Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Is There Such a Thing as the Female Conscience?

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Is There Such a Thing as the Female Conscience?

Article excerpt

SURELY THE MOST FAMOUS CRISIS OF conscience in American letters is the battle of young Huckleberry Finn with his shaggy hold on right and wrong. Having befriended the runaway slave in Mark Twain's classic, Huck struggles: Should he turn in Nigger Jim? Huck has run afoul of the laws of man and God: He is on the lam with a slave who has bolted. In this, he has violated both the law of the land and his individual, gnawing conscience. His sense of duty tells him to reveal Nigger Jim's whereabouts to the authorities so that the slave can be captured and restored to his rightful owner. But Huck is tormented. He wants to do the unthinkable; he wants to break the laws of God and man and help Jim in his journey to freedom. After conjuring with himself, Huck finally makes the decision to go against social norms and accept the penalty. "All right, then, I'll go to hell . . ." It's a powerful passage precisely because it challenges and upholds our reliance on individual conscience as the sure guide to moral behavior.

In parsing Huck's dilemma, twin perils are involved. The first is that an individual, echoing society's compacts, can be in error, complicit with evil. If there is no distance between private and public conscience, we will go along to get along: for proof, look no further than the Holocaust, Pol Pot, American slavery, the Spanish Inquisition. The second peril is that we may find it difficult to decide whether our own conscience, especially if it cuts against society's grain, is truly right or wrong. In Huck's case, there was a higher law to which he could appeal: his faith. A reliance on faith was not unusual: Religion drove the vast majority of abolitionists. A collective of individual consciences- which is what religion is - was suddenly asking: Why would someone go to hell for doing the right thing? Obviously, someone should not. Huck becomes a moral hero of sorts because, although he thinks hell will be his fate, he persists in doing the right thing anyway. It accounts for the power of Twain's narrative.

There is a precedence to this. In the history of Western thought, it was the Protestant Reformation that made conscience the arbiter of moral behavior. The individual's conscience had been a theme well before the sixteenth century, of course, but the Protestant Reformers, in rejecting the mediating role of Church and priests, stressed a personal bond between God and the individual believer. A well-formed conscience was required to maintain a Christian society.

Given that America was overwhelmingly Protestant, the stress on individual conscience became ubiquitous. American children were taught to trust their inner voices, consult their sense of right and wrong, follow their consciences. Huck's story unsettles because Huck's moral universe has been formed within the framework of a slave -holding society, and that society is hardly credible: It has twisted Scripture to its own ends. It has forced injustice into law. Over time, American education deepened the inculcation of Protestant norms. Our great reliance on conscience assumed that the individual would understand what was right and wrong at any given point in his or her life. In other words, there might be a discrepancy - even a gulf - between our individual conscience and the wider law. But Huck illustrates just how difficult it is to disentangle the two. The only way out that he can see is to condemn himself to hell for an egregious violation: all right, then, he says, I'll go to hell.

THE LONG ROAD TO HUCK'S LITTLE RAFT ON THE Mississippi and his own crisis of conscience had begun many centuries before. The Greeks wouldn't have called it conscience; to them it was virtue and virtue -grounded action. Huck's story illustrates one of a cluster of questions and conundrums bequeathed to us by the Greeks. The foundational divide between moral law and virtue is usually cast in Greek terms as "the universal" vs. "the particular." Is moral law the same everywhere? …

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