Hard Life in Mark Twain’s Adventures “Huckleberry Finn”

Individuals who flee a place are usually running from people or circumstances that haven’t been giving them the resources or support they need. Similarly, individuals who have been abandoned or are alone are oftentimes the victims of a system that fails to provide for them and cultivate their identities. In southern literature, these orphans and runaways are often children. They are children, like Huckleberry (Huck) Finn in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who have been forced to witness and internalize the hypocrisies of a corrupt and amoral system that treats them as outcasts and fails to protect them from abuse and neglect. They are children, like the wolf-girls in Karen Russell’s “”St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves””, who are abandoned by those they love and forced into a flawed social order that strips away their identities. In these pieces of southern literature, these orphans and runaways are represented as having to bear the burdens of the corrupt adult society that they live in and as being forced to make a choice between conforming to this unjust social order or actively rebelling against it and creating their own worlds.

Perhaps no child of southern literature has suffered at the hands of a more hypocritical society than Huck Finn. Huck’s family, the legal system, and the community are full of contradictions that confuse him and fail to protect him.

As Huck grows up in his story-world and attempts to formulate his own sense-of-self and view of the world, one of the biggest issues that confuses him and hinders his attempts is the religious hypocrisy around him that is most evident in characters such as the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson. Though they carry themselves as well-intentioned, devout Christians, their actions and their views on slavery and African-Americans are contradictory to the religious morals they preach.

At surface level, the Widow Douglas is a well-meaning, patient, and gentle Christian – the good stuff of civilization – yet she too is plagued by the hypocrisies that exist in the greater society. It is clear from Huck’s praise for the widow that she is truly well-intentioned and cares about others like a good Christian should. Huck describes her as “”regular and decent”” (Twain 5) and she doesn’t harshly scold and reprimand him like Miss Watson does when he soils his clothes or does something they find unsavory. “”The widow said I was coming along slow but sure, and doing very satisfactory. She said she warn’t ashamed of me”” (Twain 17). The widow encourages Huck and praises his growth as he attempts to fit into her world. However, despite her well intentions, Twain points out that even the good, faithful citizens like the widow are full of harmful hypocrisies and contradictions. After supper one evening, the widow gets out her Bible and teaches Huck the story of Moses and the bulrushes (Twain 6). As told in the Bible, Moses was a prophet chosen by God to lead his people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt. It is hypocritical that the widow preaches to Huck and promotes a story about freedom and the struggle to end the enslavement of hundreds of innocent people when the widow herself has no qualms with the enslavement of African-Americans in her own society and in her own home. Additionally, the widow preaches to Huck that he “”must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself”” (Twain 14). These words of wisdom emphasize the importance of helping those in need. However, the widow doesn’t mind the horrible ways in which African-Americans are treated, thereby not following her own advice in helping all people. Therefore, the widow – one of the kinder, well-meaning characters of the story – is a hypocrite, proving that even the good are corrupted to a degree.

Although she does so in a more strict and demeaning way than the widow, Miss Watson preaches to Huck her religious beliefs and morals that are in direct contradiction to her actions. For example, Miss Watson emphasizes the importance of prayer to Huck: “”She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it”” (Twain 13). She is stressing to Huck the Christian belief that speaking to God will bring him everything he needs. Miss Watson even brings her slaves in at night to pray with her. By supporting her slaves’ participation in prayer as she does for Huck, Miss Watson makes it seem as if she wants her slaves to receive that which they need from God, however, Miss Watson has no intention of giving her slaves what they are most likely praying for – their freedom.

The religious hypocrisies evident in the words and actions of the widow and Miss Watson confuse Huck as he becomes more and more adept at recognizing these hypocrisies and as he attempts to forge his own identity and views. Early on, Huck comments that, “”I could see that there was two Providences”” (Twain 14). Huck recognizes that the widow and Miss Watson have versions of heaven that differ and often contradict each other. He is already spotting the inconsistencies in the religious beliefs of those around him. Similarly, when the widow scolds Huck for smoking, Huck doesn’t understand why he can’t smoke but she can take snuff. He concludes that it is all right “”because she done it herself”” (Twain 6). Again, Huck points out the inconsistencies between what the widow preaches and how she behaves. These contradictions evident within the religion that Miss Watson and the widow preach confuse Huck, and therefore, he chooses to ignore and disavow many of the religious beliefs and practices they impart on him. Additionally, because he doesn’t fully understand the religion they preach, this isolates him from the women. Huck says at one point, “”I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead”” (Twain 7). Huck feels a disconnect from the widow and Miss Watson because their religious ideology isn’t consistent and therefore does not make sense to him. He is unable to find validity and truth in religion because what they preach to him is so very different from how they act. This lack of connection Huck feels towards the women – the only semblance of a family he has at the moment – causes him extreme distress, loneliness, and suicidal thoughts.

Along with the harmful impacts of the religious hypocrisy that he encounters within his home, Huck is also harmed by the greater social hypocrisy that exists within the community. After living with the widow and Miss Watson for a while, Huck’s drunk, abusive father, Pap, returns and brings Huck to live with him:

The judge and the widow went to law to get the court to take me away from him and let one of them be my guardian; but it was a new judge that had just come . . . he said courts mustn’t interfere and separate families if they could help it; said he’d druther not take a child away from its father. So Judge Thatcher and the widow had to quit on the business. (Twain 23)

When Judge Thatcher, a local judge, and the widow attempt to gain custody of Huck in court, the new judge overseeing the case – in an effort to protect Huck – ends up only hurting him by leaving him in the custody of his abusive father. In this case, the legal system that was created to protect its citizens fails Huck miserably. The new judge – who represents the legal system – is claiming to be helping Huck by not separating his family and taking him away from his father, however, he is knowingly sentencing Huck to a life of neglect and abuse.

