Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court
Marxist Criticism of A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court
The late nineteenth century in the United States saw the peak of the buzz and commotion that is presently known as the Industrial Revolution. Caught deep within the gears of this mechanized movement, both socially and financially, was one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, best known as Mark Twain. Twain’s ideas on industrialization were based on practical experience, due in part to heavy investment in, and loss from, a newly developed type-setting machine as well as an acute interest in the universal ramifications of such modernization (Kaplan 12). It is amid such an economically turbulent and technologically elevated era that Twain conceived, wrote, and published the critically complex A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s vision of sixth century England as seen through the eyes of “Yankee” Hank Morgan is the setting for biting social commentary on what was occurring throughout the States, especially in his home region of the Northeast.
Technology was not the only area experiencing rapid growth, but new political and economic theories abounded and Twain was aloof to these changes. A Connecticut Yankee attacks specifically three institutions which Twain had dealt with and experienced first hand: capitalism, slavery, and organized religion. Critical analysis of Twain’s piece, given a Marxist slant, dissects each of those institutions addressed and examines what are, perhaps, the “covert” intentions of the author and the social and political environments that spawned such ideology (Barry 167). Beyond the deliberate, surface level criticism of such ideas, Twain intertwines the fantastic foreground of a fictional tale with much of his own personal belief masked by the brilliant and brutal society artificially crafted by the protagonist and political mouthpiece, Hank Morgan.
The setting of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, sixth-century England, is not one naturally conducive to the economic and political products of capitalistic rule. However, as Henry Nash Smith states in his Fable of Progress, “this medieval setting is obviously not meant to represent any actual place or time. It’s a backdrop designed to allow a nineteenth-century American industrial genius to show what he can do with an underdeveloped country” (36). With a neutral setting established and a familiar plot based on Sir Thomas Malory’s legendary Morte d’Arthur, Twain creates an idyllic arena for his exploration of the effects of capitalism on a relatively “primitive” society. Once Hank adjusts to his new surroundings, he sets at once to develop a new democratic, capitalistic republic, so that he might “boss the whole country inside of three months” (Twain 50). Twain was intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of capitalism. He had experienced an admirable standard of living due to his writing, but knew poverty as a child and bankruptcy with the aforementioned failed investment later in life. With this in mind, Twain uses Hank and his financial prowess to exemplify both the advantages and ills of a free-trade economy. This “doctrinaire didacticism” (Baldanza 118) is manifest in Hank’s theoretic and specific explanations of “income versus cost of living” to the local working class, which efforts are proven futile. In Fulton’s Ethical Realism, he adroitly addresses this scene: “For all his nineteenth-century intelligence, Hank spoils the banquet that would celebrate the ultimate truth about labor and wages: the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor” (104). Also found in the same aptly titled Chapter 33, “Sixth-Century Political Economy,” are hints of Twain delving into almost purely socialistic ideas with the description of modern labor unions and a debate over minimum-wage. The detailed and explicit style of this chapter could well be Twain’s personal “manifesto” on such issues.
Twain sneaks enterprising ideals into A Connecticut Yankee from beginning of the book. This is exemplified, as Richard Slotkin states in Mark Twain’s Frontier, Hank Morgan’s Last Stand, by Hank’s insistence on the knight’s adopting advertising banners for hygienic items aimed a general populous which neither reads nor uses the products (121). Slotkin sees the political agenda of Twain as “meant to contrast the progressive spirit of nineteenth-century American values with the regressive ideologies of traditional aristocracy, political monarchism, and established religion” (121). Even such ironies as a newspaper to an essentially illiterate population sprout from Hank’s dually fueled fire of socialistic well-meaning and capitalistic greed. The eventual self-destruction of what has come to be an ideal political state is comes from this dueling sense of duty. When Hank destroys the factories and, in a sense, civilization, he does so in an effort to save what is left of the country from what were originally created for its well being. David R. Sewell suggests Hank as either a “progressive hero [. . .] sabotaged by reactionary forces” or “an authoritarian, proto-fascist,” both connote his total influence on that era due mainly to his radically reformative capitalistic ideologies (Sewell 142).
It is no mystery how Twain’s life, especially his childhood along the Mississippi River, evolved and revolved around the issue of slavery. Critics have long debated the ambiguity of Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee offers similar room for debate.Twain devotes four chapters to the enslavement and eventual freedom of Hank and a disguised King Arthur. “Slaves! The word had a new sound – and how unspeakably awful!” cries Hank upon the decree that both he and the king are to become the property of someone else (319). The ensuing pages relate the horrors the pair face as stories and ideas of slavery “take a meaning, get to be very vivid, when you come to apply them to yourself” (319). Once Hank has been subjected to the inhumane existence of a slave he demands that the king abolish slavery upon their rescue. This comes as an open renunciation of slavery, especially for those who have witnessed the atrocities that accompany it firsthand, yet also hints toward in ignorance-based excuse for proponents of slavery.
