The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Themes and Colors
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Society and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Religion and Superstition Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Society and Hypocrisy Theme Icon

Huck lives in a society based on rules and traditions, many of which are both ridiculous and inhuman. At the beginning of the novel, Huck’s guardian, the Widow Douglas, and her sister, Miss Watson, try to “sivilize” Huck by teaching him manners and Christian values, but Huck recognizes that these lessons take more stock in the dead than in living people, and they do little more than make him uncomfortable, bored, and, ironically enough, lonely. After Huck leaves the Widow Douglas’s care, however, he is exposed to even darker parts of society, parts in which people do ridiculous, illogical things, often with violent consequences. Huck meets good families that bloodily, fatally feud for no reason. He witnesses a drunken man get shot down for making a petty insult.

Even at the beginning of the novel, a judge ridiculously grants custody of Huck to Huck’s abusive drunkard of a father, Pap. The judge claims that Pap has a legal right to custody of Huck, yet, regardless of his right, Pap proves himself to be a bad guardian, denying Huck an opportunity to educate himself, beating Huck, and imprisoning him in an isolated cabin. In such a case, fulfilling Pap’s legal right ridiculously compromises Huck’s welfare. Furthermore, Huck’s abuse and imprisonment at the hands of Pap is implicitly compared to a more widespread and deeply engrained societal problem, namely the institutionalized enslavement of black people. Huck comes to recognize slavery as an oppressively inhuman institution, one that no truly “sivilized” society can be founded on. People like Sally Phelps, who seem good yet are racist slaveholders, are maybe the biggest hypocrites Huck meets on his travels.

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Society and Hypocrisy Quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Below you will find the important quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn related to the theme of Society and Hypocrisy.
Chapter 1 Quotes

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Tom Sawyer
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Huckleberry Finn introduces himself to us at the beginning of the novel that bears his name. Huck really does appear as a character in a book called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and his mentioning the fact makes Huck all the more real to us as readers. He's more than just a character on the page – he's someone who exists outside of the books he's in. Huck's reality is also brought home to us by his speech, which is not in "literary language but firmly cast in the American vernacular, the way people really speak. It is at once conversational, gritty, and lilting. 

This quote also introduces the ideas of truth in the novel. What does it mean to tell the truth? Is there such a thing as a noble lie? Huck himself lies all the time, sometimes just to keep in practice! In the Southern pre-Civil War society in which Huck lives, dangerous opinions and beliefs are often presented dogmatically as truths, most centrally that blacks like Jim are inferior to whites. In such a society, stretching the truth and telling lies are tools Huck uses to be free – just as Twain writes books about things that aren't factually true, but which nonetheless promote human freedom. Huck's probably pretty tolerant of the stretchers Mark Twain told when writing his book. 


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The Widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer, I lit out.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huck became rich, but his riches hardly made him free. The Widow Douglas adopted him to "sivilize" him – in other words, to raise him so that he conforms to social rules and traditions.

However, as Huck's misspelling of "sivilzie" would suggest, he wants nothing to do with what he experiences as the dismal regularity and suffocating decency that society has to offer. He is too lively and freedom-loving for that, and already he intuits that what society holds up as good and moral can actually be offensive and oppressive to the human spirit. Huck will soon return to Widow Douglas's care, however, when prompted by Tom Sawyer. At this early point in the novel, Huck is still too immersed in the rigid logic of society to truly break free.

So here Huck's lighting out, or leaving, is something of a false start. It won't be until the end of the novel that Huck knows himself well enough to know what freedom really is. In this sense, the novel is a Bildungsroman, or a novel about growing up and spiritual education. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

I went and told the Widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too much for me, but she told me what she means—I must help others, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself…but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people—so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of being "sivilized," Huck is given a religious education in which he's instructed to pray. However, he gets mixed messages on this point. Miss Watson, for one, tells him to pray for whatever he wants, but Huck soon realizes we only very rarely get what we pray for. The Widow Douglas betters Miss Watson's instructions, and says that people can't get the material things they want through prayer, only "spiritual gifts." That Miss Watson and the Widow disagree suggests that religious truth is not self-evident and absolute, but dependent on interpretation. 

