart, which tells him that helping Jim was truly the right thing to do, though he honestly believes that his actions are damnable. Huck’s conscious wins; Huck rejects all Southern tradition and convention. He is led by his compassion for Jim and sacrifices his eternal soul for his friend. Huck tears up the letter and declares, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (206). Jesus, referring to his sacrifice for mankind, declared that “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (The Gospel of John 15:13). Though still a boy in years, Huck now emerges from the river a new man, fully mature in his spirit. Huck made the ultimate sacrifice for Jim; despite believing that he would be condemned to hell, Huck still refused to turn Jim in.

True Providence, the widow’s Providence, guided Huck and Jim down the river and caused Huck to grow and mature. Huck “died” from the dysfunctional heritage of his father; he learned a lifetime of truth on his raft, and he emerged from the water a changed person. It is evident in his relationship with Aunt Sally; what else but Providence could land Jim and Huck at the home of relatives of Huck’s good friend, Tom Sawyer? And, with Tom on his way to visit! Huck is able to receive her maternal care and even comes to respect and honor her out of love and not out of fear. Huck is concerned about her feelings, and deters himself from sneaking out one night so she would not worry. The Huck Finn at the beginning of the book would not have been so considerate. Huck’s comment to Aunt Sally about no one dieing on the steamboat accident, just a couple “niggers,” can easily be explained. Huck was in character. He was still pretending to be Tom Sawyer, and often on his journey with Jim, he spoke of him in such derogatory terms with strangers so as not to be found out. The only thing lacking in Huck at this point is self-confidence. Freeing Jim is just a game for Tom Sawyer, but for Huck it a matter of his conscious calling him to do the right thing, and his love for Jim. Even though Huck still trusts Tom’s ideas over his own, he only wants to see his friend get free and live with dignity.

The book ends with Huck almost independently wealthy since he is able to claim his reward money. His rejection of Aunt Sally’s adoption is not a rejection of all of humanity, rather he is simply rejecting man’s traditions and conventions that civilization has come to represent to him. Huck doesn’t try to escape civilization by returning to the safety and solitude of the river. Instead he is confident enough in himself to head out west, ahead of the settlers. He becomes a frontiersman, a leader to his fellow man, forging a new path for humanity to walk in. Huckleberry Finn represents the rejection of the traditions and conventions of “civilization” that cause us to be in separate factions and create fighting and general chaos. The ability to look at the heart of the matter and simply do the right thing; this is the legacy that Huckleberry Finn leaves behind; this is the faint glimmer of hope for humanity that flashed in the heart of Mark Twain.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain. C.1981, Bantam Books.

Peter L Richardson
July, 2003

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One Response to “Has Huck Got Religion?”

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