Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said. - Mark Twain

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Always tell the truth. That way, you don't have to remember what you said. - Mark Twain

sky stegall

Children's Lies and Deceptions

In Big Books of Mid-Nineteenth Century

American Literature

I am what is known as a born liar. I have a decided knack for not telling the truth; it is a talent I think I have always had (although not always practiced). I discovered frighteningly early in life that being a liar gets me out of or around a lot of unpleasant situations, and I am somewhat ashamed to admit I have abused this ability in the past. I have used my skills to avoid punishment and chastisement. I have gotten out of work, and class, and activities of all sorts. I have even bluffed my way into money, not to mention goods and services.

I have never had to lie to save my life, or to protect someone else's, although I have lied on others' behalf plenty of times. I used to believe this was because I was so young – until recently I felt, perhaps subconsciously, that I was living in the kingdom where nobody dies, Millay's ideal of childhood. There was never any real threat to anyone's life, especially not my own. What I have discovered this semester, however, is that death and the threat thereof, along with loss of freedom (which I have always considered a kind of death), are no strangers to a young life, and that my age does not protect me. I realized this when we discussed Huck Finn as a liar-for-survival and when I thought about the stakes of his lies.

Once that got me thinking, I noticed several things – that all our big books from this semester have children in them, that all these children's lives or freedom (or both) come under threat at some point, and that all these children have to face adult situations. What I also noticed, upon reflection and comparison between myself and these children, was that several of them deal with these big issues with deception, in some form or another. In particular I thought of Miles from Turn of the Screw, Topsy from Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Huck from The Adventures of Huck Finn.
What struck me from that point was how vastly different these children's styles of lying or tricking or deceiving were, and how my own style contrasted with theirs. Not wanting to simply compare the three, I began thinking about why their lies would be so different, and hit upon a thesis – the children lie to adults to save themselves and their loved ones from some unpleasant or terrible situation, and this method of self-defense works (or fails) based on their ingenuity and credibility; also, these situations can teach me about my own life as a liar.

Let us begin by setting up a method for exploring these liars, an experimental sequence if you will. I would like to look at a single deception for each child; look at the situation, the characters involved, the lie itself, and its outcome. These are the things I personally take into consideration when lying, what my ex-Army officer father would think of as the mission, enemy, terrain, time, and troops available: what is my goal, my enemy (counterpart, victim, dupe, whatever you want to call him or her), my situation and previous history, and what advantages do I have? Armed with this knowledge, I and these children create a lie, and our success is partly dependent on our ability to acquire and use these bits of information.

So we will begin by looking at Miles, in Henry James' Turn of the Screw. In any discussion of this particular story, we must bear in mind the distinct possibility that the governess has gone mad, and remember that this tale is purely her perception. Therefore, let us be specific and say that we will examine what the governess perceives as Miles' deception when he plays piano for her, causing her to forget about Flora for a while (page 374). Let me first point out that this perceived lie is a lie of omission on Miles' part; the governess believes he has deliberately tricked her into misplacing Flora.

Ok, so what is the situation here? The liar is Miles, or at least the governess seems to think so, which means she is the "enemy" or victim of his lie. The goal of the lie is to distract the governess long enough for Flora to go meet with Miss Jessel outside, again according to the governess. She says (or rather, James writes, in the voice of the governess), "he came round to me and asked if I shouldn't like him, for half an hour, to play to me... it was quite literally a charming exhibition of tact, of magnanimity" (374) as introduction, then explains what it is that this act tells her without Miles having to say anything explicitly.

So where is the lie? The governess perceives, while he is playing, that Miles is trying to tell her implicitly that she can still trust him now that she has given him more freedom and that he does still love her. She realizes some time into the concert, however, that she has forgotten about Flora and quickly perceives that he has tricked her, saying to Mrs. Grose, "he found the most divine little way to keep me quiet while she went off." (376) The governess, despite frequently commenting on Miles' purity and angelic qualities before, readily believes that he has deceived her under the influence of Peter Quint.

The problem with this is that we cannot know for sure if Miles intended that deception, so for the sake of argument, for now, we shall assume he did. He has played his trick well, it seems, since it has worked, and the governess has been made to completely forget her charge for a time. She does not even get mad at Miles; on the contrary, she leaves him alone, presumably to rejoin Peter Quint, while she looks for Flora. And this deception is the beginning of the end for the governess; within six pages she feels she has "lost" Flora, and the story ends shortly thereafter.