Huck is too practical to have much use for spiritual gifts, however. We might say that he is self-sufficient, that he has everything he needs inside of himself already. Moreover, Huck comes to think that serving others and acting selflessly isn't all it's cracked up to be: people who constantly serve society become bound by society's customs and sacrifice their freedom. Ironically, it is the untamed, unchristian Huck who develops the richest, most loving relationship in the novel, with Jim. The Christianity of the Widow and Miss Watson doesn't exactly practice what it preaches.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“And looky here—you drop that school, you hear? I’ll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better’n what he is.”

Related Characters: Pap (speaker), Huckleberry Finn
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

The Widow sends Huck to school, but when Huck's biological father, Pap, comes back to town, the greasy old man opposes his son receiving an education. Why? Because Pap resents the fact that Huck is breaking with the family tradition of ignorance and, more to the point, that Huck is "put[ting] on airs" over him, that is, acting like his own father's social superior.

Pap talks like Huck, he seems to live freely outside the bounds of society like Huck, but he couldn't be more different. While Huck is an authentic free spirit, Pap is just as committed to maintaining rigid social structures as the Widow Douglas is. He wants the ignorant to remain ignorant – especially if they're related to him. More broadly, he wants to maintain his social position, low as it is, by ensuring that all those lower than him on the social hierarchy stay lower. In contrasting Huck and Pap, Twain suggests that living a wild life like Pap doesn't make one free at all. (Indeed, Pap is enslaved to his alcoholism.) Rather, freedom involves an ability to see through the falsehoods of society and a commitment to the humanity of others.

The novel as a whole advances a vision far more democratic than Pap's. It believes in a world of social mobility, where people like Huck can become educated and where people like Jim can rise out of slavery into freedom.

The judge he felt kind of sore. He said he reckoned a body could reform the ole man [Pap] with a shot-gun maybe, but he didn’t know no other way.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Pap, The new judge
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

After Pap gets outrageously drunk and is jailed, the new judge vows to reform him – but Pap is debauched beyond reform. He takes advantage of the judge's hospitality, gets drunk, consequently falls, breaks his arm, and almost freezes to death. This quote gives the new judge's response.

On the one hand, the new judge represents the decent regularity that society stands for, and of which Huck Finn is rightly wary. It is the failure of this society, and the social pressure it creates, that lead to people like Pap sinking into wretchedness in the first place. A society that produces people like Pap, and which can't help such people, is a society in need of reform.

On the other hand, the judge, despite making a mistake in granting Pap custody of Huck, has gone above and beyond in giving Pap a room in his house. His quip about the shotgun is kind of funny and endearing. The novel may disagree with his rigid upholding of custom and tradition, but it nonetheless reveals the new judge's humanity. It is this kind of careful, tender artistry that constitutes the novel's freedom.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“When they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again…I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?”

Related Characters: Pap (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

One night, while he and Huck have dinner in an isolated cabin, Pap gets drunk and begins to rant nastily against the government. He is especially infuriated that a man of mixed race can become an educated college professor with the right to vote. The quote given here makes up a part of his rant.

Earlier, Pap berates Huck for getting an education, and he similarly resents the professor, whom he considers to be his racial and social inferior. Some historians suggest that, because the class structure was more mobile in post-Revolutionary America than in Europe, people could no longer derive a sense of identity from their position in a traditional social hierarchy. As such, poor whites in particular defined their social identity in contradistinction to that of black or mixed-race Americans, who in a slave-holding society were overwhelmingly forced into a place at the bottom. Pap certainly seems to do so, which is why the idea of a man of mixed race being more successful than him is so disturbing to him: it destabilizes his sense of social identity, his sense of superiority to others in society.

Of course, the novel as a whole completely rejects Pap's toxic racism and his perverse reliance on rigid social structures, embracing instead freedom for all and adaptability of spirit.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“Yes—en I’s rich now come to look at it. I owns myself, en I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars. I wisht I had de money, I wouldn’ want no mo’.”

Related Characters: Jim (speaker)
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

During their rendezvous on Jackson's Island, Jim tells Huck about many superstitions, including one which holds that people with hairy arms and a hairy chest are destined for riches. Jim, who fits this description, says he feels rich even now, however, because he has escaped from slavery and owns himself now. 

