The theme of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is that the ideas of society can greatly influence the individual, and sometimes the individual must break off from the accepted values of society to determine the ultimate truth for himself. In Huckleberry Finn’s world, society has corrupted justice and morality to fit the needs of the people of the nation at that time. Basically, Americans were justifying slavery, through whatever social or religious ways that they deemed necessary during this time.
The conflict between society and Huckleberry Finn results from Huck’s non-conformist attitude. This attitude is a result of his separation from society at an early age. With a highly abusive drunkard for a father, Huckleberry Finn is forced from childhood to rely solely on himself. As a result of this, he effectively alienates himself from the rest of society. Society continues to try to “reform” him, but Huckleberry Finn shows his lack of appreciation in that effort from the very beginning of the story when he says, “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me I got into my old rags and my sugar hogshead again, and was free and satisfied.” His actions are based on instinct and his own experience, rather than conventional conscience. As a result, he makes up the rules for himself as he goes along, forming a conscience that is keenly aware of society’s prejudices but actions based on that which he has experienced.
Ironically, often his own instincts hold him to a higher moral standard than those of society. His decision to help free Jim, a slave, is an example of one such instance. Huckleberry Finn recognizes Jim as a human being, but is fighting the beliefs bestowed upon him by a society that believes slaves should not be free. However, it is important to realize that although Huckleberry Finn’s decisions create the conflict between society and himself (and that this conflict forms the theme of the novel), Huck is oblivious to the justice, the righteousness, and even the heroism of his own actions, they are simply in accordance with his own conscience.
The climax comes in chapter thirty-one of the novel, when Huckleberry Finn’s moral development reaches its peak. Up until this point in the novel, Huckleberry Finn has been experiencing internal conflict concerning his treatment of Jim. Society has brought him up to believe that Jim is nothing but property, rightfully belonging to Miss Watson, and so Huck would be wrong in helping Jim flee. At the same time, however, his experiences with Jim, and his own personal instincts about the situation tell him that he is doing the right thing.
Huck feels terrible because he cannot please both voices of his conscience. Huckleberry Finn feels as though society is right, and he is wrong. At first, he begins to write a letter to Miss Watson to return Jim, but then ends up destroying the letter and deciding to help free Jim. Specifically, in the novel, Huck says, “All right, then I’ll go to hell,” right as he tore up the letter. This indicates that he believes himself to be evil, and that which society believes to be right is right. He makes a morally admirable choice when he decides to follow his own ideas of what is right, but he is oblivious to this, and his decision to free Jim stems primarily out of his own interests.
Huckleberry Finn’s specific motives for freeing Jim include Huck’s alienation from society and his relationship with Jim. Huck identifies with Jim’s situation in that they are both running away from society. Jim is running away from slavery, and Huck is running away from the repetition, organization, and development of society. Huck’s ability to relate to Jim is not only the basis of their friendship and the reason that they are so close, but it is also the basis of Huck’s motives for freeing Jim as well.
Huckleberry Finn acts as a much greater person when he is not confined by the hypocrisies of society. Throughout the novel, we see how he distances himself from society and creates his own world in which he follows his own feelings and experiences concerning what is honorable and morally correct. From the beginning of the novel, we see how his instincts come into play and how it affects his decisions throughout the story. He almost always goes his own way, makes up his own mind, and lives by his own standards.