Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched

Conceived in literature, tested in psychology

Is Huckleberry Finn's ending really lacking? Not if you're talking psychology.


Original book cover, by E. W. Kemble. Image credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: one of Mark Twain’s most famous novels. In fact, probably one of the most famous English-language novels of all time, period. And certainly, one of the most frequent contenders to that elusive berth of the Great American Novel. With one caveat, that is. Many readers, reviewers, and critics over the year have found fault with Twain’s ending. It’s not worthy of the book, they argue. Even T. S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling—the two most vocal proponents of Huck Finn’s iconic status—had to explain it away. And what’s more, they continue, it’s completely unmotivated psychologically. How could Huck, after building a friendship with Jim for the duration of the book, after deepening his connection and realizing how much more there is to the man than the category “slave,” just turn around and forget him like that? How can he fall back so easily into old habits, as if he hadn’t grown at all from start to finish? It doesn’t make sense.

I won’t argue for or against the ending’s artistic merits. That’s a topic for another piece. But what I will say is that psychologically, Huck’s about-face couldn’t be more sound. Twain might have offended on other accounts, but there is one thing he got right: not only could Huck fall back to old ways at the tip of a hat—or the arrival of a Tom Sawyer, as the case may be—but he most likely would do so if he were a flesh-and-blood twelve year old fresh off a rafting adventure.

What is it exactly that critics of the novel’s final chapters object to? Jane Smiley sums up the arguments in a 1996 piece for Harper’s. “It is with the feud that the novel begins to fail, because from here on the episodes are a mere distraction to the true subject of the work: Huck’s affection for and responsibility to Jim.” Huck cares little that Jim might be dead when the two are separated in the fog. He doesn’t seem much affected when he discovers, at last, that Jim is alive after all. And that’s not to mention the worst offence of all: Huck’s behavior once he reunites with his old partner in crime, Tom Sawyer. As Leo Marx put it in a 1953 essay, when Tom enters the picture, Huck falls “almost completely under his sway once more, and we are asked to believe that the boy who felt pity for the rogues is now capable of making Jim’s capture the occasion for a game. He becomes Tom’s helpless accomplice, submissive and gullible.” And to Marx, this regressive transformation is as unforgiveable as it is unbelievable.

From a literary standpoint, perhaps it is unforgiveable; it is not for me, here, to judge. But psychologically, the reversion is as sound as it gets, despite the fury that it inspires. Before we rush to judge Huck—and to criticize Twain for veering so seemingly off course—we’d do well to consider a few key elements of the situations.

First, Huck is a thirteen (or thereabouts)-year-old boy. He is, in other words, a teenager. What’s more, he is a teenager from the antebellum South. Add to that the disparity between his social standing and education and Tom Sawyer’s, and you get a picture of someone who is quite different from a righteous fifty-something (or even thirty-something) literary critic who is writing in the twentieth century for a literary audience. And that someone has to be judged appropriately for his age, background, and social context—and his creator, evaluated accordingly.

Huck Finn is a 13-year-old boy. Does he have to be super human? Image credit: E. W. Kemble, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful force, no matter your age. In general, we tend to care—and care desperately at that—what other people think of us. Numerous studies have shown educated, intelligent people acting in bizarre ways just to fit in with a group of completely unknown individuals—and ones they are not likely to ever again encounter. In a series of classic studies of conformity, Solomon Asch found that people would disbelieve their eyes and go along with group consensus when judging the length of lines, even when the group consensus was obviously wrong. (The effect isn’t a weak one. It has been replicated over the years with things like areas of figures, number series and other logical completions, vocabulary, and so on.) It didn’t take much for them to change their mind if the group seemed to lean in a different direction.

Now, let’s go back to Huck for a moment. There are a few important issues at play. Huck is not an adult. Tom Sawyer is not a stranger. The South is not a psychology lab. And slavery is not a bunch of lines projected on a screen. Each one of these factors on its own is enough to complicate the situation immensely—and together, they create one big complicated mess, that makes it increasingly likely that Huck will act just as he does, by conforming to Tom’s wishes and reverting to their old group dynamic.

Let’s take the question of age. As it turns out, even though peer pressure is ubiquitous and conformity, a powerful force, there are certain ages where the dynamic peaks. One classic set of studies from 1979 looked at over 500 children from the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 11th or 12th grades and examined their tendency to conform to both peers and parents on a range of behaviors. What the researchers found was that conformity to peers followed a non-linear pattern: it peaked in the 6th (median age just over 12) or 9th (median age just over 15) grade, depending on the type of behavior—the antisocial behavioral conformity peaked, on average, later than conformity to other behaviors—and then decreased by 11th and 12th grade (median age 18).

