This article, offering a psychological take on the problematic ending of Huck Finn, rolled up in google reader and made for an interesting distraction this afternoon. I have long agreed with the critical viewpoint that the ending of the novel is a complete mess, and that as a result the work as a whole lacks coherence. This article asserts that as an accounting of actual behavior, Twain is remarkably in keeping with our understanding of humans.
But that highlights an interesting tension. If we take the psychological reading here as literarily relevant, then the central message of the novel becomes something like “people can overcome culturally problematic issues, such as racism, but only temporarily, and when confronted with old contexts or cues (Huck is reunited with Tom Sawyer) will probably revert to being jerks.” As a statement of human behavior I can’t disagree, and from what I know of Twain he might not either.
Of course, what we often want from art (especially the art we hold up to young people as iconic or emblematic of the ‘best’ we can be) is something different. We want the hopeful message. We want to know that Huck could change. So we have discounted the ending of the novel because it didn’t fit that interpretation.
At the risk of engaging the intentional fallacy, we want to believe that an artist like Twain was trying to give us the more hopeful view, and then we’re thrown off when the ending doesn’t support that view. What if he wasn’t being hopeful at all? Or, what if I just read the end of the book as it is, and make sense of that?
There are a raft of arguments about how we should or should not be teaching this particular novel, and I’m not going into them here. But if I end up engaging it in a class again (it has been a while since I taught this book), this article adds something interesting to my consideration of the work.
I haven’t posted much recently because frankly I have been in a pretty dark mood (and the electioneering hasn’t helped). Twain was pretty dark too, and that never stopped him, but he was good at dark and funny- I’m not really feeling the funny right now. So I’m throwing this up in lieu of all the other junk rattling in my head because all that feels like a dark and moody rant about the end of civilization as we know it.