Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn III

Race? Gender? Sexuality? I’ve even read studies of Huck Finn on social class, arguing that the novel critiques the high and the low, but not the middle. These historicist and cultural studies focus on what divides us. There’s nothing wrong with them, but do they tell the whole story? Is there a dimension of Huck Finn that brings us together? Does the novel have a universal significance that transcends social categories?

Can a female and/or white reader identify with Jim in his quest for freedom? Can a female and/ or black reader identify with the moral dilemma of Huck as he struggles with the conflict between law and friendship, between society’s view of right and wrong and the individual’s?

Can we all identify with the escape, the river journey, the risks taken and obstacles overcome, the conflict with enemies, the camaraderie with friends, the encounter with death, and the rebirth into new possibilities in life?

Regardless of race, gender, sexuality, and class, there is embedded in the narrative a universal hero quest myth that never fails to capture, not only the imagination, but, perhaps, our sense of the shape of our own lives as we escape our own constraints, navigate our own journeys, pursue our own quests, take our own risks, overcome our own obstacles, contend with enemies, bond with friends, struggle with our own mortality, and seek our own redemption, whether it be in the form of freedom, love and belonging, maturation, atonement, recovery, recognition, prosperity, achievement, or enlightenment.

Similarly, we all progress from youthful inexperience and naiveté, to encounters with negative experience and struggles with decision-making, to either cynicism or healthy maturity. We can debate how much progress Huck makes in the course of the novel and where he might be headed, but we can all relate to his moral and psychological journey.

There are those who contest the very notion of “grand narratives” in the form of universal patterns and themes. From this perspective, we are all so trapped in our own historical time, place, situation, and identity, that we are incapable of transcendence. It is the differences among us that are significant, not the similarities. Taken to an extreme such a viewpoint leaves us in social isolation, incapable of human transactions across difference, maybe even incapable of love and belonging.

When it comes to Huck Finn it seems that controversy is inescapable. Rather than taking hard and fast positions—the novel is racist or it’s not, sexist or not, homoerotic or not, classist or not, universal or not—I prefer to see the value in contrasting views. The novel is racist and it’s not, it is sexist and it’s not, it is homoerotic and it’s not, classist and it’s not, universal and it’s not.

Nature and society, pleasure and pain, good and evil, freedom and power, love and belonging, absence and presence—these constants of human experience, historicized in concrete action, imagery, character, and language, are what give Huck Finn, and all great literature its lasting value.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn II

Race is not the only controversy that has swirled around Huck Finn. When it was first published in 1884, it was primarily known as a “boy’s book” and was attacked and sometimes banned because of its perceived glorification of a “bad boy,” who smoked, and stole, and used bad grammar.

Contemporary feminist readers have seen in its “quest for freedom” and “coming of age” themes a reinforcement of the “masculine myth” (see Judith Fetterley , The Resisting Reader…, 1978, and others) in which the male hero seeks to free himself from the females in his life (mother, wife, potential wife, etc.) who would domesticate and “civilize” him. (This myth is still alive and well in our own day.) From this perspective, the hero’s “coming of age” is understood in terms of achieving independence from those social forces (often represented by women) that threaten to emasculate him.

With a couple of exceptions, Nancy Walker (“Reformers and Young Maidens…” 1985) finds the women characters in Huck Finn to be based on popular stereotypes of women as either moral reformers of men or as pure, innocent, “sweet” young damsels in need of either protection or rescue. One exception is Judith Loftus who is smart enough to see through Huck’s attempted disguise as a girl and who offers to help Huck rather than turn him in.

The scene with Judith Loftus is seen by another feminist critic, Myra Jehlen (“Reading Gender…” 1990), as evidence of the novel’s consciousness of gender as a socially constructed performance.

