publisher colophon
  • How to Have Style in an Emergency:Huckleberry Finn and the Ethics of Fictionality

Cutting against the grain of historicist and identitarian readings of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this essay focuses on the novel’s preoccupation with seeing and not seeing—its dramatizations of how subjects perceive, or fail to perceive, objects and bodies. Instead of reading the novel as a study of moral development that traces Huck’s growing appreciation for Jim’s humanity, I argue that Huckleberry Finn stages crises of representation, calling attention to the novel’s own inability to fully render objects, in particular, Jim’s body. I consider the strategies Twain provides the reader for animating or vivifying Jim as a character—and, more importantly, what Twain withholds from the reader in this respect—showing how the novel disrupts the smooth functioning of characterization, frustrating the reader’s longing to know Jim, to fully saturate his imaginary body and imbue him with the fullness of interiority. In this way, Twain draws attention to the ethical challenge of regarding persons out of perceptual reach and denaturalizes the notion that a literary character is a mimesis of a person. Ultimately, I reassess Huckleberry Finn’s representation of enslavement, showing how the novel calls into question the category of normative personhood and its centrality to ethical thought.


Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, New Historicism, slavery, character, characterization, fictionality, personhood, fugitivity, critique

Imagination is the freedom that reveals itself only in its works.

—Derrida, “Force and Signification”

For readers disappointed by the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—and they are legion—the first, better part of the book is about the possibilities and costs of acting morally in an immoral system; of choosing, as Huck does, to assist an escaped slave despite the legal and social realities of his time and place. “And then,” as E. L. Doctorow puts it, “something terrible happens—terrible for Huck, terrible for American literature.”1 Tom Sawyer returns and commandeers the plot to “free” Jim; all seriousness drains out of the narrative; and the whole thing, in Doctorow’s words, turns to “doddering shtick.” For Doctorow, the novel unravels both politically and aesthetically in these final chapters.

Without a doubt, the episode fails to “work” both in the sense that Tom’s efforts to liberate Jim actually extend his incarceration and in the sense that those chapters feel as though they could be the orphans of a different novel. However, to dismiss them as “shtick” is to overlook a crucial part of the novel’s ethical critique. “When a prisoner of style escapes,” Tom Sawyer explains to Huck, “it’s called an evasion.”2 What readers have always found disturbing about this episode in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Tom’s cavalier hijacking of the plan to “free” Jim, [End Page 337] a strategy that effectively turns the former slave into a character from one of Tom’s adventure stories. The action becomes a set of tropes and scripts authored by the boy, and, in the process, the fictionality of the novel itself rises to the surface. To be a prisoner of style—subject to the absolute powers of author and reader—is the condition of the literary character, Tom reminds us. Twain brings him back at the end of the novel at least in part to introduce an authorial avatar and draw our attention to the ethical stakes of writerly power, especially the God-like audacity required for a novelist to call a world into being and declare himself sovereign. To be a prisoner of style is the condition of all literary characters, who wander within the bounds of textuality without any promise of escape. The evasion sequence, then, marks the culmination of something that runs throughout Twain’s masterpiece: a complex meditation on the ethics of reading about a world other than our own filled with people who don’t actually exist; and the frustration many feel over the ending is better understood not as an aesthetic appraisal (Is this a success or a failure?) but as the aesthetic experience of reading a realist novel that abruptly and deliberately abandons its aspirations to verisimilitude.3 Beneath Twain’s fascination with deception, disguise, and trickery lies an uneasiness about the novel’s mimetic aspirations, about the ways that it produces or fails to produce the bodies and subjectivities of literary characters. I want to reexamine the representation of Jim in particular and consider the strategies Twain provides the reader for animating or vivifying him as a character—as well as what Twain withholds. I show how the novelist’s own evasions disrupt the smooth functioning of characterization. And more fundamentally, I argue that those disruptions denaturalize the notion that a literary character is a mimesis of a person. The text frustrates the reader’s longing to fully saturate Jim’s imaginary body and imbue him with the fullness of interiority, and in doing so, it dramatizes the limitations of realism’s representations of normative personhood.

Nearly every critic of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has weighed in on the debate about Twain’s characterization. In the second half of the twentieth century the issue was taken up by a list that includes Louis Budd, Bernard DeVoto, T. S. Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Leslie Fiedler, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Ernest Hemingway, Leo Marx, Toni Morrison, and Lionel Trilling. Despite the diversity of their treatments, at one point or another each of them comments on whether or not the novel’s characters are sufficiently real—whether they are as psychologically complex or capacious, as round or deep, as ambivalent or conflicted as actual human [End Page 338] beings. For Marx, Huck and Jim sadly “become comic characters” in the ending; for Ellison, the novel succeeds when we observe “Jim’s dignity and human capacity” from “behind this stereotype mask”; Fishkin examines what Trilling and many, many others see as the novel’s overriding achievement, Huck’s narrative voice, arguing that the boy speaks with the “cadences,” “rhythms,” and “attitudes” of people Twain knew in real life.4 Marx, Ellison, and Fishkin provide very different readings and conclusions, to be sure, but they also share an investment in the real. In Marx’s and Ellison’s view, the novel rises or falls based on how plausible or believably human the characters are, while Fishkin connects Twain’s vernacular experiments to real-life conversations. Indeed, Fish-kin’s Was Huck Black? helped to usher in a wave of new historicist critiques of Huckleberry Finn that still continues, and while it has become unfashionable to assess whether Twain succeeds as a realist, literary scholars keep looking for the reality hidden behind the fiction. As Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt have written about the turn to new historicism in general, “We wanted to recover in our literary criticism a confident conviction of reality. […] We wanted the touch of the real in the way that in an earlier period people wanted the touch of the transcendent.”5 Historicists want to know who are Huck and Jim, really?

This essay is an attempt to reverse the subjugation of the fictive to the real. Instead of anchoring Huck or Jim in the firm ground of materialist history, I show the novel’s most powerful ethical exploration to take place at the level of fantasy, of mimesis. That is, by calling attention to the immateriality of the Jim produced in our minds, and by undermining the solidity of his body and the fullness of his interiority, Huckleberry Finn denaturalizes the notion that a literary character mimetically refers to a person.6

Scholars of US literature tend to write about American realism in terms of its inability to reproduce reality, often describing it as a “failed” aesthetic.7 “With imperial relentlessness,” Eric Sundquist writes in the introduction to American Realism: New Essays, authors of the period between the Civil War and the First World War “sought to master a bewildering society that seemed always, in turn, to be mastering them.” However, defining realism as an impossible ideal indicates, first, that every realist text is conditioned by a dream of mastery and, second, that the story of realism always ends in authorial defeat. Huckleberry Finn exemplifies a somewhat different version of this story, one less about mastery and aggression. The novel demonstrates why it may [End Page 339] make more sense to describe some realist experiments not as aesthetic failures but in terms of their aesthetics of failure: a form of aesthetic experience through which one longs for—feels one’s distance from—“the touch of the real.”8 For when Twain’s characterization doesn’t produce believable persons, something is still represented. As in the experience of seeing a photographic negative of “reality,” the reader glimpses the exclusionary force through which any political regime establishes personhood’s primacy. Put another way, if the drive to historicize has led many to examine what is political about the novel’s aesthetic, I am arguing that the novel presses us to consider what is aesthetic about politics. Twain throws into relief what novelistic description and politics share in common: a need to distinguish persons from nonpersons and to establish the conditions upon which person-hood is predicated.