Jim says he is worth eight hundred dollars because that is how much Miss Watson was planning to sell him for before his escape. At the time, this was a great deal of money, enough for Jim to live on for the rest of his life. Jim's speech is funny in the sense that he of course can never get that money for himself. At the same time, the humor of the speech allows it to suggest, without feeling like a sermon, how totally morally reprehensible it is to set a cash value on a human body, as though it were just another product to be bought and sold, given how infinitely valuable our lives are to us. In other words: it is a devastating critique of slavery.

Notice that Jim, like Huck, speaks in a carefully constructed dialect. This contributes to the novel's realism, and it is arguably a democratic gesture on Twain's part. He represents as accurately and as richly as he can the many voices of the America that he lived in, rather than writing exclusively in the literary language of the white educated class.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“I’m unfavorable to killin’ a man as long as you can git around it; it ain’t good sense, it ain’t good morals.”

Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

One night during a storm, Huck and Jim enter a wrecked steamboat and overhear two criminals discuss whether they should kill the third who's with them because they fear that he will turn them in. They decide not to kill the man, but only because they're confident he'll drown in the storm. This quote is spoken by one of the criminals in support of this decision.

First, notice that this scene is very similar to an earlier one in which Jim fears Huck will turn him into the slavers looking for him. Everyone in both scenes is a social outcast, and the action centers on a potential betrayal. Throughout the novel, Huck and Jim will run into versions of themselves, often much more wicked versions, as here. This is a principle by which Twain structures his novel, and also a way he characterizes Huck and Jim – we know who they are by seeing people who are similar but, at the same time, different in ways that make them morally worse.

The criminal who speaks this quote is practical like Huck usually is, committed to "good sense" – but, unlike Huck, he is an outrageous hypocrite. A man whose crimes have led him to contemplate murder has clearly not given much thought to morals before. More than that, he and his partner decide not to kill the third man only because they think the storm will kill him for them! In effect, they are killing the man by leaving him in the steamboat to drown – but the speaker here relieves his own guilt by absurdly pretending that only by directly causing someone's death does one become a murderer.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Jim said it made him all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom. Well, I can tell you it made me all over trembly and feverish, too, to hear him, because I begun to get it through my head that he was most free—and who was to blame for it? Why, me.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

As Huck and Jim drift on their raft toward Cairo, Ohio, and the free states up North, Jim becomes very excited, and so does Huck, although for very different reasons. Jim is joyous to be almost free, while Huck dreads the idea of having helped a black man escape from bondage.

Huck's spiritual education is not without regressions back into the toxic attitudes and beliefs of the racist society around him. This is one such regression. Even though Huck has recognized that Jim is wholly human, and though he is Jim's friend (whether he would admit it or not at this point), he nonetheless can't help but see himself through society's eyes. What he sees is a person who helped a slave illegally escape from his owner, someone who is blameworthy in the eyes of other whites. This makes Huck anxious, but only because he does not yet have the courage of his convictions. 

Another characteristic of the racist worldview is that whites are the actors in the world, the people who make things happen, while blacks are passive, objects to be acted on and incapable of self-determination. Huck displays that trait here when he asks "who was to blame" for Jim's freedom. He acts as though he singlehandedly freed Jim, as though Jim has no responsibility for his freedom because, being black, he couldn't actively achieve it for himself. This, of course, is a fallacy: Jim is capable of self-determination, and was the actor who effected his own escape. 

So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about [right and wrong], but after this always do whichever comes handiest at the time.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck feels guilty about being an accessory in Jim's escape to the free states, but reasons that he would feel just as guilty had he not helped Jim escape. This leads him to conclude that conscience is not really a firm means of determining what is right, and that one therefore would do better to "do whichever comes handiest at the time."

This is an important realization for Huck, and a new height in his spiritual education. His new ethic of handiness can be summarized like this: whatever his heart tells him to do instinctually, Huck resolves to do. He is free, in this way, to be himself. Conscience reflects the society around it, which is for the worse, in Huck's case, because his society fabricates its moral rules to justify the unjustifiable evils of slavery. The heart, on the other hand, is more primordial and innate than the conscience: it is not a social construct, but the oldest and best part of ourselves. Conveniently, it is also the handiest for someone like Huck. 

