Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Essay on Society and Morality in Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, encapsulated an era in his literary works. Utilizing his characteristic dry wit and firm grasp of humanity’s foibles, Twain masterfully handles the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn explores the major societal issues of the late nineteenth century, from the stratification of classes to contemporary ethics. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the premier writer of the twentieth century’s Roaring Twenties, also focused his writing on society. His highly acclaimed novel, The Great Gatsby, explores the social climate of the 1920’s, commenting on the same issues Twain documented in Huckleberry Finn, updated and refurnished for a modern generation.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is best known as a social commentary—Clemens’s sardonic view of society guised as an innocent adventure novel. Through careful observation Twain gained insight into the heart of humanity and then regurgitated this knowledge into a wry attack on the immorality he saw in society. That society was intrinsically wrong, Twain had little doubt.

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Atrocities were committed every day, and not just by the ‘white trash’ of the South (Branders 331). The well-to-do Grangerfords and Shepherdsons, the ‘respectable’ Sherburn, and the powerful middle class all have sullied pasts. Huckleberry Finn also focuses on the indifferent attitude the citizens have toward their crooked deeds, not just the deeds themselves. As Smith so succinctly states, “The dominant culture is decadent and perverted. Traditional values have gone to seed. The inhabitants can hardly be said to live a conscious life of their own” (366). In one town Huck alights upon, a self-righteous man, Colonel Sherburn, murders the town drunk. The outraged village swarms Sherburn’s home, threatening to lynch him. Instead of begging forgiveness, Sherburn attacks the cowardice of the crowd, laughs at their bravado, and unconsciously exposes his own moral disintegration:

You didn’t want to come. The average man don’t like trouble and danger. You don’t like trouble and danger. But if only half a man…shouts ‘Lynch him, lynch him!’ you’re afraid to back down—afraid you’ll be found out to be what you are—cowards—and so you raise a yell…and come raging up here. (Clemens 118)

This speech can be applied to more than that particular instance, however- Clemens uses it to expose the protection society provides through sheer numbers. When everyone else is doing it, even if everyone else is wrong, the easier route is to follow along. The majority rules, and the actions of the many set the precedent, amending ethics and demanding conformity (Poirier 96).

“The deliberate callousness of the hard-hearted” invades the novel through other characters as well, namely the Duke and the Dauphin (Rubenstein 58). In a famous incident entitled “The Royal Nonesuch”, the Duke and Dauphin trick an entire town out of their money and show no remorse for their deeds. Immediately after, the Duke and Dauphin begin a new swindle more insidious than the last—they plan to impersonate a young woman’s uncles and steal the money her dead relative bequeathed her. The Duke and the Dauphin play on the sympathies of a bereaved family and when the whole ordeal is over, simply laugh at the swindled, gullible village. As Huck says in Chapter 33, “Human beings can be awful cruel to one another” (Clemens 182).

The Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons also exemplify senseless human cruelty in their actions towards each other. Huck describes them as ‘gentlemanly’ and ‘high-bred’; to Huck they represent the lofty Upper Class. A feud began between the two warring families decades before, the reason hazy from too many years, but their anger has remained intact. Buck, a young member of the Grangerford family explains the feud to Huck in a tone curiously devoid of judgment: “A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man’s brother kill him; then the other brothers, on both sides…and by-and-by everybody’s killed off” (Clemens 89). Ironically, the families see nothing wrong in the killings (even ‘amen-ing’ a sermon on brotherly love), indicative of the moral break-down in society. As Clemens conjectures in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, unscrupulous scruples have become normalized by a culture swiftly headed down the river.

Fitzgerald’s characters display similar corruptness in The Great Gatsby. Each character symbolizes a different cultural category, from the lower orders to the nouveau riche to the old-moneyed class. Fitzgerald exposes the faults inherent in each group, and forces readers to become aware of their own imperfections. Just as the characters in Huck Finn drift through Huck’s life as he drifts along the river, so the characters in The Great Gatsby drift aimlessly through life, their restless hearts never satisfied or content (Dyson 113). Due to the characters apparent disconnectedness from society, they feel no remorse for immoral actions. In a culture so ethically depraved, right and wrong drown in a sea of relativity (Clark 135). Lying is common among the characters in Gatsby, as if the familiar avarice had lost its edge with overuse. Tom Buchanan frequently commits adultery with a coarse woman from the ‘valley of ashes’ named Myrtle, who in turn adulterates against her husband George Wilson. Tom’s wife Daisy retaliates by beginning an affair with an old beau, Jay Gatsby. In the novel’s climax, Daisy speeds off in her jilted lover’s car, careening over Myrtle, her husband’s mistress. Gatsby chivalrously decides to take the blame, and pays for his altruistic deed with death- Daisy and Tom allow George to believe that Gatsby was his wife’s lover and in retaliation George murders Gatsby. Such a cavalier attitude towards dishonesty permeates the novel, connecting each character in a sinister web of deceit and immorality (McAdams 112). Nick embodies this nonchalant mind-set when remarking on his girlfriend’s behavior; “She was incurably dishonest…It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, and then I forgot” (Fitzgerald 63). Jay Gatsby himself is a lie, having constructed a life for himself out of falsehoods and half-truths (McAdams 112). Jay Gatsby, besides hiding behind a carefully constructed faŠ·ade, participates in other immoral -and illegal- activities (Rowe 89). Gatsby’s fortune was derived mainly through the production and distribution of alcohol during the time of the 18th amendment—Prohibition. Through discreet dealings with less-than-reputable businessmen, Gatsby keeps his fortune thriving and the whiskey flowing. Such corrupt activities mirror the theme of both Huck Finn and The Great Gatsby; that society conceals degenerate behavior behind acceptable norms.

The Buchanans, a wealthy couple who live in Manhattan’s East Egg, are also of questionable principles. Tom and Daisy are a callous family, careless with other’s emotions and jaded from excess (McAdams 114). The upper class’s bored indifference towards life is exemplified in Daisy’s comment, “You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow…And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything” (Fitzgerald 22). Fitzgerald takes the Buchanans and applies them to the whole Upper Class, the stratified social club that writes society’s rules and then duplicitously violates them behind closed doors. The Great Gatsby alludes to the fact that money corrupts, questioning “whether dramatic inequalities in wealth [constitutes] a moral issue” (McAdams 116). The Buchanan’s treacherous affairs and subsequent lack of repentance parallel the Grangerford’s and Shepherdson’s shameless feud. The characters not only commit atrocious acts but see nothing wrong with their actions. In a society that demands conformity and shrouds iniquitous deeds in piety, authors such as Twain and Fitzgerald penetrate America’s fabricated lie and wave the banner of morality and individualism.

The Great Gatsby and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though written in different eras about different eras, are novels for every time period. Their universality lies in Clemens’ and Fitzgerald’s ability to take a current issue and apply it to humanity; a skill noticeably observed in their works. Focusing on society’s dwindling morals, Clemens and Fitzgerald together create a comprehensive view of America’s cultural past while spinning a story broad enough to retain its relevancy for today. The same problems that afflicted 19th and 20th century society continue to engage America in a battle for integrity, a campaign eloquently summarized by two of America’s finest authors, Samuel Clemens and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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