At the start of Huckleberry Finn, Huck announces the tendency for narrators to lie – sometimes unknowingly – when telling their stories. Deceit and trickery become an integral part of Huck’s adventures as he travels the Mississippi, though not all of the lies are told in the same light. There are selfish lies or selfless lies. Selfish lies can encompass anything from a fib told for amusement to a lie meant to progress one’s own agenda. In contrast, selfless lies are simply lies told for someone else’s sake. They are told so another can have either peace of mind or safety.
In chapter fifteen, Huck tells a childish lie meant for his own entertainment. He attempts to convince Jim that their overnight separation had been a dream. Jim is hurt that Huck would be so cruel and tells Huck that “when [he] wake up en fine [Huck] back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come... En all [Huck] wuz thinkin ‘bout wuz how [he] could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie.” What is important here is that Jim teaches Huck about the harm in selfish lying. Huck reflects on Jim’s emotions, placing emphasis on how Jim felt as a result of Huck’s lie. He then tells readers that he “didn’t do [Jim] no more mean tricks, and [he] wouldn’t done that one if [he’d] knowed it would make [Jim] feel that way.” (95)
Later on in the novel, Huck tells another white lie, however this one is to Mary Jane. He promises her that he would not send her love to the king or duke as part of her message when she found out they were frauds. In this case, Huck is lying to give Mary Jane some sort of satisfaction. Unlike his fib to Jim in chapter fifteen, Huck’s reasons are selfless. “It was only a little thing to do, and no trouble; and it’s the little things that smoothes people’s roads the most, down here below; it would make Mary Jane comfortable, and it wouldn’t cost nothing.” It is interesting to note his use of the phrase “down here below.” Although it very well could mean down in that town, it is a jarring phrase that seems to reference hell. Lying, according to Huck’s “sivilization,” is a sin. However Huck sins to keep Mary Jane happy and safe the same way he began to lie for Jim’s happiness and safety. (199)
Huck’s character and manner of lying are contrasted greatly against the obviously vicious king and duke. It is clear that their malicious lies are meant to be taken as sinful by the reader. However it is Tom Sawyer whose lies hold the most weight. Tom says, when asked why he made such a complicated mess of freeing Jim, that he “wanted the adventure of it.” This, perhaps, is the most disturbing of all the lies and deceit in the entire book, because its dangerous repercussions were disguised in such an innocent manner. It is a short explanation with the emphasis on the italicized “adventure.” Tom viewed the lying as a game, while the matter was serious, grave, and quite real to Huck and Jim. (292)
Juxtaposing Huck’s sincere reasons for falseness to Tom’s juvenile and self-indulgent dishonesty paint a clear portrait of both boys’ ethical characters while also displaying the moral ambiguity of lies in and of themselves.