Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee: Satire as a Means of Defense
All novels that use satire to criticize society are novels that expose social problems. Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court is a novel that uses satire to criticize society. Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court is a novel that exposes social problems.
“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful.” (Ivens) The definition of satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. Satire is an effective literary device that authors employ to engage readers. Notably, many scholars agree that Mark Twain used satire as a powerful tool to expose his point of view on many issues. Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is filled with satire. Novels that use satire to criticize are ones that expose social prejudices. Mark Twain was an author that used satire to criticize society and through that satire, he exposed social prejudices. Repeatedly Mark Twain used satire to reflect his own view of the injustices of society, and by doing so he angered many people of his time. In the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain uses satire to reflect his own issues with the development of technology, social institutions, and religion.
Mark Twain used satire to criticize the technology of his day. Twain viewed technology as harmful and detrimental to relationships. Instead of deepening the relationship, technology only made connections more shallow. Twain used technology in the book to further the lives of the people in the sixth century, but in doing that he exposed the things that he did not like about technology. One of the inventions that Mark Twain used to criticize the technology of his day was the telephone. In the book when Hank Morgan is first in charge, he starts to make technological advances in the sixth century. One of the inventions he creates is the telephone. He lays cables all across the country so that if he needed to, he could facilitate communication. Mark Twain also has Hank use the telephone to send people to his factories. Hank’s communication with the telephone leads to a misunderstanding. Hank is instructing Ulfius to report to Camelot that he is in the ‘Valley of holiness’, but instead Ulfius hears it as ‘ the Valley of Hellishness.’ Hank then goes on to say, “The Valley of Hellishness. That explains it. Confound a telephone, anyway. It is the very demon for conveying similarities of sound that are miracles of divergence from similarities of sense. But no matter, you know the name of the place now, call up Camelot” (Twain 312-313). Undoubtedly, Mark Twain is letting readers know his frustration with the telephone through this use of satire. In addition, Twain names Hank’s child ‘ Hello-Central.’ During that time when a person would call a telephone operator, the person on the other end of the line would say, ‘Hello Central.’ Hank’s sixth century wife Sandy hears him talking in his sleep and calling out the words, ‘Hello Central.’ Sandy completely misunderstands that Hank is trying to call the future. She then names their daughter ‘Hello-Central’ which is comical and further illustrates what Twain thinks about the telephone. The telephone is a device that facilitates complete misunderstanding.
Furthermore, at the end of the novel, Hank is dreaming while on his deathbed in the nineteenth century, and he is trying to contact Sandy in the sixth century. It does not work because it is like a one ended telephone conversation. They can hear him, but he cannot hear them. As Joe Boyd Fulton, a Princeton University author and lecturer, pointed out, ‘Specifically, Twain included his early comic invention, the one ended telephone conversation, that reveals in a homelier way his extremely jaundiced view of technology and its limitations” (Fulton). Clearly, Mark Twain is poking fun at the telephone. Mark Twain reveals his view that technology is not an advanced improvement that helps mankind flourish, but only a tool that ultimately hurts mankind.
In addition, Twain continued to ridicule the technology of his time through his introduction of the bicycle to the sixth century. He jabbed a society that would get rid of something as majestic and powerful as the horse that had been used for many centuries for some dinky bike. Twain shows how silly he thinks this is when he writes, ‘…by George here they came, a-tilting-five hundred mailed and belted knights on bicycles.’ In addition, in one of his previous works, Mark Twain and the Taming of the Bicycle, Twain had equated the bicycle to the horse, stating, ‘Mine was not a full-grown bicycle, but only a colt – a fifty-inch, with the pedals shortened up to forty-eight – and skittish, like any other colt’ (Twain Taming of the Bicycle). He implies in both of these works that if a person wants to look grand, then he or she should ride something grand. This image of five hundred fully armored knights riding bicycles not only amuses readers, but points out how impractical and foolish this would be. It is as if the reader is watching a circus rather than a heroic event. He is using this humorous circus scenario with the bicycles to entertain his audience and point out that technological advances are not as practical as they seem.
Finally, Twain uses satire to attack the technology of his day by bringing guns to the sixth century. ‘Hank’s technology, which includes landmines and Gatling gun’s, allows him to annihilate an army of knights. But after the battle, as he and his technicians find themselves trapped by the bodies of the 25,000 men they have killed, they discover their technology has conquered them too’ (Railton 24). Instead of using satire to poke fun at technology, this time Twain is using it to blatantly attack the violence and destruction that the gun brings. ‘More unsettling is that his first public act is an act of violence and that the first ‘blessing’ of progress he brings into this world from the future is gunpowder'(Railton). With the bicycle he was mocking technology, but with the gun he wants to demonstrate the true horror that technology can bring. Little did Twain know that his fantasy of the Battle of the Sandbelt where over 25,000 knights were slaughtered by Gatling guns, would become a reality in just a few decades in the World Wars. Twain’s use of technology for satire reflects his overall view that technology does not always advance society in a positive direction. Scholars may argue that Twain is simply entertaining his audience in a humorous and fanciful way and is in no way taking a stand against technological advances, however, Twain is most certainly using satire to criticize the technological advances of the telephone, the bicycle, and guns. He was known to be very outspoken with his criticisms.
