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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

by: Mark Twain

Empathy

1

Now was the first time that I begun to worry about the men—I reckon I hadn’t had time to before. I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix.

In Chapter 13, after Huck and Jim steal a raft full of supplies and leave a band of villainous men behind on a wrecked steamboat, Huck begins to worry about their well-being. Although he recognizes that the men deserve punishment for their offenses, Huck also empathizes with the men, whom he’s abandoned in a very dangerous situation. Regardless of their villainy, these are human beings, and as such they have the same fear response as everyone else. Thus, this quote demonstrates Huck’s ability to put himself in others’ shoes.

2

I was feeling ruther comfortable on accounts of taking all this trouble for that gang, for not many would a done it. I wished the widow knowed about it. I judged she would be proud of me for helping these rapscallions, because rapscallions and dead beats is the kind the widow and good people takes the most interest in.

This passage, which appears at the end of Chapter 13, shows that Huck doesn’t fully understand his own ability to empathize with others’ experiences. Huck seems to understand empathy solely in terms of Christian duty, rather than morality. That is to say, he thinks the Widow Douglas would be proud of him for helping the men in the wrecked raft simply because they are “rapscallions.” This type of response would be dictated by a strict sense of duty. However, Huck’s actions are motivated by empathy; he projects himself into these men’s experience. Thus, he acted morally, not just dutifully.

3

[Jim] was thinking about his wife and his children, away up yonder, and he was low and homesick; because he hadn’t ever been away from home before in his life; and I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.

In this quote, from Chapter 23, Huck demonstrates his ability to empathize across racial lines. This is an enormously significant moment, as it goes against contemporary social norms that tended to dehumanize blacks. At the time when Huckleberry Finn is set, slaves were often understood and referred to in animal terms, which in turn made it difficult for whites to empathize with blacks in any meaningful way. Huck also struggles with this type of empathy, which he makes evident when he says that “it don’t seem natural” for Jim to have a deep emotional attachment to his own family. Nevertheless, he concludes, “I reckon it’s so.”

4

Them poor things was that glad and happy it made my heart ache to see them getting fooled and lied to so, but I didn’t see no safe way for me to chip in and change the general tune.

In Chapter 27, as he watches the king and the duke conspire to steal away the inheritance of Mary Jane, Joanna, and Susan, Huck projects forward into the future to imagine how horribly disappointed the young women will feel when they realize they’ve been duped. This example of empathy is related to dramatic irony, which is when the reader understands something the character does not. In this case, Huck understands something the young women do not, and he finds the irony of the situation difficult to bear.