Author: Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)
First published: 1884, by Chatto & Windus (U.K.)
Huckleberry Finn is a liar!
Yes, that’s what he is, there’s no getting around it.
But is there such a thing as a good lie? A “good” liar? A justified lie? One of Twain’s main assertions in Huckleberry Finn is that there is.
“I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another,” Huck begins, and this early sentence—truthfully—could stand as the jumping off point for an analysis of liars and lying in the entire book. I don’t think Huck thinks of himself as a liar per se, but he is certainly aware of what he’s doing when he’s lying. The elaborate lie Huck spins in Chapter 16, which leads two river men to suspect that Huck’s raft is carrying his small-pox infected family, rather than an escaped slave, causes Huck to feel the “wrongness” of such a lie in his conscience. But the lie also saves Jim from being captured and returned to slavery, and so, Twain forces us to ask ourselves, how wrong can this lie be?
Huck’s impromptu, homespun lie here is a premonition of the great moral crisis that is yet to come—the crisis that eventually emerges in Chapter 31 when Huck, going against everything he’s ever been taught, beats down his goading conscience and decides to set Jim free. “It was awful thoughts,” he says, “and awful words, but they was said . . .
. . . And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
This is a remarkable moment of contrasting principles and feelings: wickedness and rectitude, stealing and returning, slavery and freedom—wrong and right. Going the “wrong” way (which is of course, the right way) will involve telling yet more lies, and these lies will, strangely, lead Huck to a place of moral righteousness that his culture won’t let him understand, let alone describe.
“If I’d a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book,” he later concludes, “I wouldn’t a tackled it and ain’t agoing to no more.” Huck has exhausted himself with the complexity of his own words, and the slipperyness and arbitrariness of their meaning. One doubts, however, that this is the last lie—or story—that Huck Finn (or his creator) will ever tell.