Fugitive Objects

Twain was fascinated by the formation and deformation of imaginary individuals. After working on Huckleberry Finn on and off for years, he took up the manuscript again in the summer of 1883 and finished it in a flurry of productivity. In a notebook entry from a few months prior, he wrote the following story idea:

A dozen young people privately agree that during a whole evening they will deceive one of their numbers by pretending they see & hear nothing which he sees & hears—& they will glance wonderingly at each other & seem to make furtive comments. An hour after he goes to bed they (the males) slip up & peep into his room & find him avoiding imaginary creature—a staring-eyed maniac.9

Versions of this prank appear throughout Twain’s work, but this example from the period just prior to the novel’s completion is especially useful as evidence of his interest in the social production of the real.10 (The entry directly beneath this one refers to an idea that he eventually incorporated into chapter 23 of Huckleberry Finn.)11 I take the notebook entry about the prank as a parable about the limits of visuality and the interpellation of subjects through spectacle, and it prompts two possible readings. In the first, the victim of the prank finds himself excluded from the visible world inhabited by the rest of the characters, and his subsequent insanity dramatizes what Martin Harries calls “destructive spectatorship”—the fantasy that certain spectacles, instead of triggering [End Page 340] the Althusserian scene of subject making and remaking, have the opposite ability to destroy the subject.12 Confronted with his inability to join the group’s consensus about what is visible, the man is violently ejected from the realm of good subjecthood, making him insane and transforming him from a viewer into the object of surveillance who shores up the spectatorial power of the tricksters. “A staring-eyed maniac,” he becomes a bad visual subject. In the second reading, we might just as easily take the tale to be an illustration of interpellation’s power to enfold everything it touches into a singular reality. From this perspective, the scenario is about the absolute coercion that produces the visible world and forms good subjects. Even though the initial visions (what the victim sees and the pranksters deny seeing) are “really there,” the communal scene of viewing and their attendant pressure to assemble consensus about what does and does not exist leads the victim to bend his perceptual world to match the socially agreed-upon reality. The political pressure to see what others see remakes the subject’s visual field to align with the others’. If in the first reading the “maniac” represents the bad subject who must be excluded from the privileged realm of the real, in the second he proves the perfect and sufficiently plastic raw material for subjectivization. In Slavoj Žižek’s words, he “enters the subject’s fantasy frame” in order to share its relation to the real.13 Through both of these readings—and one ought to give them equal weight—we see Twain tying together aesthetic practices (“pretending” and making an “imaginary creature”) with political concerns about consensus and coercion (whether one is part of the fragment’s initial “agreement”).14

Aesthetics, writes Jacques Rancière, “is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and stakes of politics as a form of experience.”15 It shares with politics a concern with “the sensible delimitation of what is common to the community” and with the distribution of what is visible in relation to what is understood as meaningful action.16 Twain’s notebook entry enacts this same connection between aesthetics and politics. It shows what fiction and any projects of domination (or emancipation) have in common: the mapping of a “distribution of the sensible” that defines what is and is not intelligible to a community, what is and is not a “creature” worthy of regard, what is and is not contained within the landscape of the real. Further, the entire scenario highlights the liberal fantasy of sociopolitical life as a competition of disembodied voices that communicate otherwise unknown (interiorized) perspectives and motivations.17 Indeed, the plot turns on a meeting of minds and a disregard [End Page 341] for that which is physically present. Their collective action proves more effective than they anticipate because they take advantage of the political realm’s preference for Cartesian subjects who suppress embodiment and prioritize precisely that which is absent or invisible: interiority. In both readings of the scene Twain describes, when wills, perspectives, and inner life cease to be knowable, fictionality becomes operative.18 So, first the group refuses to share what they actually perceive, and this becomes the premise for their game of make-believe. Then the opacity switches to the other side, the maniac’s mind becomes unreadable, and the group “sees” the “imaginary creature.” Thus, the message that hangs over both readings is that situations where individuals will not or cannot make their interior experience known can only be represented as asocial, make-believe, imaginary—as fiction.19

Huckleberry Finn’s most obvious variation of the same gaslighting trick occurs when Huck steals a spoon from Aunt Sally by alternately removing and replacing one from the set over and over until she no longer trusts her own ability to count, throwing her hands up with weary frustration. Huck remarks, “Now she couldn’t ever count them spoons twice alike again to save her life; and wouldn’t believe she’s counted them right, if she did.”20 Like the prank in the notebook fragment, the game with the spoon scrambles the logic of accounting and even destabilizes the presence of objects by animating them, bathing them in the shimmering light of the uncanny, keeping them radically out of reach in the way things are unreachable when they prove unassimilable to everyday patterns of thought.21 And more specifically, the scene in the novel illuminates the constant machinations of memory—the belief in the persistence of objects from which we have averted our eyes—by disrupting the flow of the image-making process. Imagination becomes the subject of critical attention in the moment of its malfunctioning. The fugitive spoon interferes with Aunt Sally’s “sense of something received and simultaneously there for the taking” that is vital to the veracity of both perceptual and imagined objects.22 Her confusion marks a moment when imagination fails to round out a durable account of an environment, precisely because Huck makes any kind of consensus about the spoon’s existence impossible. Indeed, Sally cares about the portable and recursive phenomenon of the spoon’s existence, what Heidegger calls the “ready-to-handness” of “equipment”: its appropriateness for a task and availability to circumspection, its visibility and solidity.23 If the spoon were simply missing, escaped, it would still have a kind of stable presence signified by the shadow of its absence (she would know both that [End Page 342] something is missing and what it is), but it “evades,” instead of escapes, meaning; it refuses any mode of accounting that would offer it up as ready-to-hand. And as a result, she finds it impossible to make a claim to the object; she finds the world illegible, unstable, dispossessed, and unable to return her gaze. The spoon’s evasiveness shows a resistance to human concern and an unwillingness to be knowable and available. Whereas the other spoons live to be counted and mimetically reproduced in the human imagination so as to persist in memory and affirm the specular function of the world, anchoring Sally’s sense of locatedness, the evasive spoon foils that operation. Like the prank victim from the notebook, she experiences the outside of what, in a different context, Audrey Jaffe has called “exclusionary realism.”24 “The realist landscape, knowing how to give the subject (or native) what he wants (the return of his image), also knows how to refuse it,” she writes. Jaffe’s version of destructive spectatorship is “negative interpellation,” and she contends that it always shows the bounded nature of the real: “if your surroundings can keep you out, you were never more than provisionally in.”

