The idea of a totally morally corrupt society is one that feels sort of alien to most people living in America in the twenty-first century. There’s a lot of problems that we have to contend with at the present moment, but it’s nothing like the systematized enslavement of our fellow human beings. Just because it’s morally repugnant doesn’t mean that it isn’t fascinating to think about, though.
The problem with a totally depraved society is the ability to actually recognize that it’s depraved, or what you can even do about it, and that’s the crux of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The main character, Huckleberry Finn, is one of the most beloved in American fiction, and for good reason too. It goes without saying that he’s one of the most complex fictional children in the canon, and for good reason. Like every child of Huck’s age, he’s always testing societal boundaries to find out what he can and can’t get away with so that he can create his own personal moral code to live by. He causes problems, he gets in trouble, but he doesn’t do anything that he can actually recognize as bad (for instance, he’ll steal things, but he’ll always justify it as ‘borrowing,’ with the full intent of bringing back whatever it is that he’s ‘borrowed’).
The trouble is when he helps his neighbor’s slave, Jim, run away from his mistress so that he can get back to his family. Being a good person at heart, Huck wants to help Jim get back to his family, but he also doesn’t want to do something as reprehensible as steal private property without any intention of bringing it back. The institution of slavery was so deep, and had such a profound hold on American culture that Jim, someone who Huck had always considered to be a good man and a friend, wasn’t even a person to Huck.
A morally depraved society isn’t evil in the sense that it’s without laws, but rather it’s a society where evil is considered to be moral. Slavery wasn’t just considered to be useful, it was considered to be perfectly within the rights of white people to enslave other people. For instance, there’s a scene early on in the novel where Huck’s father (a degenerate drunk, constantly looking for ways to take advantage of other people and live in a way that he can be comfortable without doing any work) sees a free black man walking down the street. The man is well employed, and a respected part of the community (despite the fact that there are other blacks in the community that are enslaved). But Huck’s father is so disgusted with seeing a free black man, that he considered kidnapping the man and taking him to another state for sale.
The journey for Huckleberry Finn isn’t just a trip down a river with Jim and then several associates, it’s a journey into manhood where he discovers his ability to make moral stands. It’s a profound moment when Huck makes the conscious decision to actually steal Jim away from people who had imprisoned him, even though those people were treating him very decently, just on the single principle that slavery is a moral evil. Even if every other scene in the book wasn’t fantastic and it was just this part of the novel and this part alone, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would still go down in history as one of the great American novels. Huck’s profound moral courage doesn’t just make him a good child, it makes him a good man and one well worth respecting.