Additionally, Mark Twain employs satire to criticize social institutions. He insults the divine right and the monarchy. Mark Twain directly addresses his distaste for the monarchy and divine right when he places Hank Morgan in the court of King Arthur (Milne). According to divine right, a king was born into power and ordained by God. However, Hank comes into power as a result of a supposed miraculous event. Prior to his execution Hank states, ‘Go back and tell the king that at the hour I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will block out the sun, and he shall never shine again: the fruits of the earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the people of the earth shall famish and die, to the last man!” (Twain 88) Then during his execution, the public witnessed the eclipse of the sun, and they thought Hank had performed this event. In reality Hank’s personal knowledge of a future event had allowed him to deceive the people and ultimately come into power. Clearly, Twain is insulting the monarchy, the idea of divine right, and the intelligence of the people. Again, Twain insults divine right through Arthur’s sister Morgan Le Fay. Morgan can do whatever she wants no matter how evil it is because of her divine right. ‘The malicious abuse of the concept of divine right is presented through Twain’s characterization of Morgan Le Fay, who thinks nothing of taking the lives and property of peasants on a whim’ (Milne). Twain effectively uses satire to point out how ‘the King’s court is balanced atop an unjust social system that ignores the rights of the working people and confers divine rights upon nobles who, having been born to wealth and power, have no idea justice’ (Milne). Twain is pointing out that the King’s advisors have not earned the right to be judges. They have not been chosen for their ideals and godly behavior. They have been chosen simply because they are wealthy. Troubled by this social injustice, Twain choose to use satire to point it out.
He also enjoyed bashing knighthood and chivalry. For example, at one point in the novel Hank challenged all five hundred knights to attack him. They accepted his challenge and came charging towards him. He pulled out his revolvers and killed nine of them. The rest wavered and then fled. Hank’s goal was to abolish knighthood and he had some success. He states, ‘It was another of my surreptitious schemes for extinguishing knighthood by making it grotesque and absurd’ (Twain 275). Three years later, Hank was determined to destroy knighthood once and for all. He employed knights to work for him and those knights who were stubborn and refused to work for him he challenged:
“When I broke the back of knighterrantry that time, I no longer felt obliged to work in secret. So, the very next day I exposed my hidden schools, my mines, and my vast system of clandestine factories and work-shops to an astonished world. That is to say, I exposed the nineteenth century to the inspection of the sixth. Well, it is always a good plan to follow up an advantage promptly. The knights were temporarily down, but if I would keep them so I must just simply paralyze them—nothing short of that would answer. You see, I was “bluffing” that last time, in the field; it would be natural for them to work around to that conclusion, if I gave them a chance. So I must not give them time: and I didn’t. I renewed my challenge, engraved it on brass, posted it up where any priest could read it to them, and also kept it standing, in the advertising columns of the paper. I not only renewed it, but added to its proportions. I said, name the day, and I would take fifty assistants and stand up against the massed chivalry of the whole earth and destroy it. I was not bluffing this time. I meant what I said; I could do what I promised. There wasn’t any way to misunderstand the language of that challenge. Even the dullest of the chivalry perceived that this was a plain case of “put up, or shut up.” They were wise and did the latter. In all the next three years they gave me no trouble worth mentioning.” (Twain 511-512)
After this challenge none of the knights ever gave him trouble again. Hank basically made a fool out of all of the knights to show that chivalry is not all that it is cracked up to be. Twain openly satirizes chivalry and knighthood.
Twain continues to reveal his views on slavery by using satire to point out how naïve the peasants were. Mark Twain used the peasants in Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to show how much he despised slavery. He equated the peasants to slaves. Twain wanted his readers to understand that mental slavery accompanies real slavery. By this he meant that these peasants did not even realize that they were slaves. In the novel the peasants followed directions from nobles without question, and if they did not they were hung.
“To imprison these men without proof, and starve their kindred, was no harm, for they were merely peasants and subject to the will and pleasure of their lord, no matter what fearful form it might take; but for these men to break out of unjust captivity was insult and outrage, and a thing not to be countenanced by any conscientious person who knew his duty to his sacred caste.” (Twain 389)
Furthermore, they could not defend themselves when wrongfully charged by the nobility. For example, Morgan Le Fey tortured a man in front of his wife and children because she claimed that he killed a deer on her land. This man could not speak up for himself because he feared death. In addition, even after two decades of freedom under Hank’s guidance, the peasants still chose to side with the church once again giving up all of their freedoms. Twain definitely utilizes satire to reveal how simple minded the peasants were.