Ultimately, the spoon trick is only one emblem of a much larger preoccupation with the presence and absence of individuals in Huckleberry Finn. Consider the difficulty both characters and readers have accounting for bodies. There is the search for Huck’s body; Huck’s and the reader’s failure to recognize Pap’s dead body; the confusion over how bodies are gendered in the cross-dressing episodes; the constant swapping and invention of names so as to divorce bodies from their “proper” identities; and, maybe most significantly, the question of what kind of body Jim inhabits—of who owns his body. The goal here is not simply to argue for the instability of identity; more to the point, characters and readers collectively struggle over the discursive meaning of bodies—their status as present or absent, dead or alive, named, gendered, and so on—emphasizing the social making of human signification and the objectivity of identity.

By drawing so much attention to fakery and the limits of perception, Twain arouses the reader’s wish to read “into” the text, to know more and more. Sacvan Bercovitch has written about the readerly stance taken toward Huck in particular, observing that we are initially driven by an urge to protect the boy from his own naiveté, leading us to “[reach] between the lines” of the narrative for a truer, more moral meaning: “he says, trembling, ‘I’ll go to hell’ and we think ‘he’s saved!’”25 Bercovitch continues: “And our act of protection is in turn a claim to ownership. It makes Huck ours. […] We adopt him; we take him into our hearts; we [End Page 343] interpret him in our likeness; we rewrite his text.”26 The whole process of interpreting Huck quickly turns into a means of appropriating the character and remaking him in our own image, of always proceeding under Twain’s guidance to symptomatically read and insist upon the submerged meaning beneath Huck’s narrative—the meaning that returns us to ourselves. This hermeneutic process gives us precisely what we want. We come to the text expecting to find our reflection and the text dutifully complies. But as Bercovitch compellingly argues, the novel is openly critical of this kind of reading, giving us the opportunity to laugh at the narcissism of seeking “political resolution in the act of exposé” as the familiar models of symptomatic reading and ideology critique would have it.27 Huck Finn renders visible the liberal ideological structures propelling the hermeneutic act, the driving fantasy of an ideology that presents itself as all ideologies do—reified through an apparent vulnerability to puncturing, to a demolishing critique, to transcendence and a vision of itself disguised as the “real.” The readerly desire to appropriate Huck and nearly all the characters in the novel presents itself as the impulse to penetrate the exterior, the ironic, and discover an interior unknown even to the character himself, all in the service of a salvific sympathy. And as Bercovitch’s analysis implies, Twain uses the novel to critique this form of critique, as it were, as well as this way of relating to characters. He estranges us from the topographical figuration of characters as psyches embedded within the plane of the page. The reader instead turns against her own impulse to pierce the surface of Huck’s narration and make a claim to a deeper, more essential version of the character. Twain draws her up from the depths of some buried meaning toward what Huck manifestly says. Bercovitch’s reading exemplifies what Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus have called “surface reading,” and specifically, the “embrace of the surface as an affective and ethical stance.”28 This reading practice “involves accepting texts, deferring to them instead of mastering or using them as objects, and refuses the depth model of truth, which dismisses surfaces as inessential and deceptive.” If, for Bercovitch and Twain, the reader’s penetrating mastery of a character is a ruse of dominant ideology, then we might focus on the surface of Huckleberry Finn by returning to the scene of reception through a self-criticality that cuts through any absorption in the text. The reader catches herself in the act of appropriation, mitigating the epistemological violence of interpretation.

This insistence on manifest content or appearances comes through clearly during the evasion sequence when the boys sign the letters they [End Page 344] write, “Unknown Friend.”29 The first one reads, “Beware. Trouble is brewing. Keep a sharp lookout.” Part of Tom’s strategy for dissemblance is to call attention to Jim’s impending flight, to draw everything to the surface by announcing the future absence that propels the reign of terror he brings down upon Aunt Sally. If Huck makes legible the truth of identity, revealing, for example, the King’s and Duke’s deception earlier in the story, Tom’s plan flaunts his disinterest in the hermeneutic search for hidden truth. Tom replaces the logic of identity with the logic of presence and absence. And as a result, he throws revelation and representation itself into crisis, blurring the divide between Tom and Huck (who pose as each other during the evasion), imprisonment and escape, presence and absence. “Jim’s got to do his instruction and coat of arms,” Tom insists, convincing the other two that they need to write the history of Jim’s captivity.30 When it comes to actually recording the inscription, though, Tom uses a nail to first scratch the words into a grindstone before the illiterate Jim traces over them and carves a more permanent message into the stone. “Here a lonely heart broke,” Tom writes, “and a worn spirit went to its rest, after thirty-seven years of solitary captivity.”31 Tom professes to write the history of Jim’s evasion, but in actuality he proleptically records Jim’s death. The hermeneutics of exposé would uncover the truth of what is “really there,” make a presence when faced with an absence of manifest information. In contrast, Tom’s stylish plot divulges a more immediate political reality right on the surface of the story: the near impossibility that Jim’s self-representation could be anything other than a reiteration of a script or the impasse of a character whose presence always takes the form of an inscription of his own absence.

Twain estranges the reader from Jim, calling attention to his fictionality. Because realist novels tend to take advantage of the reader’s desire for omnipotence, they risk indulging the illusion that, if one just reads the right way, a character will become fully knowable. Twain reminds us how illusory this phenomenon really is. The point becomes clearer in light of another short example from the body of criticism that faults the evasion sequence for its representation of Jim, specifically, the way the critique understands character. Wayne C. Booth’s The Company We Keep is about the relationship between literature and ethics. Booth writes that Huckleberry Finn, “like the mischievous Tom Sawyer, simply treats Jim and his feelings here as expendable, as sub-human—a slave to the plot, as it were.”32 In this one sentence I see a complicated set of critical moves. Booth implies that Jim, unjustly [End Page 345] handled by the novel, ought to be represented otherwise, as a human and full of feeling. In other words, Jim has an emotional life, is in “reality” human, whereas the novel works to hide these facts from view. This reading seeks to reclaim Jim’s lost subjectivity—as though the novel’s discourse works like a keyhole, limiting the view of the story—tacitly forgetting the fact that, like all characters, Jim is not simply confined in the novel; he is of the novel as well. After the em dash, however, Booth rises to the level of form, to the discourse of the novel, to argue that the violence practiced on Jim occurs when it privileges plot over character. But if we agree with Aristotle when he says that character necessarily exists logically subsequent to plot (and I think we should), we know that this is always the case: character unfolds through plot. While Booth would have us believe that Jim’s subjugation to plot is a special instance and that other characters like Huck and Tom possess some kind of freedom from emplotment, in actuality none of the characters in the novel differs in this particular way, that is, in the structural relationship between character and plot. What does make the novel distinct, I think, is the fact that readers care for Jim as Booth does, as a slave to plot, and that they do so far more intensely and self-consciously than they do for other literary characters. In the evasion sequence Twain brings plot to readers’ immediate attention, leading them to experience it as Booth does, as if it exerts a force upon character, as if Jim would exceed the stifling constraints of textuality and his subjectivity would expand if only form somehow fell away. Character and plot, then, cease to exist in a simple structural relation to one another, one supporting the other (as they do in the Aristotelian formulation) because of this addition of force. We begin to experience the interaction of plot and character as an exercise in power. But what does it mean to conceive of a character as contained and imprisoned within a text as opposed to understanding it as a mere textual function?

