- When Words Fail Us: Reexamining the Conscience of Huckleberry Finn
At least some (perhaps the most serious) moral problems, public as well as private, concern the ways in which we should construe and specify the problems we face.—Onora O’Neill
The present paper, as the subtitle indicates, reexamines the conscience of Huckleberry Finn, which means both that I provide a close reading of key chapters of Mark Twain’s great novel and that I engage Jonathan Bennett’s well-known and oft-cited paper, “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn.” Bennett tells us, early in his paper, that an episode in chapter 16 of the novel “brilliantly illustrates how fiction can be instructive about real life.”1 I agree that fiction can teach us about life—though of course living beings must judge fiction’s claims in the light of life—and I also agree that Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn presents much of interest to philosophers who seek to learn about the moral life in particular. Huck can teach us, however, only if we read it well. My principal thesis in the following is that Bennett’s account of Huck’s conscience is far too simplistic and that this account risks bringing conscience into discredit, which is to say wrongly cheapening our estimation of it.
§1. Conscience and Voice
The opening line of Huck Finn reads, “You don’t know about me, without you read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.’”2 Even if [End Page 1] we have read that book, however, we are but barely acquainted from it with Huck. In Tom Sawyer we come to “know about” Huck in the third person. In Huck Finn, which is narrated in the first person by the title character, we see the world as Huck does—though Twain often suggests to us much that Huck does not see, which means, ironically, that we come to know more about Huck than he appears to know about himself (attributing life to him beyond the page, as the novel asks us to do upon our entering into its imaginative world).
My focus will be on Huck’s friendship with Jim, for it is this friendship that brings Huck to his crises of conscience in chapters 16 and 31. Before we come to these chapters, however, some background is needed, and so I ask the philosophical reader to bear with me. Huck introduces Jim to readers in chapter 2. Huck has just slipped out of the house of his guardian, the Widow Douglas, in order to meet up on the sly with Tom Sawyer. In the backyard the two boys come upon the slave of the Widow Douglas’s sister, Miss Watson, who has recently come to live with the Widow and has dedicated herself with a relentless passion to the Widow’s mission of “sivilizing” her charge. Huck tells us:
When we was passing by the kitchen I fell over a root and made a noise. We scrouched down and laid still. Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim, was setting in the kitchen door; we could see him pretty clear, because there was a light behind him. He got up and stretched his neck out about a minute, listening. Then he says, “Who dah?”3
“Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim”: it is worth considering for a moment what there is to learn from this phrase about both Jim and, all the more, Huck’s perception of him at this point. Jim’s name comes last, not first, and he has what Huck calls in Tom Sawyer “just a given name, like a nigger,”4 no family or surname. It is emphasized here, also, that Jim is “named,” which we do not typically emphasize when speaking of persons. It rings wrong to speak of “my friend, named Jim,” or even “my baby, named Jim,” or “that man, named Jim.” We speak this way of animals, especially pets, and sometimes of other possessions: “my horse, named Jim,” or “my car, named Jim.” A pet, however dear to us and even however remarkable it might be among its kind, is first...