Hypocriticisms: Double Standards in Literature No. 7

Clipart depicting two women. Left, a woman is bent double and struggling under a huge stack of books. Right, a woman stands on her tiptoes to add another book to the top of the stack.

Welcome back to Hypocritisms, the series in which we list a few double standards we find in literature!

If you’ve ever read a book, you might have noticed that sometimes there are some double standards.  All kinds. It’s not limited to gender roles or sexuality. Just like in real life, you see discrimination for aspects like age, religion, justice/law, race/nationality, nepotism, and so on.

Let’s talk about one of my absolute favorite books: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which should really have been titled The Misadventures of Huck Finn, but whatever, it’s not my book, right? From the very beginning the book we get a face full of double standards.

The Widow Douglas, who took Huck in since he’s an orphan and he needs to be civilized, won’t let Huck smoke, but “she took the snuff too; of course that was all right because she done it herself.”  

We see stuff like that all the time, right? “Mom, can I have a piece of candy before bed?” “No.” And then when you’re walking away you look over your shoulder and your mom is just staring you down, eating a chocolate bar. (Your mom didn’t do that? Oh…)

And then we have Mrs. Loftus, who helps Huck pretend to be a girl. What happens is Huck fakes his own death and runs away to escape his drunkard father, and at some point he needs to come back to town and figure out whether anyone was still looking for his body and whether they were looking for Jim, a man determined to escape slavery. Well, Mrs. Loftus isn’t no fool. She immediately suspects him and starts testing him by giving him certain tasks, and this is where the gender stereotypes play in. She tells him how she figured it out:

“You do a girl tolerable poor, but you might fool men, maybe. Bless you child, when you set out to thread a needle don’t hold the thread still and fetch the needle up to it; hold the needle still and poke the thread at it; that’s the way a woman most always does, but a man always does t’other way. And when you throw at a rat or anything, hitch yourself up a-tiptoe and fetch your hand up over your head as awkward as you can, and miss your rat about six or seven foot. Throw stiff-armed from teh shoulder, like there was a pivot there for it to turn on, like a girl; not from the wrist and elbow, with your arm out to one side, like a boy. And, mind you, when a girl tries to catch anything in her lap she throws her knees apart; she don’t clap them together, the way you did when you catched the lump of lead. Why, I spotted you for a boy when you was threading the needle; and I contrived the other things just to make certain.” 

This is less of a double standard than it is the enforcement and perpetuation of stereotypes. And like I said before, we can’t condemn them for it because it just the way it was back then. Also it’s hilarious.  

Okay, after Huck finds out that the general belief is that Jim killed Huck, which is absolutely not what happened, he and Jim get a raft and canoe together and set sail down the river towards the Free States. One night when Huck is sleeping in the canoe and Jim is in charge of the raft, they get separated in the deep fog. They freak out a bit, but it turns out they each just went their own way around a little island, and they met back up eventually. Jim had fallen asleep from exhaustion, so Huck decides he’s going to play a little prank. When Jim wakes up, Huck makes it all out to have been a dream, then when Jim falls for it, Huck laughs at him, and Jim of course gets upset.  

Huck says of it, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a [n-word]; but I done it, and I warn’t sorry for it afterward, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d ‘a’ knowed it would make him feel that way.”

So here we see that Huck essentially breaks a double standard wherein whites don’t apologize to blacks, but you could be certain that blacks would apologize to whites even for things that weren’t their faults. And in the first place, even Huck would probably have been fairly angry had Jim played that prank. This is one of those moments where you really see how Huck grows, and it’s really nice.  

What isn’t so nice is later in the novel when Huck gets mistaken for some dude named Tom Sawyer, so he goes along with it. Who wouldn’t? And the woman who’s mistaken him, Aunt Sally, asks him why he’s late, and he makes up a story about a “blown cylinder head.” Aunt Sally’s response is to ask whether anyone got hurt, and Huck–or rather, Tom–responds, “No’m. Killed a n-word.” She says: “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt.”

Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.

Obviously the double standard is that a dead or hurt white person actually matters while a Black person doesn’t. This double standard is particularly painful given the proof of this ideology still in operation.

What double standards do you see in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

-Leigh Ann

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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