Huck’s Voice/Jim’s Body

In thinking about characterization as a relation of power—as though the reader is both witness to and participant in a play of freedom and subjection—I find a pair of sentences in Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending helpful. In the first he states that “[characters] have their choices, but the novel has its end,”33 and a couple of pages earlier, without too much explanation, he asserts that if a character “were entirely free he might simply walk out of the story.”34 I bring up these passages not only because they seem to agree with my assertion that in [End Page 346] relation to realist fiction we can at times feel the limitations of a character’s freedom but also because they push us to wonder what makes it possible to talk about characters this way in the first place—as entities who walk about in the story with a certain amount of volition and freedom, until they come up against freedom’s limits in the instant they are confronted by certain formal boundaries of the novelistic discourse. Think of Jim tracing over the text Tom prepares for him; form, that moment powerfully suggests, is a practice of confinement. For Kermode, endings vividly mark these boundaries because with regard to characters they practice a certain kind of ontological violence by constraining subjectivity, choice, the ability to amble out of the text or speak without its script. When we finish a novel, we abandon its characters and choose, at the suggestion of its form, to move on with our lives, carrying with us only memory’s faded version of the reading experience. (But of course endings are not the only way in which novels guide our regard.) Kermode’s attention to the limitations of characters’ freedom proves provocative in a way he may not have intended when it leads him to suggest that novels take an interest in negotiating freedom and its curtailment, that we should attend to these negotiations, and, finally, that novels implicitly raise ethical issues about the treatment of characters at the hands of their texts and their readers.

Similarly, whereas critics are used to thinking about characters in terms of a “system” or a distribution of majorness and minorness, roundness and flatness, the Victorianist critic Alex Woloch has recently written about character as a “technology of attribution.” Narrative portions out its attention to different characters, who “jostle for limited space within the same fictive universe.”35 Far from inevitable, the intense visibility of a protagonist and the near invisibility of a minor character are matters of a social process enacted by the narrative’s power to represent or suppress what it chooses. One could say that the final chapters’ conflict between Tom and Huck amounts to a disagreement over discursive turf, with Tom attempting to evade the book’s ending and Huck trying to bring it closer, Tom demanding more discursive space and Huck resisting. The narrative would conclude sooner, in other words, were it not for the insubordinate power grab by the formerly minor Tom, who insists on more representation—a move readers find hard to forgive because it is purchased at the expense of Jim’s freedom and subjectivity.

While I agree with that account of how power works in the novel, I also want to reassess readings that view Jim’s characterization as an arc [End Page 347] from minor to major, or flat to round, before the evasion sequence flattens him again. By emphasizing his position as a literary character, Twain’s representation of Jim serves as what Fred Moten has called “an improvisatory suspension of subjectivity, and of a certain desire for subjectivity, and of any prior understanding of subjectivity’s differentiated ground.”36 I take Moten to mean that certain textual practices exist in which the question of individual narrative subjectivity gives way to questions about the possibilities that inhere in the objectivity of the narrative, or in our case the objecthood of the enslaved character. Moten writes specifically about nonfiction texts in this case, like WPA narratives, where the speaking subject comes to our attention only through a process of translation that we might understand otherwise as a “predatory erasure” of originary subjectivity. But what if we didn’t understand the narrative as an erasure, he wonders, and instead viewed it as “the echo of that already extant loss inherent in intelligibility, translation, and transcription, whose presence is and allows the meditational ‘ethics’ of ensemble”? From this perspective, the narration becomes a record of the gains and losses that mark every entrance into history, or the site where an “ensemble” of textual forces meet and negotiate the cost of becoming intelligible. While Moten’s essay does not concern itself with fiction, I want to suggest that Huckleberry Finn dramatizes something similar to his “mediational ‘ethics’ of ensemble.” Though fictive, the representation of a black slave still risks being read through the lens of identitarian politics as an erasure of subjectivity that occurs at the cost of Huck’s narrative and Tom’s hijinks. Alternately, thinking about the text as a practice of ensemble allows, as Moten writes, for an ethics to emerge. It makes possible questions about the relational stance we take toward Jim: what is at stake when a novel imagines the life of a fictional slave, brings an imaginary slave into being? And how should we think about ourselves as readers of such a novel, often taking pleasure as we witness his continued enslavement?

This last question is an especially complicated one because the nature of literary characters makes it difficult to say what we really mean when we talk about “witnessing” or “viewing” or being privy to a “spectacle” involving a fictional individual because, after all, strictly speaking, there is nothing to see when we are reading novels except for words on paper. Any account of the ethical encounter with prose fiction must consider the peculiarities of reading and the imaginative process undertaken by the reader under the careful “instruction” of the author, to use a term from Elaine Scarry.37 As she points out, the verbal arts, “especially [End Page 348] narrative, is almost bereft of any sensuous content” beyond the black marks and the feel of the pages, meaning that the reader’s encounter with character should be thought of differently from the encounter with a photograph or a painting or a theatrical performance.38 Like other media, the text guides the creation of the representation, but unlike the others, that guidance serves a mimesis that occurs much closer to the consumer’s imagination than to the work of art; novel readers “make” characters in a much more literal sense than other consumers of art, or at the very least they have more agency in the formation of fictional persons’ “embodied” existence. In this way, the phenomenology of reading fiction sits closer to the experience of memory, of conjuring and vivifying a set of entities in the face of a near absence of sensuous information.

From this phenomenological perspective, we are able to speak of the “objectivity” of characters even while insisting that the issue of ontology is irrelevant or perhaps secondary to the experience of novel reading described by critics like Kermode and Woloch—the sense that characters walk around in the theater of imagination, which is a proscenium architected by the limits of the text’s form. Literary character comes into focus as an ensemble formation, something other than merely, on the one hand, a product of reception or, on the other, something bestowed upon the reader. In most sympathetic critical appraisals of Huckleberry Finn the reader supposedly experiences Jim’s sentience (focalized through Huck) and reassesses him as a character organized by the division between exteriority and interiority, a shift that gives rise to moral accountability. To have an interior is to be an object of moral thought, these readings propose. These interpretations rest upon “the received idea of the novel as devoted to the all-importance of interiority” and suggest that we read into Twain’s characters as efflorescences of psyche, treating consciousness as a place we can go and novels as if they are the vehicles that take us there.39 While some novels do uncritically represent the “thingliness” of consciousness, Twain is interested in complicating the topography of the novel by resisting the critical posture that assumes fiction is organized by an inside and outside, a surface and its unseen depths.