Queer theorists have noted that the masculine myth of freedom and independence involves, not only an escape from women’s attempts to form and reform men, but also as homosocial, if not homoerotic, experience of male bonding in a world free of women. (Fiedler, Love and Death... 1948) Christopher Looby (“’Innocent Homosexuality’…” 1995) sees the Judith Loftus disguise scene as just one in a whole series of transvestite scenes in which male characters dress as women, which constitute a motif of “gender masquerade” that provides “an alibi for potentially transgressive male-male encounters.”

So, (1) is Huck Finn a quintessential “boy’s book” representing the psyche and experience of “natural” boyhood when freed from social constraints? Research into the human genome does support the notion of natural gender differences, but research also reveals multiple exceptions and supports the role that social construction plays in gender expression and behavior. Whether you see Huck as an archetypal “boy” or a stereotypical “boy” may depend on whether you lean more toward nature or nurture in explaining gender. My question would be, how do you explain the appeal of the river raft adventure to generations of female readers, who seem just as drawn to the quest for freedom, independence, and autonomy as males?

(2) Is there an implicit misogyny in the masculine frontier myth of freedom and independence from women? The powerful role of nurture has historically steered women into more domestic social roles and has held them to a higher standard of “virtue,” whereas men have been more encouraged and expected to pursue independence outside the domestic sphere and outside strict moral codes. While there may be some genetic basis to this difference, there is no question in my mind that society has taken a general tendency and enforced it as a prescription for gender-based socially acceptable behavior.

There is also no question in my mind that, as a result, healthy gender relations are disrupted, and to the extent that men feel pressured or seduced by women into artificial roles, misogyny can certainly result. Obviously there are many other reasons for misogyny as well since patriarchy and male supremacy send very strong messages of female inferiority. So, yes, to the extent that women in Huck Finn represent all that restricts Huck’s freedom and autonomy, there is an undercurrent of misogyny.

(3) Does the novel reinforce and perpetuate popular 19th century stereotypes of women? Yes, Nancy Walker documents this aspect of the novel very well.

(4) Does the novel offer any alternative female images? Yes, Judith Loftus and Mary Jane Wilks do not fit the common female stock characters. They are active and assertive without being controlling of Huck, and they show more ability to take care of themselves without relying on a male rescuer.

(5) Do the multiple gender disguises, particularly the Judith Loftus scene, in which she instructs Huck in how to “act” like a girl, undermine essentialist readings and expose the social construction of gender. Possibly, but I doubt it is self-conscious and that anyone but a post-modernist reader would notice. The Loftus scene could be also be read as reinforcing an essentialist reading, since Huck has a tough time acting like anything but a “boy.”

(6) Or, do those multiple scenes of gender disguise mask a homoerotic subtext? Given the frequency of these scenes, most of which occur in an all-male environment, and given what we know happens sexually in all male environments, I find this claim persuasive.

(7) Does the male bonding in the novel promote a homosocial, if not homoerotic, message? To the extent that male-male friendship is preferred over male-female relationships, yes; this does not seem to be an extravagant claim.

(8) Do all these questions over-analyze a text that is “just a story” told for entertainment purposes? If we answer “yes,” then are we trivializing the novel? Yes, Twain wrote that anyone “attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” But, is this (obviously exaggerated) statement to be taken a face value or is it tongue-in-cheek? It could just as well be read as an ironic statement and/or an attempt by Twain to deflect criticism, especially from readers who might be offended at the way white Southerners are depicted. If the novel is to be taken seriously, if it is worthy of being taught in schools and held up as an American classic, then it is worthy of being analyzed as a novel of serious significance, not dismissed as mere entertainment.

(9) Is Huck Finn a sexist novel? Heterosexist? So, yes, it is a sexist novel, though not without redeeming merit, even in the eyes of feminist readers. And, yes and no; it is both a heterosexist novel and one that can be read as homosocial and even homoerotic.

Controversy does not have to lead to polarization if one takes a "both...and" approach rather than an "either...or" approach and preserves what is of value in each contrasting position.