Twain’s personal experience growing up in the South no doubt molded his conception of the evils of slavery, yet also afforded him the ability to honestly and objectively look at the issue from the other side, without coming to agree with it. Perhaps, in a Marxist perspective, Twain’s continual use of slavery as an issue in his works, throughout A Connecticut Yankee and beyond, represents his inner-struggle with the issue himself. “He seemed to think that both the human situation and the humans who could do nothing about it left nearly everything to be desired” (Schmitter 7). Of all the issues touched upon in this paper, none is as blatantly attacked as the age-old scapegoat, organized religion. Hank Morgan, from the beginning, openly decries the “concentrated power” and “political machine” that Catholic Church (160) and later his “project” to “overthrow the Catholic Church and set up the Protestant faith on its ruins–not as an Established Church” (365). “I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by-and-by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty, and paralysis to human thought” (102). Twain was not tinkering with novel ideas behind the mask of Morgan. It is well documented that he was opposed to powerful, organized religion and such a quote could have as easily been taken from his personal notes. In fact, Smith writes, “A reviewer of A Connecticut Yankee for the Edinburgh Scots Observer called the book a Îlecture’ in dispraise of monarchic institutions and religious establishments as the roots of all evil” (73). Twain’s attack on established religion was not all-encompassing. In fact, he gives a slightly compassionate nod toward those earnest members of religious groups, specifically some priests of that era: “Not all priests were frauds and self-seekers, but that many, even the great majority, of these that were down on the ground among the common people, were sincere and right hearted and devoted to the alleviation of human troubles and suffering” (160). Hank also speaks approvingly of a fragmented, non-denominational Protestant “go-as-you-please” style church (365). However, the overall tone is clear: The separation of church and state is essential in maintaining the freedom of the individual.
Ironically, Hank’s downfall is due in a big part to the scheming of the Church, the very organization he so openly opposed, and the Interdict it decrees throughout the land. Hank Morgan’s industrialization of sixth-century England can be treated as both symbolic of progress and characteristic of corrupt imperialism. Hank’s determination to shift national focus from religion and superstition toward technology is either an amazing venture in capitalism or simply a repackaged, fiscally sound “opiate of the masses.” Mark Twain’s roots in the South show through as he jabs at all things aristocratically established, from religion to slavery. In a sense, “A Connecticut Yankee could be taken as the expression of an international crusade for democracy,” with a support for both industrialization and free enterprise (Smith 76). However, Twain’s personal experiences give away the cautionary tone toward such a generalization of his outlook towards humanity, which, if A Connecticut Yankee serves as an archetype for the human race, appears dismally accurate.
Baldanza, Frank. “Connecticut Yankee.” Mark Twain: A Collection of Criticism. Ed. Dean Morgan Schmitter. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. 117-121.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 1995.
Fulton, Joe B. Mark Twain’s Ethical Realism: The Aesthetics of Race, Class, and Gender. Columbia and London: U of Missouri P, 1997.
Kaplan, Justin. Introduction. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. By Mark Twain. London: Penguin, 1986. 9-23.
Schmitter, Dean Morgan, ed. “Introduction: Mark Twain and the Pleasures of Pessimism.” New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. 1-8.
Sewell, David R. “Hank Morgan and the Colonization of Utopia.” Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994. 140-149.
Slotkin, Richard. “Mark Twain’s Frontier, Hank Morgan’s Last Stand.” Mark Twain: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Eric J. Sundquist. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994. 113-128.
Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain’s Fable of Progress: Political and Economic Ideas in “A Connecticut Yankee.” New Jersey: Rutgers UP, 1964.
Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. London: Penguin, 1986.
Webster’s New World Dictionary. College Ed. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing Company, 1958.
Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: Arthurian Legend, Armour, Slavery and Catholicism
Written in 1889, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is regarded by many scholars as the most important of American Arthuriana. Twain strips Arthurian legend of much of its glory and grandeur, thereby making it possible for his contemporaries to identify with his main character; Hank Morgan. However, in doing so Twain also diverted from history quite a bit. Most, if not all, of the social structure of King Arthur’s court is based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which is the first real account of the King Arthur legend. Twain also mentions the Grail quest that is central to Malory’s work. But Twain also talks about knights clad in iron and the British nation being enslaved by a tyrannical absolute monarch. Furthermore, he blames much of the people’s suffering in the Catholic church. Although the Arthurian court and the Grail quest are A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is in line with Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Twain diverted from history with regard to armor, slavery, and Catholicism. It was not until the 15th century that the legend as we know it appeared in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. In Le Morte d’Arthur, Arthur is a fearless leader who has a trusty advisor in the form of Merlin and extremely loyal and virtuous knights at his side. However, towards the end of the twelfth century Chrétien de Troyes described a different Arthur in Perceval, The Story of the Grail, as did Wolfram von Eschenbach in the early thirteenth century in an adaptation of Perceval’s story: Parzival. Especially the Grail legend is a recurring theme in all these works. The Grail quest is the search for a cup that Jesus supposedly drank from at the last supper. Only the most virtuous can find it, which is why Arthur sends his best knights on the quest. However, in the end only Galahad is worthy enough to enter the room that houses the Grail and Lancelot has to wait outside. