By examining female characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, author Mark Twain raises two questions in his audience’s mind: did he purposefully apply stereotypes, such as the “morally virtuous woman,” when crafting his non-male characters or is the fictional Huck’s characterization independent from Twain’s scope of social views? In a bold turn of events, Twain allows Huck the ability to tell the entirety of the novel’s plot through his own perspective. Though there are some aspects of females in the story that can be considered stereotypical, overall, Twain did not include obvious and overreaching generalizations. This is evident when compared with what the stereotypes of 19th century women actually were and a look at the traits of the women in the novel.
The women that Huck encounters, such as Widow Douglas and her sister, are extraordinarily dedicated to Christianity. The widow even takes it upon herself to teach Huck the importance of religion in one’s life while Miss Watson instructs him to pray, both teaching about “spiritual gifts” (294) and salvation. Both of these mother figures educate Huckleberry on piousness. Miss Watson, as a mother figure, nags Huckleberry, asking him why he “gaps and stretches like that” when he should “try to behave” (285). As it is an important part of her own life, Miss Watson attempts to educate Huck through school while at the same time criticizing his ill-mannered behavior. Huck’s other female authority figure, the Widow, makes it her life’s goal to “sivilize” Huck.
Widow Douglas is a perfect example of the stereotypical Victorian woman, for she is stern in not letting him smoke, claiming that it is a “mean practice and isn’t clean” (284). However, the Widow is also gentle and patient with Huck, as she does not scold Huck about dirtying his new clothes, a method that proves effective with Huck’s decision to “behave awhile if he could” (294). Seen by the way she cares for and encourages Huck, Widow Douglas becomes the voice of morality. However, on the contrary, neither the Widow or Miss Watson are seen with a stable male figure in their lives, defying the stereotype that a woman needs a man to live a normal life. Unmarried women, by law, had no identity and shared the same lack of property rights as married women. Although not a central theme of the novel, Twain exemplifies female sexual desire by using his pubescent character, Huckleberry Finn. After the destruction of their raft, Huck meets the Grangerfords, a wealthy and warm-hearted family. The family consists of nine children, many of which have died in a family fued with the Shepherdsons.
One of their deceased children, Emmeline, is described to possess an unremarkable talent in poetry. When Huck reads one excerpt, he is taken aback on how someone “could make poetry like that before they were fourteen.” Though most people in the 1800’s believed that women were not nearly as talented as men, Huckleberry recognizes Emmeline’s expertise and even admits that he “tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but he couldn’t seem to make it go somehow.” Huckleberry, ahead of his age, recognises the fact that women are just as skillful, if not more, than men. Next, Huckleberry describes the “sweet Miss Sophia” Grangerford. Being illustrated as “gentle and sweet like a dove,” () Sophia is the finest example of passion and desire.
In love with a Shepherson, this Grangerford is forced to run away with her lover. After receiving the message, “half-past two,” Sophia became “mighty red in the face…
and her eyes lit up” (). Her blush became red with passion, while her eyes lit up with desire. Running away and eloping with an unapproved groom is against the image of a stereotypical nineteenth century woman, showing Twain’s intentions of achieving equality in men and women.
The last female Grangerford specified is Charlotte, who stood “tall and proud and grand…
like her father. She was beautiful” (). By comparing Charlotte to her Colonel father, Twain shows that women can be just as powerful as men. Later in the novel, Huck meets three new women: Mary Jane, Susan, and Joanna Wilks.
When the King and the Duke pretend to be the girls’ relatives and steal their inheritance, the three women demonstrate contrasting stereotypes. Mary Jane Wilks, the woman whom Huck most admires is a symbol of female sexuality because of her red hair, and it is ironic that Huck considers her beautiful despite being red-headed. This aspect of her character is not further developed because when Huck meets her, she is mourning the recent death of her uncle. While some may see Mary Jane giving her inheritance over to the King as evidence of her being the “incompetent and irresponsible” woman stereotype, one must consider that she is only nineteen, and has no experience with money, not because of a lack of ability, but opportunity. Her giving the money to the King is not a sign of submission or subordination; neither of these are consistent with Mary Jane’s place at the head of the dinner table, which represents she is the matriarch of the house. Furthermore, any reading of Mary Jane being upset by the breaking up of the slave family as indicative of her valuing domestic life would be an oversight of her character as a whole Twain consistently portrays Mary Jane as compassionate and empathetic: her sister Joanna tells her, “That’s always your way.
..always sailing in to help someone before they’re hurt” (171). Mary Jane is a very caring individual, who demands kindness of her sister, even towards a stranger. She later evokes honestly from this “stranger,” who has relied on his deceptive abilities throughout the novel.
The above quote from Joanna was in reference to an argument between Huck and her that Mary Jane had mediated. The youngest Wilks girl repeatedly questions Huck’s claims about England and eventually resolves, “I’ll believe some of it; but I hope to gracious if I’ll believe the rest” (170). Joanna’s refusal represents Twain encouraging women to challenge what they are told and not passively accept that men are right. Mary Jane does not tell Joanna to believe Huck, nor that Huck is right because of his sex, only to be kind to him.
The character of Sally Phelps expands beyond parallels with Judith Lofton. She takes a stand for women when she gets mad about “Sid” kissing her: she is not an object of pleasure for her husband, nor will she be one for a “stranger.” The Phelps family is clearly under matriarchal rule, as there is no evidence of Silas controlling or suppressing Sally’s personality. Her being fooled by “Tom” (Huck) and “Sid” (Tom) is not support for the “incompetent” stereotype, and her maternal function in Huck’s life is explanation for her perceived lack of sexuality. She is a mother figure to Huck, and is relieved when he is safe: “she laughed and cried both, and hugged me, and give me one of them lickings of hern that don’t amount to shucks” (254). Later, Sally’s caring towards Huck and concern for Tom causes Huck to decide “Laws knows I wanted to go…
but after that, I wouldn’t a went, not for kingdoms” (257). This situation differs from Huck’s relationship with the widow and consequent attempt to behave as in Sally the orphan Huck has found a mother. Furthermore, this is not Sally being a stereotypical woman, as Huck recognizes and responds to her consideration of him much like he does towards Jim’s.If one were to remove Jim from the plot, the novel would essentially be a narrative of Huck’s coming of age as facilitated by women. Huck’s moral sense and perception of the world is on the same level as some but greater than most of the male characters’. Judge Thatcher, Doctor Robinson, and Jim serve as good role models, but most of the male characters are violent and/or uneducated: Pap, Col. Grangerford, Col.
Sherburn, the lynch mob, the “Duke,” the “King,” and the mob that holds Jim captive in the end. Women, on the other hand, are the catalysts for Huck’s maturation. In the end, Huck is not running from a “reformer” woman, but from growing up too quickly, as he has already been forced to do. Tom Sawyer’s proposal of leaving the Phelps farm for “howling adventures amongst the Injuns, over in the Territory” (265) is appealing to Huck: adopting Tom’s lack of distinction between fantasy and reality, only in the company of men, would perpetuate Huck’s youth. Regardless of whether the women in Huck Finn are Twain’s ideals, he did not merely employ Victorian stereotypes, which would mean reduced significance of the female characters. The novel is about Huck’s maturation as a result of his interaction with women and a man, (Jim), who displays the stereotypically feminine characteristics of valuing family and caring for Huck.