What They Wear (or Not) and Why it Matters
In comparing Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin, with Twain’s boys’ classics: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the image of the troubling child as a literary genre becomes well formed. Specifically, a comparison can be made within these three texts on what it means to be a “bad” child based on gender classifications. While Rebecca, Tom, and Huck all bring grief to their caretakers, Rebecca nevertheless acts out in a very different way from the undesirable behavior of Tom and Huck. While certain aspects of character, such as impulsivity and curiosity, undeniably stem from an immaturity and naiveté inherent in the child, how that impulsive nature is acted upon emphasizes the role that the gendered construction of the developed child plays within literary texts. Specifically, the adornment or rejection of clothing conveys for the child a level of “rebelliousness,” as he or she attempts to uphold the gendered ideals within his or her social structure.
Before looking specifically at the clothing, it is important to establish what the clothes mean for these children in terms of social implications. All three children, at some point, are handed over to the rules and guidelines of a matriarchal figure. Rebecca has Aunt Matilda and Aunt Jane, Tom has Aunt Polly, and Huck has the Widow Douglass; through all these women, clothing regulations are firmly established. Important too, is the very notable absence of a respected father figure for any of the children. Huck, though still possessing a father, has only a sordid and abusive relationship with him (Huck Finn, 20), Rebecca’s Father is dead (Wiggin, 12), and Tom’s father is simply notably not mentioned (Tom Sawyer, 12). Because of this strong lack of male role models, all three characters exist kind a matriarchal sub-world, ruled over by their guardians. This connection between a woman and the child emphasizes the socially limited conception of a child’s world that automatically connects it only with the feminine. The clothing choices within these novels reveal concretely the relationship and desires of connection that all three children have to the adult community and it’s lack of an intimate male role model. Each child works towards subverting the ‘proper’ clothing choices made for them by their feminine parental figures. For Tom and Huck such rebellion arises in their desire to shed the constricting and socially appropriate garments in exchange for either ill fitting ones, in Huck’s case, or, sometimes, nothing at all. For Rebecca, the subversion lies in her desire to dress above her age and status through the adornment of finery in the shape of her pink parasol. The gendered emphasis that the children experience encourages Tom and Huck to reject the female dominance of their world with the same effort that Rebecca attempts to inappropriately emulate it.
Huck’s first action after running away from the Widow Douglass is to get “into my old rags” with which he becomes “free and satisfied”(Huck Finn, 9). These clothes are also described in Tom Sawyer as being “the cast-off clothes of full-grown men…in perennial bloom and fluttering with rags,”(50) emphasizing that, while these clothes are socially inappropriate, they nevertheless convey a connection to the established garment conventions within society. By adorning himself with the old clothing of men, Huck makes a statement regarding his desire for independence, but also his need to feel some connection to paternal role models. Having no stable grown male figure in his life, Huck seeks out male clothing instead, and so gains access to a fantasy relationship with the society’s men, in which he can emulate the dress of these individuals, and so gain a kind of one sided intimacy with them. Their ragged state both highlights the distance Huck remains from actually being a part of this social group, but also the high use, and so high value, that Huck places on these garments. Through the adornment of this outfit Huck both gains a connection to the male community within town and also a semblance of independence, a trait highly valued by the adult male population, thus furthering the deeper establishment of his own gender.
Tom, like Huck, finds ‘proper’ clothing representative of a constricted social world, a world for him ruled over by the matriarchal force of Aunt Polly. Consequently, these garments become associated by Tom with a kind of femininity. So, in an effort to engender his masculine persona, Tom constantly attempts to remove these pieces of clothing outside of the house. Indeed, when Tom and ‘his’ pirates are together on the island, and outside of parental control, they all “chased each other round and round, shedding clothes as they went, until they were naked, and then continued the frolic far away up the shoal water of the bar”(Tom Sawyer, 111). While, like Huck, the removal of socially appropriate clothing represents a desire to be independent from the control of authority figures, it also seems to convey a desire to exist in a more intimate connection with the natural world. In Tom’s mind, the insistence by Aunt Polly to preserve his clothing from dirt or destruction limits this connection and, consequently limits his development as a masculine figure. The natural world, and all of its adventures becomes a male centered sphere in which he and his friends can enact games of patriarchal order, such as pirates and robbers, in which women are sometimes discussed as props within the establishment of male power, but never seen as equals (Tom Sawyer, 211). By shedding the social constraints represented in the garments, Tom effectively rejects the matriarchal presence within his own socially proper avenue of existence.
Unlike the boys, Rebecca’s rejection of clothing lies, not in an effort to diminish the appearance of social constraints, but rather to accentuate them. To Rebecca, fine clothing is representative of urban cities and a higher level of existence. Consequently, she has an unquenchable attraction to her items of ‘finery.’ From the very beginning of the novel, Rebecca’s Parisian parasol holds an uncontrollable power over her in its exquisiteness, because it represents a higher class to which she will never belong, and a level of femininity that she wishes to emulate. On the carriage ride to her Aunts’ house, she refuses to open it, for fear that it will become spoiled, stating, “It’s the dearest thing in life to me, but it’s an awful care” (Wiggin, 10). The parasol, important because it preserves the refined, light colored skin of the upper class woman, is as ill fitting for Rebecca as are the oversized clothes of men for Huck, and just as impractical. However, just like for Twain’s character, Rebecca holds a sense of power in preserving a connection to the adult authorities of the text by way of a garment (and accessory) and by emphasizing her own gender. Later, after deciding that she should punish herself for an indiscretion, Rebecca decides that, for “self-punishment…to be adequate and proper, [it] must begin at home” and so she decides to “fling her dearest possession into the depths of the water”(Wiggin, 90). Her forced rejection of this item of social class provides a telling contrast to the willing shedding of similar representations of social positioning by Tom. Rebecca, with much regret, does the very thing that Tom constantly desires to do. As a girl character, she desires to ingrain herself as deeply as possible within the supposedly comforting design of the social order, which is outwardly established by clothing choices. Thus, to give up an item of accessory translates for her as a loss of part of that position. She, like Tom, identifies her social world with matriarchal strength, embodied in her Aunt Jane and especially within Aunt Miranda. However because of her gender, she desires to uphold, rather than escape that bind.
In examining the reaction and subsequent rejection of different articles of clothing for all three children, the idea of garments as being representative of social position, as well as gender, becomes increasingly clear. The representation of a gendered identity through clothing, as shown by Huck, Tom, and Rebecca, goes beyond simply choosing to dress in designated ‘boy’s clothing’ or ‘girl’s clothing’ and becomes instead a choice between the amount of clothing items to keep with a person or shed, and the value placed on those items based on origins. Thus, the seemingly simple task of getting dressed becomes a complex reaction to the gendered social structure inherent in the child’s life, and shapes his or her own place within that social system.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Penguin Books, 1985
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. New York: Penguin Books, 1986Wiggin, Kate Douglas. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. New York: Penguin Books, 2005