Twain might have offended on other accounts, but there is one thing he got right: not only do so if he were a flesh-and-blood twelve year old fresh off a rafting adventure.
What is it exactly that critics of the novel’s final chapters object to?
And what’s more, the sharpest decline was in conformity to pro-social behaviors. Jim is an adult—and an adult who has become a whole lot like a parent to Huck throughout their adventures, protecting him and taking care of him (and later, of Tom as well) much as a parent would.
And the behavior that he wants from Huck, when he wants anything at all, is prosocial in the extreme (an apology, to take the most famous example, for playing a trick on him in the fog; not much of an ask, it seems, unless you stop to consider that it’s a slave asking a white boy to acknowledge that he was in the wrong). And his demands are far closer to the anti-social side of the scale.
Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful force, no matter your age. Each one of these factors on its own is enough to complicate the situation immensely—and together, they create one big complicated mess, that makes it increasingly likely that Huck will act just as he does, by conforming to Tom’s wishes and reverting to their old group dynamic. As it turns out, even though peer pressure is ubiquitous and conformity, a powerful force, there are certain ages where the dynamic peaks.
In general, we tend to care—and care desperately at that—what other people think of us. One classic set of studies from 1979 looked at over 500 children from the 3 grades and examined their tendency to conform to both peers and parents on a range of behaviors.With the arrival of Tom, that change is even more apparent: Tom is a part of Huck’s past, and there is nothing like context to cue us back to past habitual behavior in a matter of minutes.(That’s one of the reasons, incidentally, that drug addicts often revert back to old habits when back in old environments.) Again, then, is it all that surprising that Huck reverts back to his old self, shedding some of the change that was inspired by the Mississippi?Another crucial caveat to Huck’s apparent metamorphosis: we tend to behave differently in private versus public spheres. A closed-door us is not the same as the us that faces the world in a social setting.As psychologists from George Kelly on have argued, behavior is highly contextual—especially when it comes to behaviors that may not be as socially acceptable as one might hope. It is just them, alone on the river, social context flowing away. The moment that he returns to a social environment, when he joins the Grangerfords in their family feud.’s free newsletters."data-newsletterpromo-image="https://static.scientificamerican.com/sciam/cache/file/458BF87F-514B-44EE-B87F5D531772CF83_source.png"data-newsletterpromo-button-text="Sign Up"data-newsletterpromo-button-link="https:// origincode=2018_sciam_Article Promo_Newsletter Sign Up"name="article Body" itemprop="article Body" one of Mark Twain’s most famous novels. Eliot and Lionel Trilling—the two most vocal proponents of ’s iconic status—had to explain it away.In fact, probably one of the most famous English-language novels of all time, period. And what’s more, they continue, it’s completely unmotivated psychologically.As Leo Marx put it in a 1953 essay, when Tom enters the picture, Huck falls “almost completely under his sway once more, and we are asked to believe that the boy who felt pity for the rogues is now capable of making Jim’s capture the occasion for a game.He becomes Tom’s helpless accomplice, submissive and gullible.” And to Marx, this regressive transformation is as unforgiveable as it is unbelievable.Before we rush to judge Huck—and to criticize Twain for veering so seemingly off course—we’d do well to consider a few key elements of the situations.First, Huck is a thirteen (or thereabouts)-year-old boy. What’s more, he is a teenager from the antebellum South.