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court the knights also go on the Grail quest but Hank Morgan does not see the virtue and importance of it, as this excerpt clearly shows:The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then. It was a several years’ cruise. They always put in the long absence snooping around, in the most conscientious way, though none of them had any idea where the Holy Grail really was, and “I don’t think any of them actually expected to find it, or would have known what to do with it if he had run across it” (Twain 50). This is the complete opposite of how Malory describes the Grail legend. In Malory, knights have an almost saint-like quality and they tirelessly search for the Holy Grail. The kind of thinking that Hank Morgan does in this excerpt would just be unthinkable. Furthermore, Hank questions why knights would go in the first place: “Every year expeditions went out Holy Grailing, and next year relief expeditions went out to hunt for them. There were worlds of reputation in it, but no money” (50). Clearly Hank does not feel that reputation is anything worth fighting for, he would only consider joining the quest if there were financial benefits. Alan Lupack argues in his book King Arthur in America that this is what makes Arthurian legend so appealing to Twain’s readership: “If purity of heart – rather than the wealth necessary to buy horses or arms, or the strength and skill necessary to use those tools effectively – was the primary requirement of knighthood, then anyone could be a knight” (Lupack xii). By making fun of Arthuriana like this, Twain makes it possible for his nineteenth century American audience to identify with Hank Morgan.Of the many questionable aspects of Arthurian life that Hank Morgan describes, knights in shining armour seem to be an important and recurring theme. He describes Sir Sagramor as his opponent in a joust: “Out from his tent rode great Sir Sagramor, an imposing tower of iron, stately and rigid, his huge spear standing upright in its socket and grasped in his strong hand, his grand horse’s face and breast cased in steel, his body clothed in rich trappings that almost dragged the ground—oh, a most noble picture. A great shout went up, of welcome and admiration (247).”Although this passage paints a wonderful picture of an impressive knight, it would be more appropriate if the story of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was set in fifteenth or sixteenth century England. By then armor was made of steel and very heavy, but still it was only used in tournaments because knights were very restricted by it on the battlefield. King Arthur’s knights would have worn armor made of cuir bouilli (boiled leather), which was significantly lighter than steel but also much less effective. Horses were also clad in cuir bouilli on the battlefield but during tournaments they would wear the knight’s colours on their embellished rugs. The Old English generic term for armor is “gearwe” (pronounced ye-ar-wee’), but “gúðréaf” (‘yuth-rea-af’), “gúðsceorp” (‘yuth-skay-orp’) and “gúðscrúd” (‘yuth-skrud’) are also used for armor or harness. This could suggest that there were several types of armor that each had their own purpose and therefore a slightly different term was used to describe it. None of these terms suggest, however, that the armor was made out of steel, or more specifically iron, since the term for ironclad is “ísengrǽg” (‘ee-sen-grag’). There are many words that start with “gúð” which means war, battle or combat. This makes sense because knights had a very violent lifestyle, both on the battlefield and jousting for their honour. This lifestyle is also evident in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but unlike in the book knights in sixth century England did not wear iron armor.Then there is the question of slavery in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hank Morgan is clearly against slavery and there are some interesting passages where he talks about it: “It is enough to make a body ashamed of his race to think of the sort of froth that has always occupied its thrones without shadow of right or reason, and the seventh-rate people that have always figured as its aristocracies—a company of monarchs and nobles who, as a rule, would have achieved only poverty and obscurity if left, like their betters, to their own exertions” (42). Hank feels “ashamed of his race”, but it is unclear if he means race literally or symbolically. If he means it literally it does not make any sense because there were no vast amounts of slaves from another racial background than Morgan’s in sixth century England. Perhaps there were a few Moorish slaves who accompanied their Roman masters but they were far and few between. Assuming Hank is talking about black slaves, which would be logical because of his origin in post-Civil War America, the fact that he calls sixth century Britons “seventh-rate people” is significant. In early nineteenth century America a person with at least 1/8 African heritage (meaning one great-grandparent) would be classified as black and therefore “abrogated their citizens’ rights, prohibiting them from voting, owning property, testifying against whites in court, or intermarrying with whites” (Barr 2). They were classified as separate from the rest of society and effectively seen as substandard citizens. It could be argued that Hank sees all of the Britons as second class citizens (although he emphasizes it by calling them “seventh-rate”) in the same way that African Americans were discriminated against where he comes from. Hank also states that rich people gain their prosperity by repression of others, as slave owners and especially plantation owners did in America. When he is offered a title he does not want it, on the contrary, he wants to distance himself from the aristocracy as much as he can. But he is willing to make an exception when push comes to shove: “This title, translated into modern speech, would be THE BOSS. Elected by the nation. That suited me.” Aside from the fact that Hank is suddenly an expert in Old English, he agrees to the title because it was chosen “by the nation”. Only that kind of title suits him, being an American who has just experienced the Civil War. He wants to force democracy upon a people that is by no means ready for it. They do not understand the appeal, in fact, one old man would gladly become Hanks slave if that means he will learn how to read and write: ““I? I would give blood out of my heart to know that art. Why, I will be your slave, your—” “No you won’t, you won’t be anybody’s slave” (72). Hank truly sees King Arthur’s subjects as slaves: “The most of King Arthur’s British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name; they imagined themselves men and freemen, and called themselves so” (Twain 42). However, there are some