Role of Women in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Role of Women in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Huckleberry Finn – Role of Women


Throughout history women have been subject to sexual discrimination based on being the physically weaker gender and thus leading to society's negative view of women, there is no exception to the stigma cast on women in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. During the novel every character portraying a woman shows society's view on the role on women. The issue of sexism was never questioned by Mark Twain, which leads to another question--- how can such a powerful novel dealing with such a heated topic like racial prejudices remain totally neutral and bypass altogether sexual inequality?


One reason Twain may have overlooked the sexism of the time was because he too gave into society's connotation of women's roles. Olivia Clemens, his wife, was very much like Sally Phelps. She was dependent on her husband and served with no other true purpose in life than to run a house and bear children. But, did Twain look over sexism or support it? He may have had issues with women due to his own marriage. His wife never produced a healthy son, and she was always sickly. The dependent Olivia was even thought to hinder his ability as a writer. So were the roles of women purposely placed in the novel to support his own opinions of women in the home?


Miss Watson plays into society's rules and regulations. "Miss Watson, a tolerable slim old maid, with goggles on, had just come to live with her, and took a set at me now, with a spelling book. She worked on me middling hard for about an hour, then the wido made her ease up. I couldn't stood her much longer." (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain, page 2) The word spinster came into common use during the early 19th century when the thankless task of spinning cloth had been pushed off to unmarried women as a way to earn their keep in the home (O'Brien, 1973). Miss Watson is the image of everything an old maid stands for. Contemporary use of the word conjures up a mental image of a childless, frumpy, middle-aged woman who is somewhat depressed, and is longing to be like other "normal" women.

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She is usually alone, or living with an extended family, like Miss Watson lives with her widowed sister. She is considered a societal outcast living in the shadow of others. She makes those around her uncomfortable. Miss Watson does make others around her uncomfortable including Huck and Jim. Another aspect of the spinster stereotype is the relegation of the individual to the role of caretaker. Since unmarried women stayed at home, they were expected to take care of elderly or ill relatives, selflessly devoting their time and energies to them, and why not, since they had no life of their own. Miss Watson fits into society's view of a old maid and Twain shows Miss Watson as a typical old maid of that time.


Like Miss Watson Widow Douglas is also the caretaker of Huck and she too gives into society's views on women's roles. The Widow Douglas is gentle in her views on civilizing Huck, and for that Huck respects her. Twain shows through Widow Douglas that men like a woman with a gentle hand. That is why Widow Douglas was married and Miss Watson was an old maid. Widow Douglas is respected by Huck, he always worries if Widow Douglas will be disappointed in his behavior. The main function of Widow Douglas is to civilize Huck and make a religious young man out of him. Nothing else could be expected out of a woman, especially a widow, she has no man to see after her.


Sally Phelps is an example of the typical housewife. The aunt of Tom Sawyer Mrs. Phelps is the wife of Silas Phelps and is totally dependent upon her husband. She too, like Miss Watson and Widow Douglas, wants to civilize Huck Finn. In the novel the Phelps act as a functional family. The woman of the house does all the things a common housewife would do and Twain also brings a bit of helplessness out in Sally when she cannot recognize Tom and Huck's joke. Sally Phelps depicts what average women were like, she is married and totally helpless in her relationship because at that time women had no rights, and were totally inferior to the men who controlled the society.


Perhaps the most sexist instance in the novel is portrayed through Wilks sisters. The sisters are of the upper class and their role in society is to be married off and look pretty for young boys such as Huck. However the three sisters cannot, between the three of them, muster up enough brains to think that the Duke and Dauphin are con men are taken advantage of, the typical woman who cannot think for herself is illustrated. Twain uses the girls to show how easily a female can be taken advantage of and be conned. The three girls carelessly give their father's fortune to the men without a doubt that these are their British uncles. Not only does Twain show how the female gender can be tricked, but how they must also be rescued. The classic damsel in distress need to be rescued comes into play. The sisters do get saved, but again Twain shows the dominance of the male gender by a male, Doctor Robinson saving the girls from the impostors. Through the Wilks sisters we see how women were thought of at that time, helpless creatures that cannot think for themselves.


Helplessness in women is not only seen by the Wilks sisters but is also seen in the other sister novel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, this time with Becky Thatcher. Tom startles Becky Thatcher, causing her to rip the teacher's book, for which the punishment is a whipping. Becky says, " know you're going to tell on me, and oh, what shall I do, what shall I do" (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 128). This makes Becky sound completely helpless. Then, Twain has Tom saying to himself, "What a curious kind of fool a girl is...that's just like a girl-they're so thin-skinned and chickenhearted...girls faces always tell on them. They ain't got no backbone" (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 128). In this example we see the more rash side of Twain's sexism, we see Tom Sawyer put a girl in her place.


Through society's views we see the women in the novel are nothing special. Typical appears quite frequently and maybe this is what Twain was going for all along; women are nothing special, you can only expect them to do so much, after all they do what you tell them.


Works Cited

Chestnut, Charles W. "The Passing of Grandison"

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Connections. Ed. Holt, Reinhardt, and Winston. Austin: 1995

Clemens, Susy, Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain ed. by Charles P. Neider Doubleday 1985.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton Univ. Press. Princeton: 1966

Gooden, Angela. "Gender Representation in Notable Children's Picture Books: 1995-1999." July 2001. Plenum Publishing Corporation. April 2, 2003.

O'Brien, P. (1973). The Woman Alone. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company.

Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain. Ed. Charles P. Neider. St. Louis: 1975.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Connections. Ed. Holt, Reinhardt, and Winston. Austin: 1995

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Ed. John D. Seelye. Dover Pubns, Cleveland: 1998

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