Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"There's More Honor": Reinterpreting Tom and the Evasion in Huckleberry Finn

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

"There's More Honor": Reinterpreting Tom and the Evasion in Huckleberry Finn

Article excerpt

When Leo Marx, in 1953, published his landmark essay, "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," he could not have anticipated the avalanche of scholarly reactions to his critique that would proliferate during the next fifty years and that would help make Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the most controversial book in American literature. Marx's essay attempted to undercut existing defenses of the ending of Huckleberry Finn by describing that part of the text as an evasion, on the author's part, of the moral responsibilities created by the experiences Huck and Jim share on the river. According to Marx, to avoid the pain of the ending that would logically have developed (presumably, Huck hanged and Jim sold down the river), Twain has Tom Sawyer re-enter the narrative and assume command. Tom, a representative of romanticized Southern society, is responsible for subjugating Huck and subjecting Jim to farcically inhumane treatment. It is an ending, Marx argues, that betrays Huck and Jim and exposes Twain's "glaring lapse of moral imagination" (435).

Ever since Marx's essay, critics by the hundreds have weighed in on the controversy over the ending, attacking or, more often, defending it on the basis of consistency of characterization, aesthetic form, historical or cultural representation, or a host of other approaches. (1) The discussion of the novel's ending has consumed so many of us in academia that critics have adopted Tom's language in order to discuss the ending, drawing on one of his many explanations to Huck about why their freeing of Jim must use such unnecessary and painful histrionics. "When a prisoner of style escapes, it's called an evasion. It's always called so when a king escapes, f'rinstance. And the same with a king's son; it don't make no difference if he's a natural one or an unnatural one" (335). "Evasion" has come to stand not only for the ending of the novel but also for the question of whether Twain evaded dealing with the very touchy issues his own story raised, and that question has spawned the "evasion" cottage industry and books like Satire or Evasion? Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn.

Despite the variety of these judgments, however, the critical consensus on Tom's role in the ending of Huckleberry Finn has been steadfastly singular; he is insensitive, malicious, and racist (either personally or representationally). (2) Defenses of the ending, historicist or otherwise, usually depend, at least in part, on discussion of its satiric power, with Tom's romantic construction of Jim's confinement read as an attack on the Southern (white) mind. The basis for reading the end as a critique, of course, rests on Tom's actions, which Shelley Fisher Fishkin describes as "insane" (199) and Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua calls "perverse" (118). Even Richard Hill, the most enthusiastic defender of the ending, moderates his description of Tom as "brilliant" and "brave" by adding that he "becomes drunk on romanticism and endangers Huck and Jim unnecessarily" (505). Critics have been motivated to condemn, question, or defend the ending because of the discomfort felt by readers when Huck and Jim's journey on the river comes to an end and their narrative primacy is lost. Tom is held responsible for all of this. What his presence has done, in Marx's words, is to turn Jim from an individual into a "submissive stage negro" (430). Put simply, Tom is a bad boy.

As the critical view of Tom has grown increasingly negative, interestingly, the critical view of Jim has become steadily more complex and positive, elevating him from stage prop to active participant, even during the evasion. Jim has evolved from the stereotypical minstrel "darky" to Marx's tragic hero to the current critical view, promoted most persuasively by Forrest G. Robinson, of a fully realized but concealed character. Robinson takes us "behind the mask" to reveal Jim as a character more adroit at deception and concealment than anyone else in the novel, whose actions constitute a careful "maneuvering for survival," and who uses his carefully constructed and maintained minstrel mask to his own advantage (378, 390). …

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