My own strategy for reading Huckleberry Finn accords with Bercovitch’s in that it seeks to highlight some of the ways the text frustrates the critical drive to access the invisible interior of fictional individuals, leading the reader toward a different experience from that of sympathy: something closer to what Kermode and Woloch get at when they write [End Page 349] about communities of characters strolling around in texts that function as containers. I read “with an eye for [the] institutional erotics” of the novel.40 This means giving an account of the encounter with a character as, in some way, an “embodied” individual who remains at a distance and to an extent unknowable rather than inhabitable; if characters have their freedom, they must have their secrets, too. Rather than orienting our reading along a vertical axis of individual subjectivity, the novel encourages a reading that skates along a horizontal axis of ensemble or institutionality.41

This way of thinking about literary character is probably most closely related to the theoretical paradigms of René Girard, Leo Bersani, and Sharon Cameron, who all think more horizontally than vertically as a means of establishing a clearer distinction between encounters with literary characters and encounters with real persons.42 Cameron’s work, for example, shows how a number of nineteenth-century American writers create characters lacking a clearly bounded and interiorized consciousness, thereby disrupting the metonymic operation by which readers link a literary character to an embodied and interiorized person.43 This strain of literary scholarship reveals fiction’s ability to lead a reader outside the normative frameworks of identity, subjectivity, individuation, and personality; it seeks a representational art severed from the violence of selfhood. It evinces character’s impersonality (a term used by both Bersani and Cameron).

And if there is a genealogy of American writing committed to impersonality, as Cameron suggests there is, Huck Finn belongs in that category. It is worth making this distinction because of the long critical tradition focusing on the politics of voice—both Huck’s and Jim’s. As Fishkin puts it, commentators “tend to concur on the question of how Huckleberry Finn transformed American literature. Twain’s innovation of having a vernacular-speaking child tell his own story in his own words was the first stroke of brilliance.”44 Twain’s realism pulls focus away from Huck’s interior life, giving us a character who is constituted primarily through his speech, that is, in and through social language rather than within the confines of a private interiority. And many who criticize Twain’s racial politics have noted the child-like quality of Jim’s speech. In both cases, voice serves as the measure of personhood; a character’s voice should individuate him sufficiently and be a kind of linguistic accretion of his humanity; voice signifies a character’s capacity for political regard. It tells us how seriously to take him as a person. In contrast, I am trying to get at the novel’s powerful critique of personhood [End Page 350] itself, which raises a different set of issues about the kind of regard we lend in the absence of a fully developed voice and without the usual signs of political legitimacy. I would argue that Huckleberry Finn does not valorize voicedness as much as it asks us to consider the fact that we live within a sensible regime where certain kinds of voices earn the legitimacy of speech while others fail to do so—where certain voices are politically intelligible and others fall beneath the threshold of audible speech. Partly because the politics of voice and the politics of person-hood are bound so tightly, in the essay’s final section I have chosen instead to dwell on Jim as a body by looking closely at several descriptions of him.

Regarding the Solidity of Literary Characters

The struggle to reproduce the givenness of absent persons is Twain’s larger concern. With this in mind, it is worth going over some very well-known territory in the novel for the sake of a reading that will then attend to some less familiar passages. Here is the famous moment when Huck lays down the letter to Miss Watson and decides to help “free” Jim:

But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time, in the day, and in the nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times: and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.45

As moving and as compelling as many find this passage, a closer look at its representation of compassion shows Twain struggling, groping for [End Page 351] something on which to hang his novel’s theory of ethical and political thought.46 He leads Huck along a string of carefully plotted moves from the narrator’s hand on the paper—Huck’s immediate physical environment—through a series of remembered encounters with the absent Jim, and back to an awareness of the paper. Jim first enters Huck’s mind as a strictly visual presence: Huck suddenly “sees” Jim before he considers the perceptual conditions of his memories—the daylight, the moonlight, the fog that clears and makes way for Jim’s appearance. The narrative next takes that embodied image of Jim and animates it when Jim pets Huck. And finally it projects a small amount of interiority onto the enslaved man’s body, which appears “grateful.” However, that interiority—if interiority is the right word for such a vague rendering of sentience—does not lead Huck further into the inner chambers of Jim’s mind, because it instead manifests a centrifugal force, pushing the boy outward into the context of “the world” and then to a survey of his own environment, to his embodied position and, thus, back to Jim’s absence. To be sure, Huck projects himself into the “there” of imagination, but this only serves to return him to the “here” of his perceptual self. The point of this passage, it seems to me, is not to walk the reader through a kind of instruction manual for the structure of feeling that will generate responsibility and, ultimately, ethical action; instead, it frankly, even movingly, limns the impossibility of summoning the idea of another’s consciousness without returning to one’s own sensuous world, especially when the task of making a simple, durable, inert, consciousness-less image of another human body is already so difficult.47 Twain understands moral thought, and specifically the regard for persons out of perceptual reach, as a chain of imaginary exercises: producing a mimesis of the other’s body, animating that body, and projecting affect onto it. And the strain of this undertaking most concerns him. This is one of several moments in the novel when Huck’s imagination falters before returning him (and us) back to the firm ground of the here and now of the story’s present. “It was a close place,” Huck remarks after he notices the paper, as if to emphasize the severe placelessness of his imagined Jim.

So how does the novel understand imagination’s role in ethical thinking, or how does it figure imagination as a specific mode of attending to distant entities? How does the imagined world gain its optic, haptic, and aural coherence, its objectivity? And how does it remain coherent, memorable, for characters with a dearth of sensory information? What exactly happens in those moments when imagination fails to produce the real?48 I argue that when image-making stops manufacturing recognizable [End Page 352] objects, one confronts the flimsiness of the imagined things and bodies upon which we project subjectivity. Projection becomes nearly impossible, the question of subjectivity is suspended, and the objectivity of fictional entities rises to the level of our attention. In other words, Twain throws a wrench into the operations of the novel’s mimesis in order to reveal its underlying structures or the means of producing fictional characters’ subjectivity. He is interested in imagination as a space where the author, reader, and character enter into the contract that, paradoxically, vivifies the image of the character. To echo an earlier point, he is interested in the character as the reader experiences him: as simultaneously a product of and a participant in the fictional contract, as a willful object.49

