The Female Discourse and Role of Women
Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows a view of women that was widely accepted by society during the period the novel portrays. All of Huck Finn’s women, who are alternatively scorned, mistrusted and venerated by the title character, have one obvious similarity: they are aliens, creatures with some foreign mind and spirit to those of Huck. These women fall into three categories: sweet young girls, mother figures, and old women. Huck’s relationship with each group is different, but he piles all three together with typical stereotypes about the abilities and limitations of women. Huck views women not as fellow humans, but as well-meaning nuisances or childlike creatures who need taking care of, with good hearts but not enough intelligence to understand his world. However, although Huck’s perspective of women is limited, women are critical to the novel because they bring compassion to the cold world into which Huck has fallen.
The young women of Huck Finn share common features: they are loving, pious, innocent, and gullible to the point of foolishness. Mary Jane Wilks and her two sisters are the epitome of Twain’s hyperbole of girls: kind, trusting, and naïve. The poor act put on by the king and duke fools them at once: after the king presented her father’s money to her, Mary Jane “went for him, Susan and the harelip went for the duke, and then such another hugging and kissing I never seen yet” (Twain 215). These girls are so eager to trust and to love that they are blind to the babbling idiocy of the two men they believe to be their uncles. Huck loves the Wilks for their kindness and beauty, but feels he needs to be chivalrous because of the girls’ vulnerability. Huck’s further description of all the girls’ looks shows them more as prizes than people. He describes each girl as “awful beautiful” (Twain 210) or “gentle looking” (Twain 183) aside from the homely Joanna Wilks, whom he deplores so much as to call her by “harelip” instead of her name. The idea of women as objects does not stop there: even in dark plans of kidnap, Tom refuses to kill the women, telling the boys, “you fetch them to the cave, and you’re always as polite as pie to them; and by and by they fall in love with you, and never want to go home anymore (Twain 12). He clearly does not see the enemy women as a threat (as he sees the men) as much as a trophy: creatures whose minds and hearts can be bended at the wit and charm of the gang members. Sophia Grangerford at first appears to be yet another one of these “soft” girls; but she is notable as the only female in the book who ever leaves home or takes charge of her own situation (by running away to marry a man hated by her father). The rest of Huck’s women, whether young or old, wise or foolish, sit complacently in their domestic sphere and leave decision making to the men in their lives.
The least developed of Huck Finn’s female characters are undisputedly the older women of the novel. One of these is the old and sour Miss Watson, a spinster who has moved in with her sister, the Widow Douglas, Huck’s keeper at the beginning of the book. When she moves in Miss Watson attempts to reform Huck, but her work is all in vain. Her explanation of heaven leaves him unimpressed, and when Huck replies that he wishes he was in the “bad place,” she tells him that “it was wicked to say what I said…she was going to live so as to go to the good place. Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it” (Twain 3). Miss Watson, an old maid, is what “proper” women strive not to become: she is too outspoken and harsh to be marriageable, the opposite of her kind, gentle sister. She displays all of the qualities Huck dislikes in women: she is condescending, talks too much and is far too focused on proper behavior for Huck’s taste. Twain subtly lists the qualities necessary for a wife through the contrast between the widow and her sister. Mellissa Pennell notes in “Women’s Roles and Influence in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” that though Huck resents the widow’s code of behavior, he perceives that unlike “Ol’ Miss Watson, who has been neither wife nor mother, the Widow Douglas does care for him and that her efforts are well-intentioned” (Pennell 2). However, Huck does feel uncomfortable around both Miss Watson and the Widow, because they represent the confinements of society in the forms of religion, education, and etiquette. He knows that the Widow wants the best of him, but can’t understand why she wants him to learn all about a dead man—Moses—and refuses to let him smoke.
Mother figures are the most satisfying of Huck Finn’s women in many ways: they are capable and smart, and some even possess wit. Judith Loftus and Aunt Sally are more developed and well-rounded characters than Huck’s implausible caricatures of young angels and old shrews. These women reach levels of wit and intelligence not found elsewhere in the novel, but they’re sometimes disappointing to the reader because they never attempt to reach beyond life as a housewife. Pennell contrasts the lifestyles of men and women in the book by comparing Peter Wilks, who travels all the way from England, to the book’s female characters, who are “usually encountered in their homes, underscoring women’s ties to the domestic sphere” (Pennell 1). Aunt Sally doesn’t even travel into town, leaving her husband Silas to make the wagon trips. Within the home, women “execute a degree of authority” (Pennell 2), yet even they can often not keep up with Huck’s tricks: although he respects them, he still considers himself smarter in many aspects. Twain also creates a level of foolishness in mother figures by giving them “girly” characteristics. The practical Aunt Sally, for example, jumps to high heaven at the sight of a snake or a spider, two things that Huck is completely comfortable around. Judith Loftus further shows the weakness of women when she advises him how to throw like a girl, by bringing his hand up “over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot” (Twain 82). How can Huck take women seriously when society expects them to scream at animals and “throw like a girl”?
Mark Twain’s attachment to the beliefs of his own times shows clearly in his representation of women as people of another world, with wants and needs separate to those of society’s men. This view is not always detrimental to the women; in fact, occasionally, as in the case of Judith Loftus, Huck reveals women to be wiser and more practical than him—and certainly more compassionate. The tragedy of Huck Finn’s women is not as much in Twain’s portrayal of the women as in the real societal restraints and expectations that women faced in the mid-nineteenth century. Huck Finn’s women disappoint again and again with their complacence, which in itself is more a (superficial) reality of Twain’s times than a sexist portrayal.
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