Some of the most harrowing moments in Huckleberry Finn take place when a community comes together. In many of these instances, the group metes out harsh, distressing and dangerous punishments: in Chapter 33, for example, the townspeople tar and feather the king and the duke, leaving Huck feeling “kind of ornery, and humble, and to blame, somehow” (240). Later, in Chapter 40, Tom is shot as he runs away from the assembled mob of farmers, and when some of the townspeople later find Jim helping the doctor heal Tom, they propose to lynch him.
In each case, a community enforces their views of what is right and wrong. In so doing, they leave no room for the possibility that their point of view is incorrect. Yet in Jim’s and Huck’s case, it certainly is—170 years later, it is clear to us that keeping and capturing slaves, not escaping to freedom, is the moral ill. Even in the king and the duke’s case, it is difficult to argue that being cruel to another person is better than cheating a crowd of people out of some money.
The story of the protagonist’s aunt in The Woman Warrior deals with the same question: is it all right for the community to make decisions for one of its members? The aunt commits suicide after the townspeople forcibly enter her home and destroy her belongings. The community does to this to promote their view that adultery is wrong, but does not take into account that the aunt may have been raped or coerced.
We citizens of the United States of America see our country as protective of individual freedom. We criticize ourselves, in fact, for taking the value we place upon freedom too far: we bemoan the loss of walkable communities, of small businesses, of towns, schools and workplaces in which everyone knows the details of everyone else’s life. We are convinced—it seems quite rightly—that technologies of mobility and information access, such as the automobile, the mobile phone and the Internet, have largely brought about this shift from a community-oriented culture to a more isolated, individual-oriented one.
Throughout my life, I have generally been in the camp that dislikes the ways in which we have become less connected to each other. Reading these books, however, made me feel less certain of my convictions, or at least of the universal good of community engagement. In both books, it is a town’s community-centric identity, its ability to get people to quickly work together toward a common goal that leads to dangerous actions. While similar situations sometimes occur today, they are far more rare and less socially acceptable. In general, our shift toward a more individual-centric culture, in which the community has lost some of its power over the individual, has meant that people feel less comfortable trying to quash others’ opinions and points of view. That should, theoretically, lead to a society that works better because more un-stifled points of view are available.