Before coming back to the issue of readerly imagination, I want to return to the representation of Huck’s imagination. Twain begins Huck’s recollection of Jim through a curtain of fog for a very specific reason. That is, in producing an imagined body, the most difficult feature to reproduce from the perceptual world is solidity, and fog helps with the task.50 Fog (like gauze or blurry rain) has “features that more closely approximate the phenomenology of imaginary objects,” writes Scarry. “The four key ways in which light ordinarily exposes the structure of the material world—slant, reflectivity, intrinsic color, illumination—are absent or ‘indeterminate’ in fog; we might say that in fog the physical universe approaches the condition of the imagination.”51 Imagination (and literary fiction), Scarry contends, often takes advantage of one object passing in front of another to solidify both. “But unlike other instances of visually inferred solidity, such as a solid passing over a solid (my hand passing over my face), [fog] has the second feature of drawing on the imagination’s own properties. It precisely capitalizes on, rather than disavows, the ordinary feebleness of the imagination.”52 When an author instructs the reader to imagine fog passing over a solid, the solid seems to have that feature more intensely precisely because of the fog’s diffusion of light and lack of density. Twain draws on the properties of imagination and the very process of solidifying images in order to lay bare the workings of imagination as they occur in Huck’s mind. The narrative moves deeper into Huck’s interiority in order to represent the production of Jim’s solidity by recapitulating the mental process that introduces density and opacity, the emergence of Jim as a solid object out of the undifferentiated thinness of imagination.

I discuss Jim’s imaginary presence as a solid and opaque body at such length because those are the only material properties his body [End Page 353] seems to have in the novel’s instructions for imagining him. When Huck first sees Jim, he views him “setting in the kitchen door; we could see him pretty clear, because there was a light behind him.”53 Twain introduces Jim in silhouette, describing this vision as “pretty clear” despite the fact that the light emanates from behind his figure, as though to see Jim clearly means viewing him as an opaque, negative body without any positive visual features. His body is the only one in the novel to be introduced in this way. Usually characters’ bodies are viewed through a window, a hole in the foliage, or behind a curtain of hair and lit from the front; the description places them at the center of an interior that the reader enters from the outside, passing through a threshold to get to the figure. Jim, however, stands on that threshold, blocking passage into the interior. And the descriptions of him consistently work the same way, carrying his body through the fictional environment without ever imbuing it with any real positive visual presence; he is all solidity without color, all density without reflectivity. In this way he resembles the landscape on the river, which also often appears to the reader in silhouette: “It was a monstrous big river here, with the tallest and the thickest kind of timber on both banks, just a solid wall, as well as I could see, by the stars”;54 “I rose up and there was Jackson’s Island … big and dark and solid, like a steamboat without any lights”;55 “I see the moon go off watch and the darkness begin to blanket the river. But in a little while I see a pale streak over the tree-tops, and knowed the day was coming.”56 All of these negative images serve a vital imaginative purpose by ushering the reader’s imagination out of uniform darkness, carving out the first silhouettes that will serve as not only the visual backdrop for the action but also the stable walls that keep the entire visual and haptic world of imaginary objects from collapsing in on itself, delimiting an initial space where the rest of the world will come to life and reside, propped against these solid barriers. Inverting the characteristic visual trope of realism, the window, they emphasize the circumscription that establishes the real of the story. And it is as though Jim’s body, cutting between formless light and Huck’s gaze so as to situate the reader in the fictional space, serves as part of this imaginative shell, as another figure in the silhouetted landscape that creates the novel’s interiority (in the more general sense of the word). Jim does not possess an interior life in any meaningful sense because he is the very ground upon which the novel’s interiority establishes itself. He makes the world safe for the set of imaginative acts demanded by the novel. We invest our trust in him and almost literally build the world of the book on his back. He reveals [End Page 354] the affective dimension of all fiction reading in which we feel thrown into a world of descriptions we hope to be solid enough to withstand the weight of our fantasies.57

But as Huck knows from his attempt to imagine Jim in the moment of his “conversion,” all imaginary entities evaporate or evade us; novels have their endings. Thus, Jim exemplifies something true of all characters, that our relationship to them is one of “cruel optimism,” to use a term from Lauren Berlant. With fictional people, one forms an attachment to an object optimistically in that the object “ignites a sense of possibility,” but this optimism is cruel “insofar as the very pleasures of being inside [the] relation [are] sustaining regardless of the content of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.”58 A reader lends fictional characters attention even though they are bound to disappoint, to escape her regard. The benefit of Berlant’s formulation is that it links affect with politics by identifying the “affective structure” underlying political commitments to fantasies that are sustaining yet ultimately unsustainable, fragile, and costly. Imagining literary characters seems to me to be all of these things, and when fictional individuals ultimately fail us, as they inevitably will, we find ourselves at what she calls an “impasse.”59

Those are the moments that interest me in Huck Finn—when the reader or a character has invested herself in an object that suddenly loses its solidity and givenness, becoming evasive, unaccounted for. In visual terms, it is not that a vision recedes as much as that visuality itself recedes.60 Consider Huck lying down in his canoe, looking straight up into the night without any horizon to anchor his gaze: “The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights! I heard people talking on the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too, every word of it.”61 For Huck, this is a moment of vertiginous looking, of gazing upon a landscape that has depth but no bounds, that one can see and see into without seeing through because it lacks apparent boundaries. Looking toward the sky does not lead him to any visual point or boundary that locates him in the visual world. The visual recedes and he lives for the remainder of the paragraph in a world of pure sound. What is more, the reader, too, experiences this passage as a recession insofar as the infinite depth of the sky explodes the haptic and optical ground of the mimesis by dissolving its solidity. Solidity “prevents not our further sinking downwards” (or, I would add, outwards) “but our further [End Page 355] sinking inwards,” Scarry writes.62 It lets us perform “the projective act without vertigo or alarm, and thereby lifts the inhibitions on mental vivacity that ordinarily protect us.” Imagining the sky through Huck’s narration leads the reader not out into an imaginary abyss but inwards toward herself, imposing those inhibitions that keep her from activating the mimetic content of the fictional landscape. The encounter with the sky precipitates the dissolution of the imagined world of the novel and marks a readerly confrontation with the raw materials or “properties” of one’s own imagination, and with the precarity of all imagined entities.