problems with Hank’s conclusion. Firstly, there were no coherent people in England at the time that could be “King Arthur’s British nation”. Instead, many rivalling tribes inhabited the land we now know as England who enslaved each other after battle. The north, an area that comprised Scotland and most of Northern England, was home to the Picts, a brutal and savage tribe that kept to themselves most of the time and was largely left alone by the Anglo-Saxons who were not interested in their less than fertile lands. Secondly and more importantly, slavery as an institution did not exist in sixth century England. Other tribes or foreigners that became prisoners of war were often enslaved by British tribes, but slaves were not bought or sold. The Old English word for slave is “þēow” (pronounced ‘the-ow’). Anglo-Saxons often referred to a slave as “wealh” (‘hwealg’), which meant “foreigner, stranger, slave; Briton, Welshman; shameless person”. These slaves had more rights than American cotton plantation slaves since they were able to earn some money and eventually even buy their own freedom. No such rights existed for black American slaves. In sixth century England there were also slaves called “wíteþéow” (‘wee-tuh-the-ow’) which meant that people were reduced to slavery by law. These criminals were enslaved as a punishment for their crimes and they often worked the lands. The Britons did have word for slavery, namely “níedhíernes” (‘nee-ed-ghee-er-nes’). This term is radically different etymologically than the other terms for slaves, which could suggest that the practice of slavery was foreign to the Britons. The Romans were of course much more familiar with slavery and because they conquered more and more of England, Britons would have been increasingly in contact with them and their customs. Another slavery related term is a bought servant, who was called “céapcniht”, which literally meant ‘house boy’. Old English also had a term for a slave born in a master’s house: “inbyrdling” (in-bu-rd-ling’), but this term was coined much later. Although there are clear similarities here with plantation slaves in Virginia for example, who were initially bought by their masters but later encouraged to start families so save cost for the plantation owner, this was not comparison does not apply to King Arthur’s time. Another theme in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court that does not apply to sixth century England is Hank’s opposition to Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Hank is not a fan of Catholicism to say the least: “There you see the hand of that awful power, the Roman Catholic Church. In two or three little centuries it had converted a nation of men to a nation of worms” (43). Hank experiences that without title and heritage people are nothing in King Arthur’s time and he feels this is because of the church. He says that the church “invented the divine right of kings” (44). He is also proud that his knights who carry advertisements will influence people in a way that the Church cannot control: “This would undermine the Church. I mean would be a step toward that. Next, education—next, freedom —and then she would begin to crumble” (85). However, Christianization of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms did not start until the end of the sixth century. Therefore, Catholicism was by no means recognized as the main religion during King Arthur’s time. In fact, the Old English word for God and king can be the same: “æðeling” (“atheling”). The words that were most often used to describe the king are “cyning” (‘kuu-ning’), and “æðeling”. The word for God is simply “God” or “æðeling”, which means Christ in this context. From the end of the sixth century Catholicism slowly conquered the land from the south via the Roman invaders. Old English did have a word for the symbol of the Roman Catholic fate: the Pope’s chair, namely “pāpseld” or “pāpsetl”, but it was not used until Catholicism was firmly in place in Britain. Catholicism replaced Anglo Saxon paganism, a polytheistic faith that worshipped Norse gods like Wodan and Thor but also had cultic aspects. The superstition that comes with cultic aspects of religion is also evident in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Merlin the magician has a very prominent place by King Arthur’s side and everyone is afraid of him and his magical powers. When Hank announces that he is also a magician everybody is shocked at first but they quickly believe him after the eclipse, which he makes people believe is his work. Another example would be the Valley of Holiness that Hank and Sandy encounter on their travels. The people there have not bathed in the water since it suddenly dried up many years ago when some monks made a bath and washed in it. When the bath was destroyed “the waters gushed richly forth again, and even unto this day they have not ceased to flow in that generous measure” (121). Hank concludes that people stick to their superstitious beliefs: “Then I take it nobody has washed since” (Ibid.) So A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is true to history with regard to pagan tradition but misplaces Catholicism in sixth century England. Clearly, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court parodies Arthurian legend in a way that makes nineteenth century readers able to identify with Hank Morgan. Although Mark Twain largely remains true to Malory’s outline of Arthurian legend, he departs from it by having the knights wear steel armor. Knights wore cuir bouilli armor in sixth century England because steel armor was far too restrictive. Hank Morgan also laments the idea that all of the British people are slaves to their king. This is problematic historically because there was no British nation in sixth century England and slavery as an institution did not exist either. Hank is also firmly against Catholicism and he sees it as a source of oppression. However, Catholicism was by no means the most important religion in Arthurian times. The different Anglo Saxon tribes that made up England worshipped Norse gods like Wodan and Thor and they also subscribed to pagan traditions. BibliographyBarr, C.W. “Failed Foreign Marriages in Japan: Boom or Bust?” The Christian Science Monitor. March 14, 1996. Web. 22 October 2012. Eschenbach, Wolfram von. Parzival. Penguin Classics, 1980. Print. Lupack, Alan. King Arthur in America. D.S. Brewer, 2001. Print. Malory, Thomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. Simson & Brown, 2011. Print. Old English Dictionary Online. http://home.comcast.net/~modean52/oeme_dictionaries.htmTroyes, Chrétien de. Perceval, the Story of the Grail. D.S. Brewer, 2006. Print. Twain, Mark. Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Penguin Group USA, 1990. Print.
