On the surface, Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ may appear like a simple and straightforward story about a boy and an escaped slave sailing down the Mississippi River. However a deeper look reveals underneath, a subtle confrontation of child abuse, slavery and racism.
From the beginning of the novel, Twain makes it clear that Huck is a boy who comes from the lowest class of the white society. His father is a drunkard who disappears for months on end. Huck himself is dirty and often homeless. He wears old, thrown -out adult clothes and rests on doorways and sleeps inside empty barrels. Despite the fact that widow Douglas wanted to help Huck “change” his way of living, he stubbornly resists her attempts and maintains his own irresponsible and carefree ways of living. The community failed to protect him from his abusive father, the widow tried to provide Huck with some of the schooling and religious training he had missed all these years, despite the fact that he has never been indoctrinated with social values in the same way a middle class boy like Tom Sawyer had been.
When the novel begins, Huck Finn is still a child, probably 13-14 years old. Apart from having a lot of freedom, he has also been the victim of some rather horrific experiences. Huck is the child of violent, alcoholic father, who behaves very abusively with Huck, the boy is often beaten up and injured. Not only physical trouble is an issue between father and son here, Pap additionally is also against Huck's education. He resents Huck's ability to read and write, and to be immersed in religious studies. The world of Widow Douglas, who agreed to take care of Huck, is a dangerous world, in Pap's mind. He forces Huck to stop his education thus, ‘to return to his origins’ as Pap puts it. He wants his son to solely belong to himself as a thing and not as an individual, to do only what he orders him; like a puppet. “But by and by Pap got too handy with his hick’ry and I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts”. He even kept him in the forest in a lodge away from the outside world and from people who were willing to help, he was locked and kept there like an animal whom Pap used for his convenience. Huck explains, “Once he locked me in and was gone for three days. It was dreadful lonesome”.
We as readers can acknowledge that Huck is a child in need of supervision. Everyone in the town knew that Huck is an abused and neglected child. As a result, he is taken in and cared for by widow Douglas who tries to provide him with a good home, discipline and manners along with strong Christian values. But with his child-like innocence and limited understanding of the larger world, Huck fails to understand the help he is being given and rejects the widow’s influence. Twain’s stress on Huck’s childhood illustrating a crucial theme within the novel; childhood innocence. Huck’s innocence is actually quite harmful; it is his view of the larger world that is limited hence he is incapable of distinguishing right from wrong.
However, Huck’s feeling of empathy helps his moral development by enabling him to imagine what it is like to be in someone else’s shoe. Huck experiences remorse and has guilt trips at various moments in the novel, and these feelings force him to question seriously regarding morality. Huck’s guilt is essentially tied to the religious morality he learned from Widow Douglas. Not long after he and Jim set out on their voyage, Huck understands that by aiding Jim escape he has done harm to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson. He explains: “Conscience says to me,…‘What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?’…I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead”.
Here Huck realizes that he has broken the Golden Norm of Christianity, and, he remains conflicted till the very last of what we see of Huck in this novel. The breaking point comes when he finds himself unable to pray, he realizes that in his heart he doesn’t believe Jim should be returned to slavery, and saying so in a prayer would be lying to God. When he eventually sets out to help Jim escape once and for all, Huck expels the last traces of guilt. Hence Huck demonstrates that he does have a sense of morality, be it misguided. Huck values his friendship with Jim by overcoming racial prejudices and learns to respect and love Jim.
A major contributor to Huck’s manner of living is his father. Pap’s vagrant, drunken lifestyle is an illustration of the common situation of the American families during the 19th century — a tramp like father and an impoverished family. Because of Pap’s abusive treatment, Huck fears pap’s return from his wanderings, which always signal a renewal of abuse towards Huck. Although Huck encounters many family groups during the course of his adventures, he constantly yearns for freedom and ultimately assumes the life of a tramp, detached from the obligations and civilised way of life. Under such abusive eye of Pap, Huck attempts to represent natural life through his freedom of spirit, uncivilised ways and desire to escape from civilisation.
We can state that Huck was a traumatised child while growing up — Huck is abused and subject to poison spilled by Pap about the whole society. He kept Huck in a distance from main stream society which made Huck sceptical of the world around him and the idea it passes on to him. Huck can be called as the “juvenile pariah of the village” because he was made to believe that the whole world is full of lies except for Pap. On the other side he encountered people who only tried to straighten him in a civilised Christian manner without considering his real needs. He never got to live the life of a normal teenage boy.