Similarly, in the fog, which Huck will later rely on for imagining Jim, the mimesis meets its match: “I couldn’t tell nothing about voices in the fog, for nothing don’t look natural nor sound natural in a fog.”63 Huck goes on:

I kept quiet with my ears cocked, about fifteen minutes, I reckon. I was floating along, of course, four or five miles an hour; but you don’t ever think of that. No, you feel like you are laying dead still on the water; and if a little glimpse of a snag slips by, you don’t think to yourself how fast you’re going, but you catch your breath and think, my! how that snag’s tearing along. If you think it ain’t dismal and lonesome out in a fog that way, by yourself, in the night, you try it once—you’ll see.64

The direct address to the reader at the end of this passage is significant. “You” must “try it” to understand, he claims in an attempt to overcome the insufficiencies of his descriptive power. And even then “you’ll see” only to the extent that you won’t see. But, in a way, the reader already has had the isolating experience of a mimesis collapsing, of a fictional landscape shrouding itself in fog and refusing her “gaze,” triggering a “sinking inwards.” (Despite what Huck says, even the densest fog is easy to imagine.) What actually troubles him as a narrator is that, in approaching the condition of imagination, the fog entails a vivid mimesis of perceptual failure that undoes the prior work of making a world inhabitable by solid, weighty characters. This liquefaction is not a failure of the reader’s imaginary powers but a triumph of readerly imagination over the narrator and the author’s aspirations to omniscience, control, good style. “You’ll see” marks an eruption of authorial vulnerability, a place where style breaks down. If most description relies for its success on the reader “suppressing awareness of volition”—forgetting the fact that she [End Page 356] chooses to follow the author’s instructions—the phrases “you’ll see” and “you try it” unearth that volition.65 “You try it” means that the author offers instructions and the reader may or may not agree to accept them; it means that a contract exists prior to the mimesis. Style normally disguises the reader’s agency as authorial coercion, but “you try it” uncovers the truth of the matter.

If in fog we approach the conditions of our own imaginations, we also approach the unreality of the novelistic mimesis—that which keeps us ineluctably separate from literary characters.66 Huck wants nothing more than “the touch of the real,” but what he finds instead are the limits of his perception. Along with him we feel how impossible it is to act in any meaningful way upon what at the moment our senses have no access to. Because nothing would count as action, and because action is the fundamental unit of politics, a political relation between a reader and a fiction cannot exist.67 Instead, the separateness we experience is a relation prior to politics proper; it is the very condition of ethical life.

It is no coincidence that Jim has all but fallen out of our discussion at this point. What Huck desperately seeks in the fog, what we seek, is Jim’s body, but he evades. He defies our wish for a “coherent, unified, describable self.”68 Characters compete for space in the discourse of novels and for our attention, but they also hide and aspire to fugitivity.69 They dissemble or become too mimetically fragile; or we neglect them or put the book down. Characters have their freedom, but novels have their ends—to which I would add, characters have their freedom because novels have their ends. “Stealing,” Huck’s word for winning Jim’s freedom, implies a possessive relationship to objects, needless to say. It relies upon a world of entities “for the taking.” Even “stealing away” requires a possessive posture toward one’s own body, the posture of person-hood. The realistic novel can only imagine escape as a move further inward, deeper into the confines of “personal space”; it can only represent freedom as an intensification of subjectivity.70 In contrast, to be evasive or aid in evasion in the way Tom Sawyer understands the word is to imagine an alternative distribution of the sensible that renders the world of objects “for the taking” in terms other than those of ownership. Evasion replaces politics with an aesthetic practice, a practice of style.71

Jamie Parra
Williams College
Jamie Parra

Jamie Parra is a C3 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the American studies program at Williams College, where he specializes in nineteenth-century American literature and visual culture. He is currently working on his first book project, “Prisoners of Style: Slavery, Ethics, and the Lives of American Literary Characters.”


I would like to thank Marci Kwon, Christine Smallwood, and Danny Wright for carefully reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this essay.

1. E.L. Doctorow, “Jim and the Dead Man,” New Yorker, June 26, 1995, 132. [End Page 357]

2. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002), 282.

3. T. S. Eliot, “[An Introduction to Huckleberry Finn],” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Norton, 1962), 320–27.

4. Leo Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” American Scholar 22, no. 4 (October 1, 1953): 428; Ralph Ellison, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” in Shadow and Act (Random House, 2011), 104; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 16.

5. Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt, Practicing New Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 31. Audrey Jaffe addresses the relationship between realism and new historicism when she glosses Gallagher and Greenblatt’s statement this way: “New historicism’s claim on the real—or at least some portion of it—constitutes no small part of its allure; the suggestion that one can borrow from the authority of the historical and at the same time remain true to one’s sidestepping, evasive, literary critical nature has, for many critics, rendered the offer irresistible.” “Introduction: Realism in Retrospect,” Journal of Narrative Theory 36, no. 3 (2006): 310–11.

6. This argument echoes to some extent Jane Thrailkill’s emphasis on “realization” over “realism” in “Emotive Realism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 36, no. 3 (2006): 365–88. For instance, we agree that “prevalent understandings of literary realism … associate it with ‘cognitive value’ rather than aesthetic experience”; but our interest in the category of the aesthetic takes us in two different directions. She looks at how realism affects the phenomenology of embodiment, or how reading a novel “entails being ‘moved’ in the dual sense of emotionally engaged and repositioned with respect to the world” (366). I, too, am interested in the reader’s relationship to her own sense of selfhood, but whereas Thrailkill examines how it seeks to reorient the reader’s experience of her own material existence, I focus more on how the novel effects certain imaginative operations. (I don’t disavow cognition in favor of the body.)

7. Eric J. Sundquist emphasizes this term in American Realism: New Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 7. See also Amy Kaplan, The Social Construction of American Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Michael Davitt Bell, The Problem of American Realism: Studies in the Cultural History of a Literary Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Among these major works, the claims of my essay are perhaps closest to Kenneth Warren’s. He states that “in the 1880s … the implications of realism’s political critique outstripped the capacity of editors, society, and realists themselves to absorb the full political import of their literary practices.” Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 15.

8. I want to make clear that, to my mind, this essay’s argument is not at all in conflict with any of the other writing about American literary realism that I reference. Instead, I am arguing for a method of reading that might open up additional insights into what kinds of political critique were possible in the period.

9. Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, ed. Frederick Anderson, Lin Salamo, and Bernard L. Stein, 3 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 2:510.

10. Richard E. Peck gives an overview of research on the construction of the novel’s ending and offers some interesting revisions to that earlier work in “The Campaign That … Succeeded,” American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 21, no. 3 (1989): 3–12.

11. Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, 2:510. See footnote 260.

12. Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007).

13. Slavoj Žižek, “Psychoanalysis and the Lacanian Real,” in Adventures in Realism, ed. Matthew Beaumont (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 222.

14. Needless to say, the affinity between imagination and coercion has a long history in the West, which includes Plato’s cave-dwellers, Pliny’s account of mimesis as means of holding others captive, Marx’s camera obscura, the Freudian child absorbed in the fort/da game, the incarceration of hallucinators, many modern theories of ideology, and so on. This essay amounts to a very modest intervention: an account of one novel’s place in that history.

15. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (New York: Continuum, 2006), 13

16. Ibid., 18.

17. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht argues for this view of politics in his excellent Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

18. Gumbrecht writes, “Playfulness and fiction … characterize interactions whose participants have a limited, vague, or no awareness at all of the motivations that guide their behavior.” [End Page 358] In play or fiction, “rules—either preexisting rules or rules that are being made up as the play unfolds—take over the place of the participants’ motivations.” Ibid., 84.

