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  • Authority/Author-ity:Representation and Fictionality in Huckleberry Finn

Despite its installation as a canonical text in American literature during the hundred years since its publication, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn persists in leaving many of its readers with a sense not only of the novel's power and greatness but also of dissatisfaction with some of its parts. Although it exhibits the complexity and richness typical of other major fiction, Twain's novel is special in requiring readers to grapple with an ending, making up nearly a fifth of the work, that most find problematic and unsatisfactory. As Leo Marx has observed, few readers can avoid the feeling that the Phelps plantation sequence is a falling-off, a mistake on Twain's part, a sequence that does not fit into the larger strategies of the novel (424). To one degree or another, nearly all commentators on the novel acknowledge that the section in which Tom and Huck free Jim from the Phelps cabin seems grafted onto the rest of the novel and that it contrasts, in a nearly fatal way, with major structural and thematic aspects of what precedes it: Huck's moral development, a key thread in the novel, seems to collapse, with both Jim and Huck reverting to comic stereotypes; serious issues about freedom and slavery dissolve into farce; and Tom Sawyer seems to manipulate events cruelly out of a literariness and a romanticism that the bulk of the novel satirizes as foolish and deluded.

Responses to this problem have been various. Ernest Hemingway's act of exclusion is the most extreme critical maneuver in the literature: he suggests that we should stop reading after Chapter Thirty-One as if the final ten chapters constituting the "Evasion" were not part of the novel (22). Other critics, less surgically [End Page 691] inclined, have attempted to account for the ending, but those who succeed in integrating the final chapters are outnumbered by those who find it a failure. Classic defenders, such as Trilling and Eliot, assert that the ending has a formal appropriateness that overrides its moral confusions. Some, such as Dyson, Kolb, and von Frank, believe that despite its moral inconsistencies the lapses in plot, characterization, and theme of the ending are justified as they reflect the confusions and complexities of real life. Others—most notably Smith and Marx—read the ending as evidence of major failure in the novel, whereas a few, such as Poirier and most recently Schmitz, see the last ten chapters as a continuation of a decline that begins as early as the first sinking of the raft in Chapter Sixteen. Despite such disparate assessments of the final section and its impact on interpretations of the novel as a whole, most critics agree about the major thematic contrasts at work in the novel: in brief summary, nearly all find that at its core the novel pits Huck—the innocent, honest, clear-eyed, literal, pragmatic individualist—against a corrupt social order displayed in a variety of settings, actions, and characters during Huck's flight from St. Petersburg and journey down the river. This dichotomy between the individual and society is echoed and reinforced by other thematic contrasts, with the first item of each pair being privileged, or considered desirable, in the terms of the text: freedom and slavery, autonomy and conformity, realism and romance, reality and fiction. From the perspective of this thematic array, the final chapters constituting the "Evasion" section do work against the conventional interpretations of these contrasting issues.

Huckleberry Finn is a disjoined narrative, divided into one part (through Chapter Thirty-One and Huck's moral crisis) that has structural, thematic, and tonal consistency, and a second part that often seems farcical, trivial, pointless, and anti-climactic.1 However, rather than perceiving the "Evasion" as a literary improvisation on Twain's part, as a useless appendage that either irreparably mars a great work or is apologetically integrated with the rest of the text, I see it as a central passage, revealing the "double-logic" of the novel; in other words, the rhetorical strategies of Twain's novel undermine some of the very thematic positions the text wants to elucidate...


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