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A Disorganized Attachment Reading of Huck Finn

Margaret Miller

Part One

Ekman and Davidson (1994) suggest that the emotions that are experienced most frequently and intensely are those that are in the context of interpersonal relationships. The way that people conceptualize their relationships affects the type of emotions that are felt. This conceptualization of relationships is explored in attachment theory, which is a theory regarding the different ways that people form attachments with each other. The theory deals most specifically with the ways that children form attachments with their parents because they will influence future attachments with others. There are four main types of attachment. The first is secure attachment. Children who have a secure attachment to their mothers will happily explore when their mother is present, be upset when their mother leaves, and happy when she returns. The second style is anxious-ambivalent insecure attachment. A child with this style of attachment is anxious exploring when the mother is present, and is extremely upset, resistant, and resentful when the mother returns. Another style is anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, in which a child will not explore much and will show little emotion when the mother leaves or returns.

The last attachment style is the disorganized attachment style. This is not so much a style as it is a lack of a cohesive style. These are children who say that relationships are not important to them and who avoid close relationships (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). They want to be self-reliant and independent (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). Previously, it was thought that relationships really aren't important to disorganized attached people. However, Carvallo and Gabriel (2006) found that this was not the case and that relationships are potentially even more important to disorganized attached people. In their study they had 131 undergraduate participants participate in a getting acquainted activity. The participants were led to a cubicle and asked to fill out a questionnaire about themselves. They then saw two other questionnaires that they were told the other two participants filled out and were asked to rank which of the participants they would like to interact with most. The participants were then told that they were ranked the highest by both of their co-participants. Carvallo and Gabriel (2006) found that the self esteem of disorganized attached people was raised higher than the other types of attachment. They suggest that this means that they are very sensitive to the reactions of others and care about social connections (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This would mean that relationships are in fact very important to people with disorganized attachments even though they do not report them as being so.

It is possible that people with this type of attachment style use it as a defense mechanism when they are faced with potential or actual rejection (Fraley et al., 1998). In other words, when they believe that they are going to be rejected by someone they feel close to, they deny that they feel any closeness. When a person has experienced a lot of rejection in their lives, they may begin to see potential rejection everywhere. This would lead to the continual avoidance of close relationships that people with disorganized attachment style have. The avoidance and denial of the importance of close relationships, as well as an intense desire to be independent and self-reliant is characteristic of a person with disorganized attachment style.

Part Two

In the closing scene of Chapter 13, Huck has just witnessed a brutal battle between the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords in which he saw his friend get killed. He has run to find Jim and to get back on the river. When they are reunited, Jim "grabbed [Huck] and hugged [Huck], he was so glad to see [Huck]" as Huck tells him to "just shove off for the big water as fast as ever you can" (Twain, 134). The scene ends with them having rafted two miles away and with Jim getting Huck some food. This is a characteristic scene of the relationship between Jim and Huck as Jim is continually looking out for and expressing his feelings toward Huck, while Huck denies any feelings of closeness he might have for Jim.

Disorganized attachment style helps the reader understand the confusing relationship between Huck and Jim in this scene and throughout the book. In this scene it is confusing why Huck would be so devastated that Jim wasn't there when he first looks for him, but doesn't tell or show Jim how he feels about him. It may also be confusing why Huck doesn't feel safe until they are on the raft and "in the middle of the Mississippi," because if he had a secure attachment with Jim he should feel safe the moment he is with him (Twain, 134).

Huck doesn't tell or show Jim how he feels about him in this scene because his defense mechanism of his disorganized attachment style had been activated. When Huck first looks for Jim he fears that Jim has already taken the raft and left. Huck says, "the raft was gone! My souls, but I was scared!" (Twain, 134) His defense mechanism is activated by the belief that he has been rejected and abandoned by Jim, a person he is close to, and he begins to deny any feelings of closeness he has for him. It is also possible that his defensive mechanism was already activated when his friend died. Huck may have felt abandoned by his friend and, when he couldn't find Jim right away, feel even more abandoned. When Jim shouts out and Huck realizes that he hasn't been rejected, he still doesn't acknowledge the feelings he has for Jim. He says that Jim feels close to him as Jim was "so glad to see [him]," but the closest he gets to saying he is glad to see Jim is when he says of Jim's voice that "nothing ever sounded so good before" (Twain, 134). Jim continues to show his feelings of closeness with Huck and says, "Laws bless you, chile...Lawsy, I's mighty glad to git you back agin, honey" (Twain, 134). Huck appears to cut him off and tells him "all rightóthat's mighty good" (Twain, 134). Consistent with his disorganized attachment style, Huck denies any feelings of closeness he may have toward Jim after he believes that he has been abandoned.

