Huck Finn and Civilization
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is at once both a defense of nature and instinct, and an attack on the many corrupt institutions of society. By telling the story from the point of view of a young child, Mark Twain is able to address many social taboos that would otherwise be considered inappropriate. The world looks very different through Huck's eyes, as the reader comes to understand what it was like to live as a white Southerner before the Civil War.
Huck is happiest when he manages to escape from the trappings of society. He often laments Miss Watson's attempts to "sivilise" him, which he finds restrictive and uncomfortable. He resents not being able to cuss as often as he likes, not being able to smoke in the house, having to wear silly clothes. When his father kidnaps him, Huck finds it a pleasant change. Although living with his father is not agreeable by any stretch of the imagination, Huck still prefers the rough and tumble style of a cabin in the woods to the tame one he left behind in St. Petersburg. After escaping from his father, however, is when Huck truly reverts to his natural state. On the river, he has the freedom to do whatever he chooses and to go wherever he would like. He abandons his clothes because he finds being naked to be more comfortable, and there is no one to stop him. He must fend for himself. There is no one to feed or take care of him, and he does not mind a bit.
Huck's natural instincts are apparent in his many close shaves with authority figures. He does not make plans before attempting risky maneuvers. Rather, he prefers to "trust it to Providence" (p. 290). He trusts that his natural instinct will lead him to take the right course of action, and it invariably does. His ability to make up stories on the spot is astounding, and a testament to his history of getting into trouble. Huck approaches problems in a way that is very different to Tom Sawyer, who has been brought up by respectable parents. Tom's gang, at the beginning of the novel, holds little appeal for Huck once he realizes that it is all imaginary, as abstract ideas hold little attraction for him. When freeing Jim he comes up with a practical plan, dismissed by Tom Sawyer, though it would have been much simpler and quicker.
Slavery is of the many institutions ridiculed in Huck Finn. Huck has a contradictory relationship with slavery. As a Southerner, he supports the idea, for he has never known anything different. He realizes that the right thing to do would be for him to turn in Jim, the runaway slave, and therefore save his soul, but he can not bring himself to do it. Often he makes up his mind to hand Jim over, but each time, his emotions get the best of him. Although his mind is in the right place, he can not bring himself to betray a friend, no matter what the cost. During the course of the novel, Huck gradually realizes what a decent human being Jim is, to the point where he tells himself that Jim is "white on the inside" (p. 362). This shows how flimsy the principles of slavery where once scrutinized. Huck admits that he and Jim are equals "on the inside", yet Jim's skin color automatically makes him inferior, and destined for a life of servitude.
The concept of a monarchy is also attacked at various times during the novel. Huck regales Jim with his stories of the great kings of Europe, with their grand castles and fancy dress. He explains how "they don't do nothing" (p.103), they just sit around. This impresses Jim mightily, who assumes they must be very great people if they get thousands of dollars to do nothing. After running from the family feud in Arkansas, Huck and Jim take aboard two con men. They both claim to be royalty, wrongly dispossessed of their titles. This greatly impresses Huck and Jim, and so they go about giving up all of their luxuries to the two shysters. They do this without complaining because they somehow feel they must try to treat monarchy with due respect. They soon realize what unsavory characters the duke and the king are; Jim remarks "dese kings o' ourn is reglar rapscallions" (p.203). Huck quickly explains that this is exactly how royalty is supposed to behave, and rattles off a list of murderous kings. Jim accepts this, and resigns himself to treating them as his betters. Monarchy portrayed as a very silly institution indeed, as the King and the Duke parade up and down the river swindling the local populations, all the time being held in reverence by Jim, who can not seem to ignore their titles.
Throughout Huckleberry Finn, religion is a subject of much controversy. Early in the story, Huck retreats to the woods to think about whether or not all that Miss Watson has been telling him is true. He thinks it over for a long time, but cannot seem to make fact match up with fiction. The concept of praying eludes him, as it does not seem to work. As far as he can tell he is simply supposed to work for the benefit of other people all the time, which strikes him as ridiculous, so he decides not to bother with religion any more. Throughout the book, religion and its followers are shown as gullible and often hypocritical. The King manages to defraud the people at a revival meeting of their money, simply by making up a sad story. The Grangerfords and the Shepersons both attend church together, but keep their rifles resting on their laps throughout the sermon. Huck finds that religion very rarely matches up with the real world and so for the most part, he rejects the church, as his practical mind has no time for the hypothetical.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn often goes out of its way to poke fun at accepted institutions, while trumpeting the idea of free living and a return to a more natural way of life. The excitement and happiness of life on the river is very apparent. At the end of the novel, Huck vows to "light out for the [Indian] Territory" (p. 386), because he has seen what civilization has to offer, and he knows it is not for him. During his trip down the river, Huck comes into to with many of the peculiar establishments of society, and he watches, as they show themselves to be full of contradiction and hypocrisy. Mark Twain uses the character of Huck Finn to explore many topics like slavery, monarchy, and religion, that otherwise would have caused a great deal of offense to the reader. After looking at these subjects from Huck's point of view, it is not hard to see why he wanted to leave behind as much of civilization as he could.