Moral Development in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & The Great Gatsby

Categories: Huck Finn


The theme of moral development is a recurrent and essential element in literature, showcasing the evolution of characters' ethical perspectives and behaviors as they navigate through various experiences. Two literary classics, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain and "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, offer profound insights into the moral growth of their protagonists, Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby. This essay explores the contrasting moral journeys of these characters, highlighting how their respective backgrounds, decisions, and societal influences shape their moral development.

Huck Finn's Moral Evolution

Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is a bildungsroman that vividly illustrates Huck Finn's moral development as he escapes from the clutches of a strict, prejudiced society. Huck, an uneducated, fatherless boy, begins his journey with a skewed moral compass, heavily influenced by the racism and bigotry of the antebellum South. However, as the story unfolds, Huck's encounters with various characters and the Mississippi River itself force him to question societal norms and cultivate a more nuanced sense of morality.

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One of the most significant catalysts for Huck's moral development is his relationship with Jim, a runaway slave. Initially, Huck sees Jim as property and feels a moral obligation to report him. However, as they embark on their journey down the river, Huck begins to see Jim as a human being with feelings and dreams. This realization forces him to confront the immorality of slavery and the hypocrisy of the society that condones it. His decision to protect Jim, even if it means defying the law, represents a pivotal moment in his moral growth.

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Huck's moral dilemmas extend beyond his relationship with Jim. Throughout his adventures, he encounters various characters who challenge his sense of right and wrong. His experiences with the Duke and the Dauphin, con artists who exploit people's trust for personal gain, further shape his moral compass. Huck's growing awareness of the consequences of their actions prompts him to question the morality of deceit and manipulation.

Additionally, Huck's decision to help Mary Jane Wilks, a young girl who becomes entangled in a family dispute, showcases his growing empathy and moral maturity. He risks his safety to do what he believes is right, reflecting his evolving understanding of morality based on compassion and justice.

Jay Gatsby's Moral Ambiguity

F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" presents a contrasting perspective on moral development through the enigmatic character of Jay Gatsby. Unlike Huck Finn, Gatsby's moral journey is characterized by ambiguity and moral relativism. Jay Gatsby is a mysterious and wealthy figure who throws extravagant parties in the pursuit of his unrequited love for Daisy Buchanan. While he is undeniably charming and charismatic, his moral compass is clouded by his obsessive pursuit of the American Dream.

Gatsby's morally ambiguous nature is evident in his relentless pursuit of wealth and status. He amasses a fortune through dubious means, involving himself in criminal activities such as bootlegging. His willingness to compromise his moral principles for material success underscores the moral decay that often accompanies the pursuit of the American Dream.

Furthermore, Gatsby's infatuation with Daisy leads him to engage in unethical behavior, including deception and manipulation. He fabricates an elaborate facade to win her love, obscuring his true identity and past. Gatsby's willingness to engage in such deception highlights the moral complexities surrounding his character.

Throughout the novel, Gatsby is portrayed as a tragic figure whose moral ambiguity ultimately leads to his downfall. His inability to let go of the past and his fixation on an idealized version of Daisy prevent him from achieving genuine happiness. This moral stagnation ultimately results in his tragic demise.

Societal Influences on Moral Development

The moral development of both Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby is significantly influenced by the societies in which they live. In Huck's case, the antebellum South's deeply ingrained racism and slavery serve as powerful forces that shape his initial moral outlook. His gradual rejection of these societal norms represents a rejection of the immorality inherent in the system.

Conversely, Gatsby's moral ambiguity is closely tied to the moral decay and superficiality of the Jazz Age. The 1920s, often characterized as a period of excess and moral decadence, provide a backdrop for Gatsby's pursuit of wealth and status. The hedonistic and materialistic values of the era contribute to his morally ambiguous actions, as he becomes consumed by the allure of the American Dream.

Moreover, societal expectations play a significant role in shaping Gatsby's moral choices. The pressure to conform to the upper-class lifestyle and the desire to win Daisy's love at any cost drive him to make morally questionable decisions. His inability to reconcile his aspirations with his moral compass highlights the corrosive influence of societal norms.


In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Great Gatsby," the theme of moral development is explored through the contrasting experiences of Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby. Huck's journey from a morally skewed upbringing to a more compassionate and empathetic perspective highlights the transformative power of personal experiences and relationships. His decision to protect Jim and his willingness to challenge societal norms showcase his moral evolution.

On the other hand, Jay Gatsby's morally ambiguous nature illustrates the moral complexities that arise from the pursuit of the American Dream and the societal pressures of the Jazz Age. His willingness to compromise his principles for wealth and love ultimately leads to his tragic downfall, emphasizing the moral hazards inherent in the pursuit of material success.

Both novels offer profound insights into the human condition and the malleability of moral values. They remind us that moral development is a dynamic process shaped by personal experiences, relationships, and societal influences. The contrasting moral journeys of Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby serve as a reflection of the diverse paths individuals may take in their quest for moral growth, providing valuable lessons about the complexity of human morality.

Updated: Oct 30, 2023
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Moral Development in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & The Great Gatsby. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

Moral Development in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & The Great Gatsby essay
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