We come now to the heart of the book, some of the most beautiful and meaningful writing I know. After the king and the duke lose all their money trying to rob Mary Jane and her family, the king sells Jim back into slavery for forty dollars. It’s a sharp slap in the face to readers who may have gotten caught up in the adventure and forgotten (as apparently Huck has forgotten) that Jim is in peril every moment he spends in the South. Now reality sinks in, and Huck is faced with the decision he’s been putting off ever since the pair missed Cairo in the fog.
The crucial thing to remember is this: everything Huck knows from his society, every single thing, screams to him that he is doing wrong. Not just wrong, but sinfully wrong. He is stealing. This isn’t like borrowing a chicken or even a canoe. This is taking property so valuable an entire way of life is built around it. More than that, everyone in Huck’s society knows about people who want to free slaves, and they all despise them. Recall Huck’s quote, “(T)hey’ll call me a dirty Abolitionist.”
Huck knows now that the game is up. Jim has been captured. He’ll either end up with a new master, or else go back to Miss Watson, a woman who even before Jim ran away wanted to sell him to a plantation in New Orleans. The words are too beautiful to paraphrase; I’ll just quote them. It’s way too much for a blog entry, I know, but you need the entire passage to truly understand.
Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he’d got to be a slave, and so I’d better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion for two things: she’d be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she’d sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn’t, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they’d make Jim feel it all the time, and so he’d feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could ‘a’ gone to it; and if you’d ‘a’ done it they’d ‘a’ learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:
Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.
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 again 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.
As modern readers, it’s hard to put ourselves in Huck’s place. We know slavery is a great evil; we know Jim is not property; we know Huck is doing the right thing by helping Jim escape. But Huck doesn’t know any of this. Every single influence in his life insists with a certainty that cannot be questioned that slavery is natural and right, that Jim belongs to Miss Watson, that helping a slave escape is not just wrong but a deep and mortal sin. Huck would be not just despised by his neighbors but condemned to hell. Huck doesn’t just feel guilty. He is also scared! He is convinced that not just human but divine retribution awaits if he doesn’t turn Jim in.
But something isn’t right. How can it be that Jim cares for his family? How can it be that Jim cares so deeply about Huck? How can it be that Jim is a man, far more of a father to Huck than his own father ever was?
Back in education school we called such events examples of “cognitive dissonance.” Our brains want to make sense of the world, and Huck has come to a realization. A world in which a human being such as Jim can be property just doesn’t make sense. Huck can’t assimilate this realization about Jim into his model of the world. Instead, Huck must remake his model. Even though it means punishment, and shame, and guilt, and hell, Huck can’t turn Jim in. He has to follow his heart.
This is where Adventures of Huckleberry Finn goes from being just a cleverly written and funny follow-up on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and becomes a great work of American Literature – maybe the first truly American book. Who knows? What I do know is in that moment, Huck makes a choice. He asserts his own individual truth, and in doing so becomes my hero. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is the moment when we leave fate and predestination behind, and begin depending upon ourselves. This is the moment that Huck, and through Huck all us modern readers, realize that we control our fates, our minds, our future. Existence belongs to us. In the words of the poet,
That you are here
That life exists – and identity
That the powerful play goes on and you will contribute a verse
– Walt Whitman