Huck Finn’s individual freedoms and lack thereof
The definition of freedom is both relative and rapidly changing; what one thinks makes an individual free could be drastically different from what someone else thinks. Additionally, one’s idea of what freedom is and how it can be attained do not necessarily stay consistent over time. Both Jonathan Bennett and Nomy Arpaly offer their ideas of what it takes for an individual to achieve freedom. For Bennett, a strong intellect is the key to one’s freedom. Arpaly on the other hand believes that one’s emotions drive individual freedom. But these two perspectives do not quite run concurrently with Mark Twain’s belief that one needs both a strong intellect and emotional consistency to achieve freedom. The question is if Huck Finn, the protagonist of the novel, is able to achieve this individual freedom. He may be the physically freest in the novel, but being so free in one capacity could create some major shortcomings in others. At the beginning of the novel, Twain introduces a young, classless boy not more than twelve or thirteen who seems to be living the dream that many men can attest to when they were his age. Huck Finn is fresh off of an adventure with his friend Tom Sawyer, both of whom are now six thousand dollars richer. His mother had recently passed and his father was a drunk, leaving Huck with no allegiance to a family or ties to any other human being. With no adult figure in his life, Huck had no one to push him into school for a formal education or to learn the basic manners needed to be a fully functioning member of society and therefore was both uneducated and uncivilized. Huck had no qualms about not being able to read or to do basic arithmetic. For all intents and purposes, Huck was a free individual who embodied everything that Ralph Waldo Emerson believed in – self-reliance, self-reference, and self-responsibility. Upon returning to town, however, it became apparent that Huck was not as free as originally perceived. Judge Thatcher ripped away Huck’s newfound wealth and threw it into a bank to collect interest just as quickly as Huck had acquired it. The Widow Douglas wastes no time in taking Huck in and attempting to civilize him. Huck noted that, “she put [him] in them new clothes again, and [he] couldn’t do nothing but sweat and sweat, and feel all cramped up” (p. 1). He then goes on to mention how she read him the Bible after supper and how she refused to let him smoke when he asked, stating that “it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and [he] must try to not do it any more” (p. 2). From an objective standpoint both Judge Thatcher and the Widow Douglas were doing these things out of compassion for Huck and with the hope of helping him; none of what they had done in an effort to help him was wrong. In fact, Huck even mentioned how difficult it was living under her room because of her kindness towards him, noting how “decent the widow was in all her ways” (p. 1). While smoking has many of its own implications, Huck’s act of asking the widow if he was allowed to smoke shows his submission to authority and his lack of intellectual freedom. He may not be physically chained down, but the invisible links tying down Huck’s will are very apparent. In short, Bennett’s “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn” argues how Huck’s lack of intellectual freedom and “weakness of will” restrain him from being a truly free individual. On paper, Huck is the freest character in the entire novel; he is white, he has no religious convictions, he has no class or family to answer to, and he has no ties to anyone, anyplace, or anything. Huck is free to set and execute his own agenda without having to answer to anyone, but he does not. When he acquired the six thousand dollars, he did not have any intentions of spending it or of saving it. If it weren’t for the judge, it’s highly probable that the money would have burned a hole in Huck’s pocket.