Huck doesn't feel safe until he is out "in the middle of the Mississippi" (Twain, 134). This may be due the fact that, characteristic of the disorganized attachment style, he wants to be independent and self-reliant (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). Huck reflects that "other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, a raft don't. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft" (Twain, 134). This suggests that when he is on the raft, Huck feels "free" and independent. His feeling of safety is also characteristic of the disorganized attachment style because, once he has made it to the "middle of the Mississippi," he was "away from the feuds" and the new close relationships he had formed with the Grangerfords (Twain, 134). Huck doesn't want to form close relationships and does what he can to avoid doing so. In the preceding chapters, he had begun to form close relationships with members of the Grangerford family and that, along with their deadly feud, scares him. He feels safer when he is on the raft because he isn't trapped by the new close relationships. On the raft he only has to deal with the one close relationship he has with Jim. By not being surrounded by the Grangerfords, Huck doesn't have to deal with forming close relationships and can avoid doing so.

Another confusing element of this scene is when Huck admits that when he first hears Jim's voice that "nothing ever sounded so good before" (Twain, 134). This may be confusing when you think that if Huck has a disorganized attachment style, then hearing the voice of someone he is close to shouldn't have as large an impact on him. However, it is not as confusing when you consider the fact that Carvallo and Gabriel found that people with disorganized attachment are more sensitive to others in terms of their self-esteem (2006). This sensitivity may translate into other areas as well. For example, disorganized attachment may make people more sensitive to emotional cues so they become more emotional. This would explain why Huck feels that "nothing ever sounded so good before" (Twain, 134). He is so sensitive to the fact that his close friend Jim has reappeared that he is so overcome with happiness that he would make such a claim.

Although the content of the scene doesn't change, when one reexamines it through the lens of disorganized attachment, the content does. The content of the way that Jim and Huck talk to each other and why Huck feels safe on the raft is less confusing when considering the fact that Huck has a disorganized style of attachment. The characteristics of this attachment style of independence and fear of close relationships, as well as the sensitive nature of people with this attachment style put this scene in a less confusing light.

Part Three

Disorganized attachment style helps the reader understand the confusing relationship between Huck and Jim. Although they appear to have a close relationship, Huck does not express his feelings towards Jim as often as Jim does. This may lead the reader to believe that the relationship is more important to Jim or that Jim feels closer to Huck than Huck does to Jim. If Huck has a disorganized attachment style, then it would explain his behavior toward Jim. It would be hard to determine how close Huck really feels toward Jim because the entire novel is written in his voice. In other words, because people with disorganized attachment report that they don't need close relationships, Huck never reports that he and Jim were close (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006).

Huck's disorganized attachment style with Jim is derived from his relationship with pap. Attachment theorists believe that the attachment style that one has with their parent influences the rest of the relationships in one's life (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This is because it is in the parent-child relationship that the child develops their understanding of how relationships work and what they should expect from them. Huck's pap was often drunk and abused him (Twain, 31). His drinking led him to often be absent from Huck's life (Twain, 37). The combination of these things led Huck to develop a disorganized attachment style because he couldn't count on his pap to be there and had to become independent and self-reliant to survive. This disorganized attachment style means that there was no real consistent pattern to their relationship. When pap has taken Huck up to the cabin in the woods, Huck says that "it warn't long after that till I was used to being where I was, and liked it, all but the cowhide part" (Twain, 36). This suggests that sometimes Huck liked his relationship with his father, but other times, when he was being beaten, didn't. The unpredictability of pap's presence in Huck's life, led Huck to develop the disorganized attachment style because he never knew if pap would be there, for how long, or what mood he would be in. Huck began having to deny that his relationship with pap was important so that he wouldn't feel at such a loss every time pap left or abused him. This lead to the formation of the disorganized attachment style which characterizes all of Huck's close relationships.

Huck's close relationship with Jim can best be examined when one recognizes that Huck has a disorganized attachment style. While Jim continually voices his liking for Huck and calls him the affectionate term of "honey," Huck doesn't ever tell Jim how much he means to him and, when talking about him, calls him the derogative term "nigger" (Twain, 134, 110). The use of this term is controversial and is often the reason why high school classes don't read this novel. Without denying the fact that it is derogatory and offensive, if Huck has a disorganized attachment style it may explain why he uses the word. When he uses the word he is able to distance himself from Jim and avoid the emerging close relationship that makes him feel uncomfortable.