As those closest to him and the greater community fail to protect him, instead of staying put and internalizing the conflicting and amoral messages imparted on him, Huck flees to begin a new life for himself.

Similar to Huck, the wolf-girls that inhabit Russell’s “”St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”” are placed into a toxic society that attempts to force them to conform to its corrupting values. However, unlike Huck, the wolf-girls succumb to the way of life imposed on them and suffer the consequences because of it.

The wolf-girls arrive at St. Lucy’s in order to be transformed into “”naturalized citizens of human society”” (Russell 227) by a group of nuns, however, the “”civilized”” nuns seem to act more viciously and barbarously than the wolf-girls as they take steps to strip away the girls’ identities. Similar to the widow and Miss Watson from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the nuns believe they represent civility and superiority while Huck and the wolf-girls are uncouth, dangerous individuals that need to be taught a more sophisticated way of life. However, nothing about the wolf-girls suggests that they are a monstrous group that needs to be “”civilized.”” “”At first, our pack was all hair and snarl and floor-thumping joy”” (Russell 225). This opening line suggests that even though the pack is wild, they are full of an innocence and joyfulness rather than any sort of malicious traits. They harbor many civilized and humanlike traits such as loyalty to each other, joy, innocence, and kindness. On the other hand, the nuns seem to harbor more inhumane and uncivil traits as they attempt to wash away the girls’ identities and culture. First, the nuns replace the wolf-girls’ names with new, human names. The girls are then thrown into a bedroom that feels more like a cage and when they, in an effort to mark their territory, drink gallons of water and spray the room constantly, they later return to the room and, “”we were dismayed to find all trace of the pack musk had vanished. Someone was coming in and erasing us”” (Russell 230). Additionally, the nuns employ brutal disciplinary measures on the girls such as tranquilizer guns and muzzles and force them to watch propaganda slideshows of ill-adjusted wolf-girls exhibiting inappropriate behaviors in human society. These actions that the nuns take to erase the wolf-girls’ identities are cruel and vicious.

The maliciousness and uncivilized nature of St. Lucy’s becomes apparent when the sophisticated and civil traits that the wolf-girls initially exhibit begin to disappear as they start to conform to and accept the way of life that the nuns enforce on them. As their identities began to be slowly stripped away by the nuns, the whole pack becomes “”irritable, bewildered, [and] depressed”” (Russell 229). The once close-knit pack begins to turn on their sisters and they “”would snarl at one another for no reason”” (Russell 229) The pack’s loyalty for one another has been transformed into aggression – a malicious trait. Additionally, when one of the girls, Jeannette, proves to be adapting more quickly and successfully to the human lifestyle than the other wolf-girls, they become jealous of her progress. What was once love for Jeannette is now turned into hatred, and as Jeannette progresses farther and farther away from her wolf-like qualities and origins, the other girls’ hatred towards her is only strengthened. Similarly, the girls begin to hate Mirabella – a wolf-girl that seems to show the least amount of progress and continues to express her wolf-like qualities. The narrator, Claudette, shuns Mirabella and begins to think of her as a member of a different species, describing with disgust how she “”begged for your scraps”” and “”was living under my bed, gnawing on my loafers”” (Russell 237). Later Claudette acknowledges that she’s “”no longer certain of how the pack felt about anything”” (Russell 241). The formerly strong ties between the members of the pack have been almost completely cut and the pack seems to have turned against each other.

The damaging qualities of St. Lucy’s are fully revealed towards the end of the story at the Debutante Ball the girls are to participate in. Although she practices dancing the Sausalito for hours before the ball, when the time comes, Claudette completely forgets the steps and reverts back to her wolfish behavior. When Claudette turns to Jeanette – the most “”humanized”” of the group – for support, Jeanette spitefully ignores Claudette’s pleading and proclaims that the steps are not for Claudette to know. With panic in her eyes as a wolfish howl claws its way up her throat, Claudette is saved from embarrassing herself when Mirabella tackles her to the ground and thus takes the attention away from Claudette. In this situation, Jeanette – who is supposed to be the most civilized and moral – abandons her sister and cruelly leaves her to make a fool of herself. Instead, it is Mirabella – the one who least embodies St. Lucy’s way of life – that acts as the savior and shows compassion for Claudette. Yet, because Claudette has already been corrupted by St. Lucy’s and has forsaken the pack loyalty she once felt, she berates Mirabella for ruining the ball and fails to show any gratitude or compassion. Therefore, this episode emphasizes the damaging nature of St. Lucy’s “”civilized”” culture – it has turned Jeanette and Claudette into cruel, selfish individuals whereas Mirabella, who has been least tainted by the community, has retained her compassion and selflessness.

Claudette confirms the monstrosities of St. Lucy’s when she returns to her wolf home and admits she is “”telling my first human lie”” (Russell 246). In this statement, she confirms that in becoming civilized, she is now part of an immoral culture that takes children from their homes, erases their identities, and forces them into a life full of lies and loneliness.

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