Ernest Hemingway declared “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” If I may be so bold, I’d add that one of the most powerful internal conflicts in American literature is featured in one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.
In Chapter 31, Huck comes to the conclusion he won’t aid Jim. At first, he experiences a sense of relief he’s not “going to hell” for helping free a runaway slave. Soon, his conscience goes to work on him. Here’s the excerpt:
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 agin 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 smallpox 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.
Huck makes a choice–one he believes to be right even though he thinks hell is the consequence.
I come back to this part of the novel from time to time and marvel at Huck’s moral compass. In every age, there are injustices against which we need to fight. Huck sees clearly through the immorality of his generation and makes the right choice, even though everyone around him has said (one way or another) it’s the wrong one.
This is an example of literature reminding us to be vigilant–we must search for what is just. Sometimes, like Huck, we find it through our conscience. Other times, men and women with eyes like Huck show us. As George Orwell said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”
It’s not prudent to assume we have all the answers. What will civilization say about us 100 years from now? is a question to be pondered in the face of the zeitgeist. Also, how should we treat fellow human beings? What is kindness and how is it truly shown? What are the sacrifices we should make?
We can hope to possess Huck’s eyes and heart in the midst of our present situation.