19. Ibid., 84–85.

20. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 267.

21. Here I draw on Colin Dayan, The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

22. Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 34.

23. The “ready-to-hand” object does not need to be solid or visible for Heidegger (wind can be ready-to-hand), but my point is that for a spoon to be available in this way it must be solid, otherwise it cannot offer itself for use. Moreover, though my understanding of absent entities throughout this section displays Heidegger’s influence, I am aware that a similar argument could be founded upon a Marxian understanding of objects. I lean toward the former only because I find Heidegger more consonant with Scarry. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

24. Audrey Jaffe, “‘Outside the Gates of Everything,’” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 43.3 (Fall 2010): 384. Many of the critics I engage with here specialize in British fiction because fewer Americanists have written about fictionality. There are, I think, reasons for this that deserve exploration, but they lie beyond the purview of this essay. Hopefully it will suffice to say I am trying to argue for a “use” of fictionality that is related to but certainly distinct from the British tradition, specifically because of its relationship to US slavery and its aftermath.

25. Sacvan Bercovitch, “Deadpan Huck: Or, What’s Funny about Interpretation,” Kenyon Review 24, no. 3/4 (2002): 117.

26. Ibid., 118. Jonathan Arac’s Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997) looks at how readers have appropriated (and misread) the novel as a whole for various political projects, especially nationalist ones.

27. Bercovitch, “Deadpan Huck,” 126.

28. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 10.

29. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 283.

30. Ibid., 272.

31. Ibid., 273.

32. Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 466.

33. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 140.

34. Ibid., 138.

35. Alex Woloch, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 13.

36. Fred Moten, “Knowledge of Freedom,” CR: The New Centennial Review 4, no. 2 (2004): 276.

37. Scarry, Dreaming by the Book.

38. Ibid., 5.

39. David Kurnick, Empty Houses: Theatrical Failure and the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 21.

40. Ibid.

41. My argument that Twain’s realism evinces a concern with persons as well as the social processes through which personhood itself gets constructed and deconstructed is supported by the reassessments of realism that have taken place in the last thirty years. In a review essay about a number of books, including The Social Construction of American Realism by Amy Kaplan, American Realism: New Essays edited by Eric Sundquist, and Writing Realism by Daniel H. Borus, John C. Hirsh writes, “Most American Realists maintained a continuing regard for biography, and a consequent disinclination either to trust unconditionally the exercise of institutional power, or to ignore the effect of class discourse and the requirements of readership. Still, as recent studies have emphasized, the critique of the forces which impinge upon person is informed deeply by the sense that certain forms of institutional power (economic, for example) were inescapable.” John C. Hirsh, “Realism Renewed,” Journal of American Studies 25, no. 2 (1991): 238.

42. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966); Leo Bersani, A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (New York: [End Page 359] Columbia University Press, 1984); Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips, Intimacies (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2010).

43. Sharon Cameron, The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hawthorne (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Sharon Cameron, Thinking in Henry James (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Sharon Cameron, Impersonality: Seven Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Susan Stewart states, “The body is our mode of perceiving scale and, as the body of the other, becomes our antithetical mode of stating conventions of symmetry and balance on the one hand, and the grotesque and the disproportionate on the other. We can see the body as taking the place of origin for exaggeration and, more significantly, as taking the place of origin for our understanding of metonymy (the incorporated bodies of self and lover) and metaphor (the body of the other). It is this very desire of part for whole which both animates narrative and, in fact, creates the illusion of the real.” Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984), xii.

44. Fishkin, Was Huck Black?, 3.

45. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 227–28.

46. I agree here with Jonathan Arac’s understanding of the scene in Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target.

47. I follow Scarry in using the term “image” in this context to signify the mimesis produced in one’s imagination.

48. It is true that, so far, when I discuss “imagination” I am often also referring to “memory.” The reason why I hesitate to rely more on the latter term is that I want to emphasize the close relationship between memory and fiction, between the imaginary work of remembering and the imaginary work entailed in reading realist fiction.

49. My analysis brackets the ontological issue of what type of object a character is. I begin from a different point of departure, the idea that characters are indeed objects while they also appear to have agency. This dual nature arises because, when we suspend our disbelief, we activate the following conundrum: characters are both logically antecedent and logically subsequent to the fictional contract, both “given” and a product of our reading.

50. Scarry, Dreaming by the Book, 22.

51. Ibid., 22–23.

52. Ibid., 23.

53. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 13.

54. Ibid., 95–96.

55. Ibid., 45.

56. Ibid., 51.

57. See my discussion above of Bercovitch.

58. Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.

59. This point is especially clear in the passage from Twain’s notebook that I discuss above.

60. Jaffe says something similar about Hardy (385).

61. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 45.

62. Scarry, Dreaming by the Book, 12.

63. Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 94.

64. Ibid., 94–95.

65. Scarry, Dreaming by the Book, 31.

66. This argument owes much to Stanley Cavell’s well-known discussion of theatrical fictionality in his essay “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 267–356.

67. This is also part of Cavell’s argument about theater.

68. Bersani, A Future for Astyanax, 214.

69. My discussion of the poetics of fugitivity is indebted to Stephen M. Best, The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

70. I draw on Stewart’s discussion of the realist novel. She writes, “Thus the sign in the realistic novel leads not to the revelation of a concealed meaning uncovered but to further signs, signs whose signified becomes their own interiority, and hence whose function is the production and reproduction of a particular form of subjectivity” (my emphasis). And she explains the rise of exactness as an aesthetic value: “Exactness is a mirror, not of the world, but of the ideology of the world. And what is described exactly in the realistic novel is ‘personal space,’ the space of property, and the social relations that take place within that space.” On Longing, 4–5. [End Page 360]

71. Two things: first, this idea of ethics as a stylistic or aesthetic practice is indebted to Foucault and his theorization of an “art” or “aesthetics of existence” (see, for example, Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 2, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley [New York: Vintage Books, 1990]). Second, and relatedly, throughout this essay I emphasize “ethics” rather than “morality.” This is because I want to shift focus, as Foucault does, away from morals (the social code of acceptable conduct) and toward the readerly subject, or “the practices by which individuals were led to focus their attention on themselves, to decipher, recognize, and acknowledge themselves” as subjects (5). Hopefully at this point it has become clear that my argument does not privilege Huck as a (good or bad) moral actor; rather, I am interested in the way the novel reproduces the conditions of ethical thinking. Indeed, Twain’s point isn’t that Huck learns to be a good (moral, political) person; morality merely imposes a set of rules that the subject chooses to follow or reject. (As many have noted, a boy deciding that a black man should be freed from bondage would hardly have been a radical representation in the 1880s.) The ethical realm, on the other hand, takes into account the productive side of subjectification—the paradoxical freedom (to choose how to live within the bounds of subjecthood) that is produced in and through subjection. [End Page 361]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.