Jim is an ideal person for Huck to have a close relationship with because he seems to understand that he needs to feel independent and self-reliant. He helps him feel this way by treating Huck as a partner and not as a child. For example, when Huck suggests that he go ashore to determine if they were close to Cairo, Jim tells him that it was a "good idea"(Twain, 96). In this example, Jim listens to Huck's ideas and tells him that they were good ones. Jim recognizes that this is important for Huck because, due to his disorganized attachment style, he is very sensitive to other's comments (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). Jim also recognizes that abandonment is difficult for Huck. He protects Huck from the knowledge that pap has died until the end of the novel (Twain, 295). This suggests that he knows how hard abandonment is for Huck and that even though Huck never acknowledges his closeness with his pap, he still felt close.

A potential element of the novel that changes when reexamined through the idea that Huck has a disorganized attachment style, is the idea that Huck has ADHD. People have interpreted his actions of rejecting society and civilization as being due to the fact that he has ADHD and finds it difficult to stay in one place for a very long time. If Huck has a disorganized attachment style, then he wants to avoid close relationships and to be self-reliant and independent (Carvallo & Gabriel, 2006). This would explain why he wants to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it" (Twain, 296). If Huck wants to avoid close relationships, it would be necessary for him to be somewhere where there weren't a lot of close relationships that could be formed. The Territory would seem to him as ideal a spot as a raft in the "middle of the Mississippi," because there aren't many people he could form close relationships with (Twain, 134). Huck also wouldn't want to be adopted by Aunt Sally because he fears that he would form a close relationship with her. Disorganized attachment provides an explanation for Huck's behaviors that have until now been attributed to his possibly having ADHD.

Huck's fears of forming close relationships may also explain why he is continually lying to the people he meets. For example, when he meets the Grangerfords he says that his name is George Jackson (Twain, 117). By giving another name to people with whom he could potentially form close relationships, he attempts to protect himself from these close relationships. He may think that he couldn't form a close relationship with someone who doesn't even know his real name. These lies often involve tragic stories regarding the loss of his family. For example, when Huck is trying to convince a ferry-boat owner to go and save the gang trapped on the wreck, he tells him that his "pap, and mam, and sis, and Miss Hooker" were trapped on the wreck and sure to die if the ferry-boat owner didn't try to save them (Twain, 84). This shows that Huck is able to quickly invent stories about the loss of his family. The loss of his family, or the abandonment of Huck by his family, may be easy for Huck to lie about because it is constantly on his mind. His disorganized attachment response that relationships don't matter to him occurs whenever he believes he will be abandoned. As he is continually on the lookout for abandonment, thoughts of how he could be abandoned may come more easily to him than thoughts of a happy, close relationship. Huck's disorganized attachment helps the reader understand why Huck tells and is able to tell the lies that he does.

Disorganized attachment also helps the reader understand why Huck goes along with Tom's plan to free Jim at the end of the novel. Always the romantic, Tom devised an extremely elaborate plan to free Jim when he knew that Jim was already declared to be free. Huck went along with his plan and helped Tom with the "power of workóweeks and weeks of itóhours and hours, every night, whilst [everyone else] was all asleep" (Twain, 290). This may be confusing if the reader thinks that due to his close relationship with Jim, Huck would want to free him as soon as possible. However, that interpretation would be overlooking the crucial aspect of the close relationship that Huck has with Tom. This relationship is also characterized by Huck's disorganized attachment style and, as he has this style of attachment, Huck is very vulnerable and sensitive to Tom's suggestions. In Carvallo and Gabriel's study they found that disorganized attached people are very sensitive to their acceptance by others. If others accept them they have much higher self-esteem and if they don't, they have much lower self-esteem even though they say that relationships aren't important to them. This would explain why Huck went along with Tom's plan because he didn't want to be rejected by Tom. Although he may not admit it, the close relationship he has with Tom is very important to him and, because he doesn't want Tom to abandon him, Huck will go along with what Tom suggests even if it negatively affects another person with whom he has a close relationship.

It is difficult to say whether the meaning of the novel changes when examining it through the lens of disorganized attachment because it is hard to identify what the meaning is. What the lens does change is how one interprets scenes and relationships. It provides another way of looking at the character of Huck. He is not merely a boy who is out for adventure, but a boy who strives for independence because he is scared of forming close relationships in which he could be abandoned and hurt.

Carvallo, M., & Gabriel, S. (2006). No man is an island: the need to belong and dismissing avoidant attachment style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32, 697-709.

Ekman, P., & Davidson, R.L. (1994). The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions. London: Oxford University Press.

Fraley, R., Davis, K. E., & Shaver, P.R. (1998). Dismissing-avoidance and the defensive organization of emotion, cognition, and behavior. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 249-279). New York: Guilford.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: W.M. Norton and Company, 1999.




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