Note that doing what is handiest, for Huck, does not license him to do wrong on a whim. This is because Huck has a fundamentally good heart, such that needlessly inflicting harm on others is alien to it, something that would never present itself as handy. 

Chapter 18 Quotes

“Did you want to kill [the Shepherdson], Buck?”
“Well, I bet I did.”
“What did he do to you?”
“Him? He never done nothing to me.”
“Well, then, what did you want to kill him for?”
“Why nothing—only it’s on account of the feud.”

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The Grangerfords and Shepherdsons (speaker)
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

One day while Huck and Buck Grangerford are hunting, Harney Shepherdson rides by and Buck tries to shoot him. In this dialogue, Huck attempts to understand Buck's motives.

The Grangerfords and Shepherdsons have a long-standing feud. Buck is not clear on how the feud began, nor does he have anything other than an abstract hatred for the Shepherdson's. He himself doesn't seem wholly committed to the feud yet. "I bet I did [want to kill Harney]" sounds faintly noncommittal. Moreover, the explanation he gives for shooting at Harney relies on absurdly circular reasoning. It reduces to: There's a feud because there's a feud, which of course doesn't explain anything. But this is a vicious circle, because as soon as Buck engages in the feud, the Shepherdsons have good reason to shoot at him, and he in turn has good reason to shoot right back. The feud, which falls out of thin air into Buck's lap, can only end in bloodshed. This is an enormous waste of life.

In a sense, the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud is a metaphor for how society can corrupt people who are essentially good. Being raised on hatred makes one, of course, hateful, just as being raised in a racist society makes one racist. The novel points out the tragic absurdity of such situations, and it offers an alternative to such negative socialization through Huck's education, which is based not on passively received notions of what is right or wrong but rather on personal experience and the call of one's own heart.

Chapter 19 Quotes

For what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards others.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Raft
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

When the duke and king join Huck and Jim on the raft, they are at first sour with one another, but soon make up. This prompts Huck to reflect on what society on the raft should look like.

Huck's experiences have inevitably led him to reflect on what a good society looks like. After all, by this point in the novel, he's met with slaveowners, murderers, and mindlessly feuding families. For there to be a hope for a good life, he thinks, people need to be satisfied and kind towards one another. In other words, people need to have their basic needs for food and the like met, and they need to treat one another kindly as individuals, rather than as abstract elements in social categories. This may seem obvious to us – but if it's so obvious, why don't more people abide by it? 

The raft becomes the novel's symbol for a good society. It is in touch with nature, open to experience, and freely mobile. Jim and Huck, in turn, are the novel's vision of ideal citizens: people who are not only equals but also friends.

Chapter 20 Quotes

“I doan’ mine one er two kings, but dat’s enough. Dis one’s powerful drunk, en de duke ain’ much better.”

Related Characters: Jim (speaker), The duke and king
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Soon after the duke and king join Huck and Jim on the raft, the two conmen get very drunk. Consequently, Jim says that he hopes no more kings come aboard the raft.

This passage is loaded with funny ironies. Jim worries that he and Huck will encounter more kings on their journey, but of course they haven't encountered any real kings, just a couple of liars. But the novel, committed to the values of democracy, seems to be further suggesting here that, in one sense, all dukes and kings are conmen, people who get special privileges without having earned them. History has seen many real drunken kings – are the conmen on the raft really any lesser in comparison?

Huck and Jim are conspicuously patient with their bad company here, which speaks to their amicability. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

“The pitifulest thing out is a mob; that’s what an army is—a mob; they don’t fight with courage that’s born in them, but with courage that’s borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it, is beneath pitifulness.”

Related Characters: Colonel Sherburn (speaker)
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

Colonel Sherburn guns down the drunkard Boggs for almost no reason at all, and a mob set on lynching him marches on his house. However, Sherburn meets them head-on and delivers a demoralizing speech, excerpted here, which humiliates and breaks up the mob.