What can I learn from Miles' deception? Obviously, that a history of near-perfect goodness and the adoration of your victim makes such a deception much easier, and that one's more honest talents can be used to propagate a lie. I also feel that his activity could have been an innocent or honest attempt to spend pleasant time with the governess; this reminds me that even one's best intentions can be perceived as lies or trickery. This makes me more careful about my own actions, to remember that what I think is an innocent idea can become a perceived deception. Similarly, I will remember that those I think are lying to me may mean no such thing, and those who appear to be attempting some sweetness may be lying.

To shift gears almost completely, in Uncle Tom's Cabin – a book full of honesty, Christian goodness and sentiment, and all the best virtues a Jesus-figure can offer – we meet the slave-child Topsy (in Chapter XX, first), who steals and lies and delights in her own wickedness. Topsy's lies are obvious lies; we see her steal and we hear her deny her thefts. In our first real interaction with Topsy (page 211) she steals Miss Ophelia's ribbon and gloves, and is caught at it. Miss Ophelia knows immediately what has happened; she says "Topsy, you naughty girl, don't you tell me a lie," (212) and gets the child to confess her crimes... and some which she has not actually committed. Miss Ophelia says moments later, "I didn't want you to confess things you didn't do... that's telling a lie, just as much as the other" (213) and Topsy professes her "innocent" astonishment.

Her situation is straightforward; Topsy lies to avoid punishment, she lies to Miss Ophelia, she persists in lying even when she really does not have to, she changes her lies as she deems necessary for the moment, and she uses her extraordinary control over her own motion and expression – not to mention tears - to appear innocent when she lies. Her lies are effective only later on, when she insists on her innocence in various tricks which she undoubtedly played (216), and not when she lies directly to Miss Ophelia's face about these first thefts. She fails in this case because the objects in question are quickly found hidden about her person; she is caught in the act, so to speak, and cannot completely lie her way out of it.
Topsy is lying to protect herself in the wake of her thefts. But what has she to protect herself from? We the readers know that Miss Ophelia can hardly bear the thought of whipping the child, much less inflicting some more severe punishment. Topsy, however, does not know this yet and has a history of much more intense retribution; she tells Miss Ophelia, "I's used to whippin'; I spects it's good for me," and tells the other young slaves that "...old Mas'r made the flesh fly; old Mas'r know'd how!" (217) She later finds delight in laughing about Miss Ophelia behind her back, since she is so much less fierce than Topsy's old masters; any relief she may feel at not being whipped so hard or so much is covered up by her joking manner.

I, unlike Topsy, have never been faced with the threat of whipping or worse for a minor crime; however, I sympathize with her because my fears of retribution are almost always more intense than any punishment I might actually receive. This fear has caused me, like Topsy, to learn fairly effective methods of lying while looking as innocent as possible, to the point that I must be caught red-handed to be found out. In the context of this book, however, these lies seem more wicked to me now than they ever did when I was telling them. I know this is the result of Stowe's overt religious emphasis (Lies are Wicked! Wickedness goes to Hell!), but that knowledge does not lessen my reaction.

What determines Topsy's effectiveness? Her talent for lying resides not in her creativity, since her lies are of the basic I-didn't-do-it variety, or in adaptability, since she tends to stick to a lie even when she has been caught, or even in her tenacity, since that angers Miss Ophelia even more. Like Miles, Topsy's gift is in her appearance of innocence, although in her case it requires a lot more work, given the racial prejudice and knowledge of her background that everyone else already has. Stowe describes her having "an air of the most surprised and unconscious innocence," (212) but also as "black, keen, subtle, cringing yet acute" (213) to emphasize that while the child looks like everything the other characters expect in a liar and thief, she has the cunning to appear innocent and honest, even when caught.

Huck Finn, on the other hand, has more creative and plentiful lies than any other character we have studied this year. It is difficult to choose a lie of Huck's, since one could open the book to nearly any page and find at least one falsehood. However, the lie of his that stuck with me the most was his artful deception of the men in Chapter XVI, leading them to believe he was with his family, who had smallpox, rather than with an escaped slave. Here we see Huck, after struggling long and hard with his conscience, finally decide to protect Jim rather than turn him in. He keeps the men, who are trying to be helpful, away from the raft by letting them infer that his family all has smallpox, without actually having to say it.

Let's break this down. Huck is lying to protect Jim and himself, he deceives two men in a boat, he is floating alongside them in the canoe and trying to keep them away from the nearby raft, and his advantages include a natural talent for small lies and the men's pre-instilled fear of airborne disease, particularly the pox. Huck maneuvers this scene gently, buying himself time by asking the men to come with him, then slipping in just enough information to scare them: "everybody goes away when I want them to help me," and "it's the – a – the – well, it ain't anything, much" (112). He avoids naming a disease, which is wise, because this way the men can believe anything they like and his lie is not as conscience-biting as a more specific one might be. Huck then works on the men's sympathy by crying and talking about how no-one will help them, and gets money from both of them this way.