The Unities in “Connecticut Yankee”
There is no doubt that Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is marred by structural absurdities, flawed changes in tone, and a stuttering, episodic arrangement. The novel often attempts to do far too many things at once, juggling commentaries on chivalry, aristocracy, religion, technology, and more. That the book survives these shortcomings and goes on to transcend many of Twain’s other texts speaks to the author’s remarkable talent. The book succeeds largely due to a trio of elements that work below the surface narrative; these three devices are arguably the most valued tools in Twain’s repertoire. The first of these, irony, is obvious from even a light reading. Never mind that Yankee was originally intended to be a romantic tale. Since readers are likely to sympathize with Hank Morgan, they instinctively reflect his presupposition that the 19th (or 21st) century is superior to the simple-minded, archaic designs of the 6th century, most likely because the differences between the two ages are immediate and tangible. Whereas the modern world has brought us a degree of gender and racial equality, charity, leisure, and democracy, the world that King Arthur inhabited was sordid, muddy, and a mockery of its own virtues. In the modern era, a man is allowed to be a man, and even those who must resort to menial physical labor are granted the chance to at least care for their own families without fear of a “greater” knocking down their doors. At least, such is the reality presented to us through Hank Morgan’s reflections, but as any person who has read a quantity of literature from that era knows, such decency was not often the case. In Chapter XXXIII, “Sixth-Century Political Economy,” Morgan attempts to detail the sly workings of the political economy to the blacksmith Dowley, but all of his arguments are ignorantly rebuked. What Morgan never stops to consider is that the situation he is dissecting was not unfamiliar to the 19th-century population; in fact, it was well-nigh analogous to the deplorable standards of life experienced by many of Morgan’s contemporaries. This leads to the second facet of Twain’s style that keeps this far-reaching book from toppling over the edge: tragedy. The work appears to blindly assume that a richer economy strengthens a culture. Indeed, at face value this seems to be true; after all, how could a civilization that is educated, prosperous, and constantly evolving possibly amount to less than a civilization that puts itself at the mercy of inbred dolts adorned in cumbersome armor and ridiculous garments? This too, however, unravels in the end, when we see that Morgan’s “colony” of educated, like-minded revolutionaries default back to their superstitious ways at the drop of a hat. There are some instinctive human failings that cannot in a million years be eliminated, and thus there is little to no basis for assuming that all the technology in the world could make a culture truly “better.” As Twain commented regularly during the final years of his life, the human race is inherently sick and depraved, and regardless of the superficial masks that humans may wear, their souls remain destitute. Despite Morgan’s proud assumptions, humanity has not evolved much over the last 13 centuries, and the future doesn’t seem to look any better. In keeping with Twain’s Calvinist attitudes, there is nothing that man can do to save himself, nothing that can be done to redeem him. Finally, we arrive at what is often described as the most distracting and irrelevant aspect of Twain’s writing: its humor. Often criticized as needlessly creating ambiguity in a situation or diminishing the story’s impact, many consider Twain’s focus on humor the failing of a man incapable of seriously addressing an important subject. To some extent, the critics are right: the humor does disrupt the mood and harmony, but perhaps the critics aren’t giving Twain enough credit. The most essential atom of a joke is its unexpectedness. A joke must, at its core, work to conceal the way things really are. This ambiguity is continually present in Morgan’s narrative, with his dubious presentation of things which may or may not be accurate. Then, at the end, we find that everything we have come to believe is not quite the truth. Merlin really is magical; technology alone cannot create a utopia; mankind cannot be salvaged; Morgan is not the hero of the story, but rather the villain. A joke doesn’t have to be funny to be a joke, but humor certainly helps, for when one is at last shown the horrible and sad truth of mankind’s doomed nature, what can one possibly do but laugh?
“American literature is male. To read the canon of what is currently considered classic American literature is perforce to identify as male; Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate.” Judith Fetterley (Walker, 171)Mark Twain’s writings fall under this criticism in the minds of many a literary critic, especially those of the feminist mentality. As far as Twain’s art is concerned, the charges against him on this front are familiar ones: his women characters tend to be severely limited, stereotypical, and flat. Meanwhile, all of his truly interesting and more fully rounded characters – with some key exceptions – are male. (Fishkin, 58) But it would be a mistake to equate the limited range of roles Twain gave women in his work with the idea that women were of limited importance in Twain’s mind. Twain’s relationships with women, both in his life and in his writing, were far more complicated and interesting than this narrow image conveys. (Fishkin, 53) Mary Ellen Goad defined the role that Twain wished women to play in his own life in order to illuminate his creation of female characters:Twain viewed the role of the female in a particular, and, to the modern mind, strange way. He operated on the theory that the male of the species was rough and crude, and needed the softening influence of a woman, or, if necessary, many women. The primary function of the woman was thus the reformation of man. (Walker, 173)In Twain’s stories, Women frequently represent the moral standard by which men are measured. Changes in perceptions of the realities of women’s lives during the last hundred years reveal that although Twain may have used idealizations of women as the basis for many of his female characters, those characterizations play a vital if not underrated role in the society of which they are a part. Though the male characters in the story may perceive these roles only as occasions for rebellion or opportunities for heroic action, the women represent both positive and negative values of the society in which they live. (Walker, 174)Twain has come under