While some authorities favor an absolute monarchy because “…it reduces the time it takes to make decisions, …makes law making easier, …and allows for long term goals to be planned and met” (Connectusfundadmin), others recognize that a monarchy has many disadvantages and can quickly become dangerous. Just as Twain disapproved of the monarchy, knighthood, and slavery, he had strong feelings against many of the social institutions of his day too (Weedman). Consequently, Hank directs his efforts at destroying both monarchical government and the established church. Hank wanted to convert the monarchy to a democracy, and he started to do this by giving the people more freedoms. In addition, he set up different churches of the protestant denomination to try and corrode the power of the Catholic Church. This shows that Twain had a very restricted view of government. Mark Twain thought that some of the social institutions of his day were corrupted and used manipulation to control people. Mark Twain clearly states that he has strong feelings against many of the social institutions of his day.
Finally, Twain uses satire to condemn any established church. Mark Twain despised the church and in Connecticut Yankee he expressed that very clearly. A constant theme throughout Connecticut Yankee was how Hank would try not to gain the attention of the church because it was so powerful. As stated by Ira Mark Milne, “Hank explains that he designs his political reforms specifically so that they will not attract the attention of the church and bring out its opposition.” Milne goes on to point out that “Twain’s rage is not confined to just the Catholic Church but also applies to any established church, which he sees as an instrument for suppressing the rights of people by taking their inherent power away from them, making them slaves to the whims of the powerful people who claim to speak for God.” Throughout the novel Twain berates the Roman Catholic Church’s destructive influence on society, for example, in two or three little centuries it had converted a nation of men to a nation of worms. Before the day of the Church’s supremacy in the world, men were men, and held their heads up, and had a man’s pride and spirit and independence; and what of greatness and position a person got, he got mainly by achievement, not by birth. But then the Church came to the front, with an axe to grind; and she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat—or a nation; she invented “divine right of kings,” and propped it all around, brick by brick, with the Beatitudes — wrenching them from their good purpose to make them fortify an evil one; she preached (to the commoner,) humility, obedience to superiors, the beauty of self-sacrifice; she preached (to the commoner,) meekness under insult; preached (still to the commoner, always to the commoner,) patience, meanness of spirit, nonresistance under oppression; and she introduced heritable ranks and aristocracies, and taught all the Christian populations of the earth to bow down to them and worship them. (Twain 114-115)
The unfavorable description of the church used by Twain points out how unmistakably evil he found the church to be. Moreover, the censorship of the church appalled Twain. “Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information that may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, incorrect or inconvenient as determined by governments, media outlets, authorities or other groups or institutions.” (Merriam Webster). In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the Roman Catholic Church did not want to be undermined. The Church wanted complete power and control over the people. They did not want anyone coming in and challenging their authority. This becomes evident as soon as Hank leaves, and there is turmoil in the country. The church steps in and destroys all the technology that Hank introduced into society. All the telephone stations in the country were destroyed in attempt to cease communication that could hinder their progress. During the twenty years of liberty, “Slavery was dead and gone; all men were equal before the law; taxation had been equalized. The telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the type-writer, the sewing machine, and all the thousand willing and handy servants of steam and electricity were working their way into favor” (Twain 512). However, after Hank departs the church seizes the opportunity to retake control of the country, and when Hank returns he finds the country in disarray. He describes, “Our navy had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared! Also, as suddenly and as mysteriously, the railway and telegraph and telephone service ceased, the men all deserted, poles were cut down, the Church laid a ban upon the electric light” (540). The church ultimately censored anything that would turn the people against them. Twain used satire to ridicule the censorship of the church.
Finally, Twain attacked the superstitious beliefs of the ignorant people with satire. Whenever the people feared excommunication, they would always revert back to superstition and ignorance. As Steven Railton accurately puts it, “Readers of Hank’s narrative know him as Hank Morgan, sworn enemy of the Church, the aristocracy, and the primitive superstitions of the times, what he calls “the magic of fol-de-rol.” (30). When referring to their beliefs, he categorizes superstition as complete nonsense. In one particular scene for example, there was a well that all the people considered holy, but one day the well ran dry. The people called Merlin to come and fix it, and when he got there he declared the well cursed and that it could not be fixed because there was a demon. When Hank arrived, he saw that it was just a hole that could be repaired, and he made it look like a miracle. In the process he insulted Merlin by saying, “…but no, he was an old numskull, a magician who believed in his own magic; and no magician can thrive who is handicapped with a superstition like that”.
Most importantly, because of superstition all of the technology and social reforms that Hank brought were destroyed. This was due to the church which had filled the people’s minds with the superstitious beliefs. The people were so afraid that they would not make it to the afterlife that they would rather sacrifice their freedom and technologically advanced life. They desperately feared going to hell. For example, “Oh, then, for the fear of God, who visits with misery and death such as be harmless, tarry not here, but fly! This place is under his curse—and his Church’s” (378). If the church cursed someone or their household, anyone who came near the person was excommunicated and therefore sent to hell. If someone was not part of the church, they were not a follower of God and were immediately banished from heaven in the eyes of the church. Twain satirized the people who were willing to believe the superstitious teachings of the church in order to keep their salvation. (Weedman)
Throughout the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain effectively employs satire to expose his views on the development of technology, social institutions, and religion. Twain was distressed about the consequences that technology could bring especially the death and destruction it inflicted. He mocked the corruption of social institutions and the church which exploited the people. Twain used satire to expose the injustices he saw and to ultimately defend the powerless.
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