What is interesting about Huck is that immediately after his lies, he starts "feeling bad and low" (113) because he has chosen that path he has been told is wrong. He makes a big decision – to stop worrying about right and wrong and just do "whichever come handiest at the time," – a decision which probably keeps him and Jim alive later on. This emotional reaction to his own lies is interesting to me because, of the three children I have studied, Huck is the only one who feels any real remorse about his decision to deceive. He is also not caught in his lie and therefore does not have to feign innocence beyond that required in the act of lying itself.

Huck is more successful than either Miles or Topsy, obviously since he achieves his goal and makes money besides, but why? First of all, Huck does not get caught, but that is an extension of his own cleverness – the men never realize he has lied because they never see Jim, and they never see Jim because of the lie. Huck protects himself in his lie by choosing something that will not only frighten the men, but cause them to pity him and want to help. He also has a level of subtlety that the others lack, such that he can let the men see what they want to see rather than showing them something specific and therefore more easily refutable.

So, with all these advantages, what is it that makes or breaks Huck Finn's lies? His talent is not in innocence, particularly, as we see in other lies, but in the crafting of a lie. When faced with a relatively familiar situation, he makes up completely plausible stories, and when he does not have to remember details for very long he upholds the lie well. Huck has a gift for appearing more child-like than he really his – he fooled most of my class into thinking him much younger than his fourteen years – and this works to his advantage when dealing with adults a lot of the time. His downfall comes when he tries a lie which is out of his realm of experience (like when he tries to pass as a girl), or which goes on too long (like with the feuding families), or when someone else pulls him into a bad lie (like with the duke and the dauphin).

To recap; Miles' perceived deception is his apparently innocent distraction of the governess for nefarious purposes, Topsy outright lies when she is caught stealing and does not successfully avoid punishment, and Huck lies with open-faced subtlety to protect his friend's life and liberty. Each of them succeeds whenever they can maintain a faηade of innocence. Each of them fails whenever they are literally caught in the act. I find I react most strongly to each of these children on an emotional level, in the sense that when I read, I put myself in the characters' places, and in these cases I find myself wondering how I feel in each of these lies.

I hate the way Miles goes about his deception; it feels disingenuous to me, and while I can almost justify his motivation (he is doing it for his sister, after all), his action seems weak to me. With Topsy all I feel is pity and a mild distaste; this child is acting out of fear, obviously, but blowing her fears way out of proportion to her situation, and it is her overreacting that gets her in more trouble in the end. Huck I can really empathize with, although as I mentioned earlier I feel I have never had to lie for someone's life. He lies with more grace, it seems, and on the spot. I find myself disappointed with him when he gets caught in a lie, but delighted when he succeeds in misleading someone (especially someone grown-up and sure of him or herself). Perhaps this is my own immaturity, but I do not see his talent for deception as a bad thing; then again, in my beloved world of theater, it is not at all bad to be able to take someone in and make them believe something contrary to fact.

Huck, however, requires a little further discussion, since his motives for lying are more complex. He is not just trying to fool someone else for his own gain; Huck is often lying to himself as well, creating a world in which he is not the boy he has to be in reality. Huck's lies often take the form of the one I have outlined here; that is, he makes up a family situation very different from his own relationship with his own uneducated, violent, drunk Pap. He sometimes styles himself an orphan, and I wonder if he would rather be (as he does turn out to be, at the end). His lies help him emotionally escape the world he has been forced into, in the same way that the raft helps him escape physically. I think this is part of the reason Huck protects Jim, even, though his conscience tells him not to. Huck knows Jim is part of the story that involves a relaxed raft-life, adventures Tom Sawyer would be envious of, and nothing uncomfortable (like nice clothes) or terrible (like Pap).

Huck is the superior liar, when placed next to Topsy and Miles, but he is also the saddest, I think, since his lies represent not only his determination to survive and help his friend, but also his need to escape aspects of reality more personal to him than the slave-trade. As a liar I find myself admiring Huck for his skills and his relatively high success rate, but as a person I mourn for him and must admit I would never trade my situation for his (no matter how tempting the river sounds). I have heard that the easiest thing in the world is lying to yourself. I have always found lying to other people a little too easy; Huck reminds me to watch out for those lies I start to believe, and to be careful not to get too tangled in my own web.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw (and Other Short Novels), Signet Classic, New American Library, 1995

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Norton Critical Edition, 1994

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Norton Critical, 3rd Edition, 1999

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