The mob that organizes against Sherburn is another image in the novel for what a bad society looks like. It draws its strength from numbers and not from anything more, like virtue. Its passions are violent but fickle, and at last impotent to bring about anything good. Moreover, the mob has no leadership, no center around which it organizes itself, and this in Sherburn's eyes makes it worse than an army, which at least has some effective people making decisions and plans.

Sherburn gives an insightful critique of the mob in this speech and, by extension, of society. But Sherburn himself is a bad man, a cold-blooded killer. He is freer than Pap from social structures and the herd mentality, but he is just as villainous, the kind of man that Huck might become if he lives a life of violence. Sherburn represents the dangers of freedom, and of what happens when free people follow not their hearts but their antisocial impulses.

Chapter 23 Quotes

I do believe [Jim] cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Jim
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck's adventure on the raft becomes rollicking and exuberant once the duke and king join up with him and Jim – so much so that Huck doesn't keep in mind Jim's plight. One morning, however, he wakes to find Jim mourning for his wife and children, from whom he's been separated. This quote gives Huck's reaction.

Earlier in the novel, Huck sees through his racist prejudices and recognizes that Jim can be hurt by cruel jokes and have his heart broken by loss like anyone else. However, Huck does not seem to recognize till now that Jim is capable of loving his own family as much as white people are. This error in empathy is challenged by experience, however, when he finds Jim in mourning here.

The big irony of this passage is that there's nothing more natural in the world than that people should love their family members. Huck, however, has been raised to think it unnatural for a black husband and father to care so deeply for his wife and children. Culture teaches us what to think of as natural or unnatural, and it is so effective in this – in Huck's case insidiously so – that we can become blind to what is self-evident and deaf to what our hearts tell us.

Chapter 33 Quotes

I was sorry for them poor pitiful rascals, it seems like I couldn’t ever feel any hardness against them any more in the world. It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel to one another.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The duke and king
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

Huck learns that the duke and king are staging their scandalous show near the Phelps' farm, and he at once sets out to warn the con men that their gig is up. He's too late, though. On the way, he sees that a mob has tarred and feathered the duke and king; Huck pities the two immensely.

Tarring and feathering was an especially painful and humiliating punishment, common in the United States as a type of mob vengeance. Offenders were stripped to the waist, covered in scalding tar, and then covered in feathers which stuck to the tar. They were then paraded around to be humiliated, as the duke and king are. Punishments like these are one of the ways a society enforces conformity to its standards, regardless of whether or not those standards are just. As dreadful as the duke and king are, the people who tar and feather them are just as dreadful.

Huck, who knows just how exploitative the duke and king are, is nonetheless so empathetic that he pities them. As he sees it, nobody should be so cruelly abused – for such punishments amount merely to cruelty, not to justice. It is one of Huck's great characteristics to be in such a cruel world, and to know it, and yet retain his sensitivity and gentleness and kind-heartedness.

Chapter 43 Quotes

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), Sally and Silas Phelps
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes at the very end of the novel. Jim is free; Tom has healed from his wounds after taking part in Jim's rescue; it has been revealed that Jim had been freed by Miss Watson two months earlier; and Huck is once again in danger of being "sivilized," as he was by the Widow Douglas at the beginning of the novel.

Huck couldn't stand being civilized then, but he soon got used to it. After all, for Huck civilization meant merely dressing nicely and praying. However, he's changed a great deal over the course of his adventures. He's seen how hypocritical society is, and how social customs, traditions, norms, and beliefs – those things we absorb by being "sivilized" – often mask injustice and promote violence. When he says he can't stand being civilized this time, he really means it, because he fully understands what exactly it is he is rejecting when he says no to "sivilizing." He is rejecting the Southern society that relies on racism, slavery, and mob violence – all hypocritically in the name of order and tradition. 

Huck literally plans to be a pioneer and "light out for the Territory," that is, the parts of the western United States that haven't been settled yet, where society hasn't spread. But he will also metaphorically light out for the Territory in this sense: he will strive to be intellectually and imaginatively free, never settling a matter in his mind for good, always retaining an openness to new experiences. This is the great freedom that Huck at last comes to embody.