Morality as a Social Construct in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Rise of Silas Lapham and the Awakening

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The definition of morality varies across different levels of society. In order for a member outside a certain societal level to be properly integrated, it is vital that he or she learns the moral code of that class. In this essay, three novels that deal with societal integration of an outside member will be examined: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, William Dean Howells' The Rise of Silas Lapham and Kate Chopin's The Awakening. These three works were written during the tumultuous period that followed the American Civil War, when realist novels rose to dominate the literary circle. As a genre, realism dealt with real individuals in society in a realm where people were the judges of their lives and determined their own moral code. Realist novels were intended for the common man, and documented the individual struggles of people attempting to enter a new world while they reconcile their personal morals with those of the new code. In each of the works examined, the issue of moral dilemmas, decisions and reconciliation arises within figures outside of the society they are thrust into.

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was written during the post-civil war period but was set in a time that preceded the Civil War. Slavery abounded in the traditional South while abolitionism gained popularity in the North. The protagonist, Huck Finn, is a poor white adolescent who happened to come across a fortune, gaining entrance into a higher class through the ministrations of a local widow wishing to civilize him. Huck was raised by his father, an infamous delinquent known as Pap. Pap is a raging alcoholic with a very shaky moral code that involves satisfying personal needs through any means necessary. Huck spent his childhood outside, fending for himself; he did not attend church or receive a proper education, learning only methods of survival. When Huck enters the widow's house, he is faced with a new set of moral rules based on Christian teachings that are a direct foil to the prior teachings of Pap, who re-enters the novel abruptly to bring Huck back into his world. Huck is more comfortable in the uncivilized outdoors, but has been imbued with a sense of civilization and morality through his time spent in the widow's house. Thus, the first moral dichotomy is introduced: the inside, Christian world of education and moral uprightness versus the wildness of the outside.

Huck's main moral dilemmas come about because of his burgeoning friendship with a slave, Jim. Jim is a master of manipulation, allowing Huck to believe that he is in charge. The major moral issue comes about when Huck realizes that he responsible for assisting a slave to freedom: "I tried to make out to myself that I warn't to blame; 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 have paddled up ashore and told somebody'" (Twain, 100). His conscience also reminds him that Jim was Miss Watson's slave, so he was stealing from the woman who had attempted to educate him and meant to make him a good person. Huck makes the irreversible decision to help Jim to freedom with the allowance that he was destined to go to hell no matter what, so the action he takes regarding Jim is of no consequence to his eternal fate.

In the contemporary post-slavery period, it is clear that choosing to free Jim is actually the most moral choice. Huck was raised in the deep South, where the inferiority of slaves was a given fact not prone to questioning. Slaves belonged to people, so by freeing Jim, Huck was stealing from Miss Watson, the woman who had attempted to teach him Christianity. Even the derelict Pap feels that he is above slaves, so Huck had been taught throughout his childhood that racism was natural and morally correct. Only by befriending Jim and learning to love him as a person was Huck in a position to defy these...
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