much criticism for his portrayal of women. However, though the shortcomings of women have always been one of the principal themes of humorists, Twain is rarely cynical in this regard. He does not point out flaws and make fun, rather he creates characters to portray the specific aspect of society that he wants to critique. There are many passages in which Twain expresses his respect and regard for women. (Wagenknecht, 125) The most prominent of the criticisms against Twain’s women however, is the stereotypical way in which they are presented. When Goad discusses the female characters in Twain’s work, she argues that they are merely flat and stereotypical, and that in fact they represent one of Twain’s failures as a writer. “Twain,” she says, “was simply unable to create a female character, of whatever age, of whatever time and place, who is other than wooden and unrealistic.” (Walker, 173) In a similar vein, Bernard DeVoto claims, “none of Mark Twain’s nubile girls, young women, or young matrons are believable: they are all bisque, saccharine, or tears.” (Fishkin, 58) Stereotypical women characters may be the norm in Twain’s collection, but there are occasions when he struggled to push beyond the gender conventions that he usually conformed to. This is mostly evident in his portrayal of black women. Overall, his black female characters tend to have more depth and importance in the works that feature them. However, I will discuss this in more detail later on in the paper. The other instance in which Twain was obviously pulling for women was during the fight for women’s suffrage.Twain always had a soft spot in his heart for women. There is an interesting passage in his autobiography in which he declares that the whole population of the United States is now financially rotten, but immediately adds that, of course, he does not mean to include the women in that statement. In fact, most times when Mark Twain denounces the human race, it is generally understood that he is only denouncing the male half of it. (Wagenknecht, 126) Though he may favor them, this does not mean that he always felt they should have had the right to vote. Prior to the 1870s he was an outspoken opponent of the women’s suffrage movement and his articles ridiculing the women’s rights movement won the applause and laughter of male audiences from coast to coast. (Fonder, 88) He would acknowledge that justice was on the side of female suffrage activists, but insisted that the vote in the hands of women would only increase mediocrity and corruption in government, and, at the same time, would lower women’s status in society. (Fonder, 88) However, his views on this issue were obviously wavering. On one occasion when his satires brought a reply from a woman in defense of the suffrage movement, his humorous reply was exceedingly weak. He conceded privately “that his task would have been easier if she hadn’t all the arguments on her side.” (Fonder, 89) This wavering eventually led to his acceptance and assistance in the fight for women’s right to vote. In a public address of 1901 he declared, I should like to see the time when women shall help make the laws. I should like to see that whip-lash, the ballot, in the hands of women. As for this city’s government, I don’t want to say much, except that it is a shame- a shame; but if I should life for twenty-five longer, and there is no reason why I shouldn’t- I think I’ll see women handle the ballot. If women had the ballot today, the state of things in this town would not exist. (Wagenknecht, 126-7)Twain began speaking out about the issue frequently at public meetings for the cause. He now argued that the influence of women in politics would reduce corruption and increase the caliber of elected officeholders: I think it would suggest to more than one man that if women could vote they would vote on the side of morality; would not sit indolently at home as their husbands and brothers do now, but would; set up some candidates fit for decent human beings to vote for. (Fonder, 90)Although Twain was obviously idealizing the role that women could play in politics, this does not mean that he regarded all women as above criticism.At the time of writing The Gilded Age, Twain jokingly advocated a women’s party, not so much as a positive good as a way to appease the fact that “both the great parties have failed.” (Fonder, 90) In the winter of 1868-69 Twain discovered a type of politicized woman who did not demand appropriations to supply Congress “with paregoric, Jayne’s carminative, sugar plums, &c,” as he had heard in his youth. Rather, he found the female rascal who would work and bribe “with all her might,” not, however, as a voter or elected representative, but as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. (French, 111) The female he created was Laura Hawkins. In her role as a woman lobbyist, Laura Hawkins is drawn with greatest accuracy. Laura was on excellent terms with a great many members of Congress, and there was an undercurrent of suspicion in some quarters that she was a lobbyist, but “what belle could escape slander in such a city?” (French, 112) Both for the novel and perhaps for historical accuracy, Twain decided to cast Laura as the more influential sophisticated type of lobbyist, who would lure her prey with a decoy of sex, and knew how to use sex as a weapon. (French, 114) In this case, Laura is not the mere stick or the untrue portrayal so often alleged. She is a carefully constructed historically significant woman lobbyist, and her life story and motivations are not far from reality. (French, 116) Laura is the first female character Twain developed in any depth and the one who, even if only temporarily, has the potential to become a fully rounded figure. However, she fails to transcend the conventional stereotypes. As Susan Harris writes:Never a literary feminist, Twain’s portraits of women are persistently cast in one or another stereotypical mode, making them reducible to one or another literary paradigm and consequently controlled as more self-creating characters are not. Not only Laura but all women are other-directed in Twain’s work; he could not imagine them other than in relation to men. (Fishkin, 59)Harris also feels that Twain killed Laura off because he could not allow the presence of a female “trickster” to add to the chaos of the male world. She feels that Laura, this alienated woman, threatens to destroy Twain’s scheme in which women’s primary function is to provide security for men. (Fishkin, 61)Twain’s The Innocents Abroad shows a variety of stereotyped women. In a way that is not true to his private experience of the trip, Twain omits the friendships he made with women in his actual travels. Yet women are