What Would Huck Do (WWHD)?

What was Huckleberry Finn to do? What would you have done in this situation? He tells his story from a psychological first-person perspective, which helps readers to reach a deep understanding of his moral reasoning and dilemmas:

“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. I couldn’t get that out of my conscience, no how nor no way. It got to troubling me so I couldn’t rest; I couldn’t stay still in one place. It hadn’t ever come home to me before, what this thing was that I was doing. But now it did; and it stayed with me, and scorched me more and more. I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so — I couldn’t get around that noway. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you that you could see her slave ( I am avoiding the potentially offensive ‘N’ word here) go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you that you could treat her so mean? Why, she tried to learn you your book, she tried to learn you your manners, she tried to be good to you every way she knowed how. That’s what she done.”

In this passage, Huck begins to give readers insight into his tortured conscience – a task he wrestles with for the rest of his story. No longer a child, Huck begins to decide what he believes in and what he stands for. In Mark Twain’s sequel to this book, Tom Sawyer, we can see the beginning of Huck’s conscience. He rescues the Widder Douglas from Injun’ Joe and his band of thieves and murderers but then becomes ensnared in her attempts to sivilize him. As Twain transforms the story to Huck’s, we learn that he has had a year of schooling, attendance at a church Sunday School, and the constant lectures from the Widder and her sister, Miss Watson on what is morally right and wrong. An accepted fact by most Southerners was that slaves were the rightful property of their owners. Because of these teachings, Huck’s conscience has had a lot more input from the outside society to consider than when he was living alone in the woods. The weight of these culturally learned values is so strong that it almost paralyzes him from knowing how to act correctly about Jim’s plan to escape to Cairo, Illinois (a town in a free state) and earn his freedom from slavery.  On the raft, Huck deeply considers what to do with Jim. Though he is a runaway slave, he also considers him to be good company and he may be a key ally to his own survival on the river. How does a 13-year-old without much worldly experience sort this matter out?

Huck reasons that it wasn’t his fault that Jim ran away from Miss Watson. But yet, he thought he was dishonoring a woman who had helped to raise him by sheltering Jim. He considers:

“I got to feeling so mean and so miserable I most wished I was dead. I fidgeted up and down the raft, abusing myself to myself, and Jim was fidgeting up and down past me. We neither of us could keep still. Every time he danced around and says, Dah’s Cairo! it went through me like a shot, and I thought if it was Cairo I reckoned I would die of miserableness.”

Jim does not make Huck’s decision any easier when he talks about his plan to free not only himself but also his family after he reaches Cairo. Huck narrates:

“Jim talked out loud all the time while I was talking to myself. He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them. It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.” Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this slave, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children — children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.”

Although Huck might have felt supportive of Jim’s ambitions to free his family, he was also aware that his plan is outrageous and takes advantage of Huck’s place It involved not only Jim’s stealing of the slave children of Miss Watson, who is also Huck’s guardian but his implication in the scheme. He was undoubtedly aware that helping a slave to escape was also against the law, which could result in long imprisonment or hanging. How could a thirteen-year youth be expected to help Jim, when the most respected and educated people he knew in society told him it would be both illegal and morally reprehensible! He follows this rational line of thinking by criticizing Jim for even wanting to be free. Huck reflects:

“I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him. My conscience got to stirring me up hotter than ever, until at last I says to it, Let up on me — it ain’t too late yet — I’ll paddle ashore at the first light and tell. I felt easy and happy and light as a feather right off. All my troubles was gone. I went to looking out sharp for a light, and sort of singing to myself. By and by one showed.”

Huck seems to resolve his tortured mind by resolving to turn Jim in when he got to the nearest town. However, Jim complicates Huck’s decision by declaring his utmost respect for him for helping him win his freedom:

“Pooty soon I’ll be a-shout’n’ for joy, en I’ll say, it’s all on accounts o’ Huck; I’s a free man, en I couldn’t ever ben free ef it hadn’ ben for Huck; Huck done it. Jim won’t ever forgit you, Huck; you’s de bes’ fren’ Jim’s ever had; en you’s de only fren’ ole Jim’s got now.”