Figure from Berndt (1979), "Developmental Changes in Conformity to Peers and Parents," Developmental Psychology (15.6).

But that’s not the whole story. When the researchers looked at conformity to parents, they found a steady decrease in conforming behavior. Indeed, for the majority of measures, peer and parental conformity were negatively correlated. And what’s more, the sharpest decline was in conformity to pro-social behaviors.

Why is the parental trend important? Jim is an adult—and an adult who has become a whole lot like a parent to Huck throughout their adventures, protecting him and taking care of him (and later, of Tom as well) much as a parent would. And the behavior that he wants from Huck, when he wants anything at all, is prosocial in the extreme (an apology, to take the most famous example, for playing a trick on him in the fog; not much of an ask, it seems, unless you stop to consider that it’s a slave asking a white boy to acknowledge that he was in the wrong). Tom, on the other hand, is a peer. And his demands are far closer to the anti-social side of the scale. Is it so surprising, then, that Huck sides with his old mate?

The behavior becomes even understandable when we add in a few more variables. Another crucial caveat to Huck’s apparent metamorphosis: we tend to behave differently in private versus public spheres. Context in large part determines how we act. A closed-door us is not the same as the us that faces the world in a social setting. As psychologists from George Kelly on have argued, behavior is highly contextual—especially when it comes to behaviors that may not be as socially acceptable as one might hope. Huck and Jim’s raft is akin to a private sphere. It is just them, alone on the river, social context flowing away. And when does Huck’s behavior start to shift? The moment that he returns to a social environment, when he joins the Grangerfords in their family feud.

With the arrival of Tom, that change is even more apparent: Tom is a part of Huck’s past, and there is nothing like context to cue us back to past habitual behavior in a matter of minutes. (That’s one of the reasons, incidentally, that drug addicts often revert back to old habits when back in old environments.) Again, then, is it all that surprising that Huck reverts back to his old self, shedding some of the change that was inspired by the Mississippi?

Is Huck's change of attitude at the end of the book understandable? Image credit: E. W. Kimble, 1884, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

And the trajectory is true of Jim just as much as it is of Huck. In the same essay where he laments Huck’s fall from heroic grace to Tom Sawyer’s old sidekick, Marx comments on Jim’s problematic decline as well: “It should be added at once that Jim doesn’t mind [the change in Huck] too much. The fact is that he has undergone a similar transformation. On the raft he was an individual, man enough to denounce Huck when Huck made him the victim of a practical joke. In the closing episode, however, we lose sight of Jim in the maze of farcical invention.” On the raft, Jim was in a new environment, where old rules need not apply—especially given its private nature. But how quickly old ways kick back in, irrespective of whether you were a Huck or a Jim in that prior context.

Smiley takes her criticism on this point a step further: there is a chasm, she points out, between Huck’s stated affection for Jim and his willingness to then act on it, especially in these final episodes. She blames the divide on Twain’s racism. But wouldn’t it be more correct to blame Huck’s only too real humanity? It’s that same break between the private and the public, the new and the habitual. All too often, there is a disconnect between feeling, what we say, and action, what we do about it. And that is especially true when we step on moral ground that conflicts with accepted public practice (the Red Scare comes immediately to mind for me here).

Mark Twain's most famous endin is also one of literature's most controversial. Image credit: A. F. Bradley, 1907, New York. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Marx and Smiley agree on one point: by the end of the book, “[m]ost of those traits which made [Huck] so appealing as a hero now disappear.” And that may be their main beef with Twain’s choice of ending.

But here’s the thing. You don’t have to hold Huck as a hero if you don’t want to. What you can’t then go out and do is deny his reality—and criticize Twain’s depiction of his actions and choices. Twain doesn’t make Huck a hero. He makes him real. Can we blame the book for telling it like it is?

Huckleberry Finn’s reality may not be what we want or what would make the book morally satisfying—but it is all too easy to understand in human terms. In those last chapters, Twain wasn’t taking an easy way out or wrapping up loose ends any which way he could. He was showing us ourselves as we actually are—as we change from the private (river) to the public (town) sphere, when of a sudden, others’ eyes are on us. And that is not a pretty sight to behold.

This piece was written in honor of Banned Books Week.


Solomon E. Asch (1956). Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70 (9) DOI: 10.1037/h0093718

Thomas J. Berndt (1979). Developmental Changes in Conformity to Peers and Parents Developmental Psychology, 15 (6), 608-616 DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.15.6.608

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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