not entirely excluded from The Innocents Abroad. The encounters with female figures that he does relate revolve around perceptions that women are either angels or demons. Furthermore, he dramatized his encounters with European women in terms that emphasized the privileged status of an innocent American male in contrast with experienced, and sometimes repellent European femininity. (Stahl, 36) The sexual undertones are never clearer than in his account of his encounter with an attractive young woman clerk in a shot at Gibraltar. Here, the woman is more of a demon than an angel. A very handsome young lady in the store offered me a pair of blue gloves. I did not want blue, but she said they would look very pretty on a hand like mine. The remark touched me tenderly. I glanced furtively at my hand, and somehow it did seem rather a comely member. I tried a glove on my left, and blushed a little. Manifestly the size was too small for me. (The Innocents Abroad, 41)She teases him with the pretense that the glove fits him perfectly, and that he has not ruined the glove that was too small for him. His friends go on to tease him relentlessly by repeating the woman’s praise of his skill at putting on gloves.The women featured in this travel book are one-dimensional, and only show up in brief episodes where they play only minor roles. However, in A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, Twain spends more time on his female characters. Nevertheless, they still each depict a stereotype about women.In A Connecticut Yankee, Twain seems to suggest that in men the mitigation of pride and cruelty (the will to rule) is positive. Meanwhile, he also suggests that the only alternatives to women’s victimization are domesticity or heartless female cruelty, which he shows through the characters of Sandy and Morgan. (Stahl, 98) Connecticut Yankee also delves into the roles of traditional father and motherhood. It shows that the father can assimilate the qualities of the mother, but the mother dare not usurp the qualities of the father. Several episodes emphasize the mother-child bond as the primary defining characteristic of the woman. However, qualities which men and women are allowed to share in different degrees, particularly gentleness and compassion, make men human but women angels. (Stahl, 117)The women in this novel show incredibly stereotyped roles. The ladies of the court are instinctively described as decorative, “that massed flowerbed of feminine show and finery.” (Stahl, 94) “Sandy ; is a shallow simpleton.” (Fishkin, 59) She rambles on and on without reaching any intelligent conclusion. Her ceaseless conversation with Hank is a “mill,” her tongue and jaws are “her works,” with the fatal flaw that she “finished without result.” (Stahl, 102) Hank’s mode of thought is linear and purposive, while Sandy is a comic representation of an opposite, female mode of expression.Another stereotypical figure in A Connecticut Yankee is Morgan le Fay. This woman plays a part that is heartless, evil and cruel. Morgan is the demonic woman, beautiful and cruel. Hank points out her attractiveness as a woman, “To my surprise, she was beautiful; black thoughts had failed to make her expression repulsive, age had failed to wrinkle her satin skin or mar its bloomy freshness.” (A Connecticut Yankee, 96) Her power as a woman, her sexual attractiveness, and her wickedness are inseparable. She is a thoroughly evil and threatening figure not only because she is a cold-blooded murderer, but also because she is so completely in charge. (Stahl, 104)Of course, one of the novels for which Twain has been given much criticism is Huckleberry Finn. The object of praise, banning, and vexation during the hundred years since its publication, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has not exactly been seen as a novel about women in the nineteenth-century American society. Women tend to stand at the back and sides of the novel, nagging, providing inspiration, or often weeping or hysterical. (Walker, 171) Most of the female characters are derived from traditional and usually unflattering stereotypes of women common to authors and readers. The novel could serve as an index to common attitudes about women as reflected in the stereotypical images. (Walker, 172) As members of the gender responsible for upholding the moral and religious values of civilization, even when those values sanction slaveowning, the women make possible the lawlessness and violence of the men. (Sloane, 113) The Victorian definition of woman’s role as moral guide would account for such characters as Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas, and Aunt Sally, part of whose function is to “civilize” Huck. There are twelve women in Huck Finn aged fourteen or older. (Walker, 175) Of these, many are merely walk-on characters. For example, Emmeline Grangerford’s sister, Charlotte and Sophia, and Mary Jane Wilk’s sisters, Susan and Joanna. Sophia Grangerford is one-half of the Romeo-and-Juliet couple whose elopement triggers a renewal of the feud between the Sheperdsons and the Grangerfords. She is described as the stereotypical young woman in love, always blushing and sighing. The most obvious reformers in Huck Finn are the Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, and Aunt Sally Phelps. They are all vaguely defined civilizers who worry about manners, clothes, and religion. However, the key to the differences among these three is their marital status. (Fishkin, 59) No matter how devoutly some women of the time clung to a state of “single blessedness,” marriage was the only widely sanctioned state for an adult woman. (Walker, 176) Widows had a somewhat better time of it than spinsters in the public eye. At least they had had a husband at some point. The image of the widow, at one time a wife and probably a mother, is somewhat softer. The spinster, presumed to be unwanted, is presumed to be ossified. (Sloane, 104) The married woman, assumed to be in her proper element, provides the most contented image of the three, and therefore is likely to be the mildest reformer of all.In Huck Finn however, the relationship between Huck and the women is more complex and dynamic than a simple response to stereotyped figures. Miss Watson is a constant nagging presence who is particularly concerned with Huck’s manners and his education. The widow is a far gentler reformer than her unmarried sister and often intercedes between Huck and Miss Watson to lessen the other’s severity. But Aunt Sally, because of the particular stereotype upon which she is based, is an ineffectual reformer, though reforming is clearly her function. (Watson, 179)Huck’s response to Aunt Sally’s discipline is to ignore it. He says