Jim’s declaration throws Huck into such a loop that he was right back to his original moral dilemma: Should he turn him or not.  Huck was paddling off and “all in a sweat to tell on him; but when he says this, it seemed to kind of take the tuck all out of me.” When Huck was about fifty yards away, he hears Jim declare: “Dah you goes, de ole true Huck; de on’y white genlman dat ever kep’ his promise to ole Jim.”

In hearing this Jim feels kind of sick but still thinks “I got to do it — I can’t get out of it. Right then along comes a skiff with two men in it with guns, and they stopped and I stopped.”

W.E. Kemble's Original Manuscript Illustration

See the above, original W.E Kemble Huckleberry Finn illustration and my article on these drawing in my recent Litchatte.com post. Also, see these illustrations at The University of Virginia Website: http://twain.lib.virginia.edu/huckfinn/huckpix/huckpix.html

If there is one significant rubber hits the road or a raft hits the water scenario in Huck Finn, this is certainly. All of the society’s values are weighed on one side of his psyche and every his previous experiences of surviving in the wild are weighed on the other side. Yes, in turning Jim over to the slave hunters in the canoes, he would relieve a serious burden from his conscience, but it would also take Jim away from him and leave Huck alone on the raft. Jim has been a good friend and a valuable ally to Huck, even at this early part of their journey. Even though we know that Huck was a resilient character, we also know that he was lonely when he had no companions on Jackson’s Island. Jim was not only a good raft-mate for interesting conversations (see Future Litchatte.com discussion on King Sollerman and Frenchmen), he had the maturity and wisdom to help Huck succeed in his own escape from civilization. Their close companionship on the raft opened up possibilities for a new type of relationship that would never have been possible on the land. Jim’s presence and his goal to float down the Mississippi River to freedom also help Huck to form a goal in his Heroic Journey. Therefore, we should not consider it as a purely altruistic action when Huck tells the slave hunters in the boat that he has not seen the runaway slave. Notice in the above illustration, how big and powerful that the two slave hunters in the canoe appear in comparison to how tiny and insignificant that Huck appears. This image reminds us Twain’s earlier allusion, in Tom Sawyer, of David and Goliath. It is hard for us to imagine today what strength it would have taken for Huck to decide to deceive these men. This scenario re-labels Huck for the rest of the story as the grand protector of Jim, the runaway slave. Although this decision does not automatically make Huck a hero, it is a quite a heroic one for a young teenager to make – in a society and in times when few adults would have made the same complicated moral decision. It also brings up the part of this novel which speaks to us most today. Twain’s book and Huck still speak to us because they remind us how difficult it can be to decide what is right and right and wrong. Furthermore, it’s even so much harder to know when and how to act. What are the moral decisions each of us faces today? What should we do about racism in America? Whether to protect or speak out against Confederate statues?  Should we protect or support illegal immigrants? It would be nice if we had either Huck or Mark Twain around to ask about these difficult moral dilemmas. However, if we can’t decide, we might ask, “What Would Huck Do?” Then, act accordingly.


Dr. Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education from Temple University (1973), a Master’s Degree of Arts in English Literature from Virginia Commonwealth University (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech (1988). He is married and has three adult daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of this literary blog and is an editor for the International Correctional Education Journal. He is Co-Editor of the 2017 Poetry Book, Mystic Verses by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, and the Facilities Planning Committee Coordinator at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, VA, and writes a monthly column for the Museum website, thepoeblog.org. He has taught literature classes on Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and F.Scott Fitzgerald (thus far) at the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond. He is the organizer and Coördinator of The First Fridays Classic Book Club, and is the co-organizer, along with Rebecca Elizabeth Jones, of the VCU Working Titles Book Club. Contact Murray at ellisonms2@vcu.edu, or leave a Comment at the bottom of any post.


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