The Finn Family Romance:
Freud and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn
by Robert Russell
Psychologist Sigmund Freud, in a 1909 essay, described the phenomenon of the “Family Romance” in which a child in the early stages of psychological and intellectual development, roughly ages nine through fifteen, becomes estranged from his parents as “the child cannot help discovering by degrees the category to which his parents belong…and so acquires the right to doubt the incomparable and unique quality which he had attributed them” (Freud 217). The child enacts such an estrangement with “a peculiar imaginative activity…seen in the familiar day-dreaming which persists beyond puberty…the child’s imagination becomes engaged in the task of getting free from the parents” and the “technique used in developing fantasies…depend upon the ingenuity and the material which the child has at his disposal” (Freud 217). According to Freud, the transition from childhood to adolescence sees the commonplace activity of imagination and fantasy of a child as a means of extracted himself from his parents, spurred on by the growing external forces which threaten to dismantle the familial bonds which were once infrangible.
The eponymous character Huck Finn in Mark Twain’s 1885 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn undergoes such a Freudian phenomenon, most evident in the ways in which Huck Finn, using his imagination, “tries on” multiple different personas. While many attribute Huck’s multiple acts of dress-up to his grappling with a burgeoning sense of identity, these moments throughout the novel also exemplify a growing rebellious nature toward the ultimate authority that child about the age of “thirteen or fourteen” (Twain 109) has throughout his early life: the parents; and in Huck’s case, specifically his father. Considering the ways that the Freudian concept of the family romance plays a role in the development of Huck’s character throughout the novel lends insight in the novel’s final portion which author Jane Smiley, in agreement with many critics, deemed the novel’s “failure of the last twelve chapters” (Smiley 61).
Huck, all throughout the novel, enacts his imaginative fantasies through role-playing, trying on various personas not only as means of survival (for himself and for Jim), but also as a way to reclaim the process of identity development which has been denied him by the abusive and isolating circumstances of the life prior to his escape. The first instance of identity switching comes in Chapter Ten where Huck dresses up as a girl–a suggestion from Jim “that was a good notion” (Twain 74)–then heads into town where he is taken in by Mrs. Judith Loftus. That Huck’s first instance of identity switching is also a gender switch echoes Freud’s concept of the family romance in that Huck, combatting the instilled authority of his father, the parent of the same sex, subverts “impulses of sexual rivalry” (Freud 217) through means of gender reversal. By taking on the persona of a girl, Huck is not merely trying on a different identity for the sake of trickery, but makes an imaginative fantasy, one which subverts his father’s lingering authority against his conscious, real. And there is a direct correlation between Huck’s willingness to cross-dress and the death of his father, the ultimate culmination of rebellion. In the third chapter, a drowned man pulled from a river is believed to be Huck’s father, but Huck “knowed, then, that this warn’t pap, but a woman dressed up in a man’s clothes” (Twain 40-1). Scholar Linda Morris explicates that “behind the comic scene of Huck performing the female gender lies the likely death of strangers and the certainty of death of his own father” (Morris 42). But implied in such an assertion is the notion that Huck subconsciously desires for his father’s death, a fantasy which, if made real, would not only ensure, as Freud writes, the “liberation of an individual…from the authority of his parents” (Freud 217), but would also confirm Huck’s vulnerability as an orphan, a likelihood which Huck thwarts by trying to blur the gap between fantasy and real life.
Huck’s gender/identity switch is only the first in series of identity switches which culminates in the final section of the novel wherein he pretends to be Tom Sawyer in order to trick the Phelps family. But Tom Sawyer returns and suddenly the moral development and burgeoning intellectual growth which has marked Huck’s journey thus far is thrown into jeopardy, merely by Tom’s presence. Scholar Leo Marx pinpoints the re-emergence of Tom Sawyer as the catalyst for Huck’s moral failings; he writes, “Tom reappears…Huck has fallen almost completely under his sway once more…He becomes Tom’s helpless accomplice, submissive and gullible” (Marx 296). The invisible, imaginary Tom who has haunted Huck throughout the novel, the always-present voice in Huck’s mind to whom he defers, has become real again in this final section, a force to which Huck cannot help but submit, as is evident in Chapter 34 in which Huck admits, “I knowed mighty well that whenever he got his plan ready it wouldn’t have none of them objections to it” (Twain 218). Despite all moral and intellectual developments which Huck has undertaken throughout the course of all the events thus far, he readily and immediately reverts to the self before his initial escape, the submissive self to the dominant Tom.
In the final section of the novel, Tom Sawyer’s sway on Huck Finn as the dominant, authoritative figure embodies the Freudian family romance in that Tom has symbolically taken on the fatherly figure from whom the child strives to wrest himself by means of imaginative acts. But because Huck has already taken on such a fantastical disguise, pretending to be Tom, such an estrangement dynamic falls apart–Huck, doubtless influenced by peer pressure and charisma, falls back into submission, and cannot estrange himself from Tom. By the novel’s conclusion, it is expected that Huck, after all that he and Jim have been through, should have “acquired the right to doubt the incomparable and unique quality attributed to” Tom (Freud 217), but he has not, and he cannot. Tom still remains the dominant figure, the friend whose father-like authority is too great for Huck to escape.
Freud’s concept of the family romance lingers in the subtleties of Huck’s moral and intellectual development all throughout the novel, revealing that Huck’s imaginative instances of role-playing are subconscious acts of rebellion toward his father’s authority. It is only when Tom, the invariably powerful peer of Huck’s, is brought back into the picture that the family romance dynamic fails to explain Huck’s moral and intellectual failings. Leo Marx writes, that “the sign of Huck’s maturity…is the extraordinary combination of…his instinctive suspicion of human motives with his capacity for pity” (Marx 296). But the assertion that Huck has matured to a certain point by the end of the novel is a presumptuous claim, one which is only revealed at the novel’s end by Huck’s inability to escape the powers of Tom’s authoritative presence and thus estrange himself from the dominant, paternal-like authority.
Freud, Sigmund. “Family Romances,” The Penguin Freud Library, ed. Angela Richards, et al., Vol. 7: On Sexuality - Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works, [trans. from the German under the gen. editorship of James Strachey], pp.217-56.
Marx, Leo. “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy by Mark Twain, edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, Bedford 1995, pp 290-305.
Morris, Linda. Gender Play in Mark Twain: Cross-Dressing and Transgression. University of Missouri Press, 2007. Pp. 27-58.
Smiley, Jane. "Say it Ain't so, Huck." Harper's Magazine Vol 292, Jan. 1996: 61-67.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy by Mark Twain, edited by Gerald Graff and James Phelan, Bedford 1995, pp. 32-265.