it, “didn’t amount to nothing.” On the other hand, his reaction to the Widow Douglas’s disappointment in his backsliding early on in the novel had been to try to “behave a while” if he could manage to. (Walker, 180) The widow managed to touch Huck’s humanity, but Aunt Sally merely touches his backside with a switch. The fact that Huck can ignore Aunt Sally’s female authority testifies to both his only lack of significant maturity and Mark Twain’s awareness of the final futility of women in his society. (Walker, 181)All three of the women who attempt to make Huck conform to society’s rules are derived from traditional stereotypes of women who may superficially be seen as mother figures from the same societal mold. (Sloane, 122) However, Huck’s more complex and ambivalent relationships with them point out the social realities they represent. His own boyish immaturity at the end of the novel shows through his ambivalence about women. (Walker, 172)Though Twain’s white women characters tend to be static and stereotypical, there is nothing static or stereotypical about some of his more prominent black women characters. This is specifically shown through “Aunt Rachel” in “A True Story,” and “Roxy” in Pudd’nhead Wilson.”A True Story” has some obvious purposes. Two of these are to make clearly evident the dignity of the black woman, and the love of the slave family. In the course of her tale, Aunt Rachel emerges as one of Twain’s most rounded character creations, and she lives up to the expectations that her description provides:She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. (A True Story, 95)Aunt Rachel is one of the noblest characters that Twain ever created. Anyone who could endure all that she had and still emerge with such a sane, healthy, and even happy attitude has to possess a large portion of “what Maynard Mack calls the qualities of a true hero.” (Fenger, 41) She is more than a good person, because she has suffered much of man’s inhumanity and it has not broken her or made her cynical. She is a powerful, proud, articulate woman whose emotional depths dwarf those of the genteel narrator – “Misto C” – who introduces her. (Fishkin, 62) Her final revelation, “Oh no, Misto C-, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!” is bitterly ironic. (A True Story, 98) She has bad much trouble in life, but she is still able to experience joy. It has made her superior to the mass of men- able to laugh at man’s foolishness and to give the appearance of never having had any trouble in sixty years of living.Although Aunt Rachel’s story is a sorrowful one, Twain keeps it from being reduced to an overly sentimental sob story or a complaint by the clever way he allows her to tell it. The intent of the subtitle is plainly to claim the status of history rather than fiction for the story, and perhaps to warn the reader not to expect humor as its central feature. (Gibson, 42) As for his repeating the tale “Word for Word as I Heard It,” this can scarcely be literally true. He said, “I have not altered the old colored woman’s story except to begin it at the beginning, instead of the middle, as she did- and traveled both ways.” (Gibson, 42) A story as powerful as hers could only be told in the first person, and with her own language. She tells her own story with such intensity of feeling that the reader is compelled to accept its truth and to sympathize with her.Roxana in Pudd’nhead Wilson is always cited as the great exception in Twain’s portrayals of women. She is the rarest of beings in his work- an attractive, passionate, adult woman. Joyce Warren suggests that Twain’s rigid gender stereotypes applied strictly to white womanhood, and by virtue of her race, Roxy escaped the strictures Twain normally placed on women. (Fishkin, 61) Roxy is physically prepossessing, enterprising, cunning, and genuinely interesting and engaging. She demonstrates Twain’s ability to conceive of women as something other than “prepubescent schoolgirls, matronly old ladies, or demonic sorceresses.” (Fishkin, 62) Roxana is also more complex than either of the stereotypes most commonly used by white authors to portray women of her race and status. As Carolyn Porter has noted, Roxy “exposes not only the falseness of the Mammy/Jezebel opposition, but also the inadequacy of either ëMammy’ or ëJezebel’ to contain or represent the slave woman.” (Fishkin, 62)When Twain associates the black race with the female sex, he represents racism in the uncontroversially loathsome form of slavery. (Jehlen, 109) Clearly, Roxana’s status as a mulatta (feminine) is crucial to Twain’s story. As a mulatta, Roxana certainly exposes the covert tradition of miscegenation, but her serial ordeal as a mulatta mother intent on saving her son exposes much more. (Porter, 123) Roxana is, within herself, a set of contradictions. She sounds black, but looks white. She is majestic in form and stature. She is fair complexioned and has a “heavy suit of fine soft hair” but a checkered handkerchief conceals it. Though she is sassy among her black friends, she is humble and quiet among whites. (Porter, 124) Therefore, though she may look white to the unknowing onlooker, her speech is what identifies her as black despite her white skin. And because of this discrepancy, she is able to avoid the typical stereotypes of the white female.Twain does tend to be lacking in female central characters, and those that he does present tend to be very stereotypical of those in the nineteenth-century. He also tends to portray his black females with more depth and personality than he does his white females. However, I do not agree with those feminist critics who claim that Twain himself was a misogynist. Perhaps he found women to be an easier facilitator to comment about society with. Or maybe he just had so much respect for the female sex that he did not want to place them in the middle of one of his escapades. BibliographyFishkin, Shelley Fisher. “Mark Twain and Women.” The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY. 1995.Fenger, Gerald J. “Telling It Like It Was.” Critical Approaches to Mark Twain’s Short Stories. National University Publications: Port Washington, NY. 1981.Fonder, Philip. “A True Story” Critical Approaches to Mark Twain’s Short Stories. National University Publications: Port Washington, NY. 1981.Fonder, Phillip S. Mark Twain, Social Critic. International Publishers: New York, NY. 1958.Gibson, William. “The Artistry of ëA True Story’.” Critical Approaches to Mark Twain’s Short Stories. National University Publications: Port Washington, NY. 1981.Jehlen, Myra. “The Ties that Bind: Race and Sex in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. 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