Three Blind Vices: The Revelatory Social Satire of “Huckleberry Finn”
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain satirizes the disagreeable actions of the people encountered by Huck on his adventures in order to accentuate the hypocrisy exhibited in these actions. Such actions, unfortunately, are commonplace in society. Already one of Twain’s staple techniques, satire is defined as “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”). He pokes fun at the hypocrisy of parents not abiding by the prohibitions they give to their kids. He mocks the situation of churchgoing folk being fickle in following the pillars of their creed. The more serious vice of society going on at the time was the action of separating members of slave families in the interest of slave trading that was permitted by the government. Twain satirizes these grotesque aspects of society that society itself was too blind to see through the characters that Huck meets on his journey.
Towards the beginning of the book, when Twain introduces the readers to Huck and his life, Huck brings up smoking to his guardian, Widow Douglass. The Widow shoots the notion down swiftly, however continues the cancerous practice herself. “Pretty soon I wanted to smoke, and asked the widow to let me. But she wouldn’t. She said it was a mean practice and wasn’t clean, and I must try to not do it anymore… And she took a snuff too, of course that was all right, because she done it herself” (Twain 10). She is hypocritical in that she tells Huck to not smoke, however she does so herself. This undoubtedly mocking the ridiculous and hypocritical mantra “Do as I say, not as I do” held often by incompetent parents and guardians. Twain uses situational irony in order to effectively communicate this satire, as Widow Douglass continuing to smoke even though she tells Huck to do otherwise is the opposite of what is expected to occur. The readers expect to find out that since the Widow instructs Huck that smoking is a mean practice and should not be done anymore, she will be a non-smoker herself. Instead, we found out that she does indeed smoke. This satire is Horatian because of its light subject matter; Twain had a witty and tolerant view on the subject and wanted to evoke a wry smile out of his audience. He did not firmly believe that the hypocrisy of the mantra or guardians smoking to be a genuine crisis worth attacking with his words and inciting anger, however it is a habit that he wishes to stir a thought about in the minds of his readers.
Later on in the book, Twain uses the juxtaposition of having guns being brought into church to mock the hypocrisy of people picking and choosing which religious rules they follow. The Grangerfords, a family in the midst of a massive feud with the rival Shepherdsons, take a shipwrecked, wet Huck in temporarily. During his brief time with the Grangerfords, particularly Buck who was of similar age to Huck, Huck went to church with the family on one occasion. On this one occasion, both feuding families laid down their arms to rejoice in prayer. “Next Sunday we all went to Church… the men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepherdsons done the same. It was pretty ornery preaching– all about brotherly love… everybody said it was a good sermon… and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace…” (Twain 121). Brotherly love is the exact opposite of what is going on between the two families in conflict. Twain uses this example to ridicule how many people who attend church and claim to be religious are fickle in which rules of the religion they follow. The Bible expressly forbids violence, yet many people on both sides of the feud have perished as a result of it. This satire is an example of juxtaposition, as the feuding families with rifles in their hands conflicts greatly with the peaceful creed of the Church and Bible. The satire transcends just mocking the hypocrisy of attending church while in the midst of a violent feud, and elevates the application of the satire to a hypocrisy found often in real life, where members of a religion are fickle in the principles they abide. This is again Horatian satire because although the conflict in the book is fairly serious with murder and all, Twain wasn’t trying to get his audience up in arms about the issue, instead he was humorously pointing out the hypocrisy of the picking and choosing going on in the real world in a witty way. Twain effectively, but not so obviously as to insult the audience’s intelligence, calls attention to the hypocrisy exhibited in the juxtaposition of bringing weapons to a place of worship of a religion with doctrine that preaches peace. Indeed, Twain’s style of writing with subtle jabs at undesirable elements of society continues on to a more grim issue in society, where undesirable may be an understatement.
A significant and terrible problem going on during the time of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was without a doubt slavery. With slavery, a terrible occurrence that happened quite often within the system was not treating slaves as humans, but as property. With this sentiment and in the interest of business, slaves were often traded and separated from their families. In the beginning of the book, the audience is introduced to Pap. PAp is Huck’s biological father, and he doesn’t have custody of his son because of his violence and reckless alcoholism. After Pap kidnaps Huck from his guardian Widow Douglass,, Pap goes on a rant about how the law permitting taking his son away from him, referring to Huck being placed in the custody of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson due to Pap’s reckless pass full of alcoholism and crime. “Call this a govment! why, just look at it and see what it’s like. Here’s the law a-standing ready to take a man’s son away from him– a man’s own son, which he has had all the trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising” (Twain 36). Here there is an obvious example of situational irony in that because of Pap’s quote, one would expect him to own Huck based on his claims that he went through the struggle of raising him, however Pap had no hand in the upbringing of the boy, he was raised by Widow Douglas. Beyond this obvious example however, a comparison to the previously mentioned separation of slave families can be found. A quote from later in the book, when a slave family on the Wilks’ estate was being separated during a slave auction: “… and away they went, the two sons on the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans… poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other’s necks and crying…” (Twain 196). Pap criticizes the government for allowing his son to be taken away from him, yet this exact situation occurs all the time in the slave trade and Pap has no qualms about it. Here, Twain is satirizing the hypocritical viewpoint of Pap that he deserves to have legal custody of his son for being the birth-father, and at the same time he expresses no such concern for the separation of slaves. Once again, this is situational irony because one would expect Pap to be against separation of his families based on his protest against the legality of Huck not belonging to him, but he says this while not protesting against the legal separation of slave families. Contrary to the previous two examples, this satire is Juvenalian because the subject matter is a serious matter affecting the real world. While he doesn’t quite speak with contempt and indignation, Twain truly wanted his readers to have their eyes opened on the treacherous issue of slavery that went on at the time. Many whites in society didn’t care for what happened to slaves, but whenever a parallel situation that is commonplace in slavery comes into their own lives, they are devastated. Failure to see the hypocrisy in having conflicting stances is a vice that will always grip humanity.
As is clearly evident from the three cases above, Twain masterfully uses satire to castigate the hypocritical aspects of society he found disagreeable. Widow Douglas’s continuation of smoking was chastised by Twain after she forbade Huck from doing so. The situation of the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons attending church with their rifles in hand and being in the middle of a longstanding feud was criticized by Twain because the Bible demands the practitioners of its religion to be peaceful. Pap’s complaints about the injustice of law separating him from his son whilst having no qualms about living in a society that legalizes the separation of slave families is hypocritical. Through the vessel of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain brings to light issues both grave and light that he encounters in society. Even today, satire is used to highlight disagreeable parts of society that the author feels is important, usually in the realm of politics. A variety of mediums are used to present this satire nowadays, such as cartoons, movies, television programs, or even plays, all in addition to the printed media that Twain favored. This reflects that even as mediums change and new technologies arrive, satire is still imbued in them for the same purpose it has always been used for; to criticize the stupidity and vices of humans that has always existed and will persevere so long as humans do.
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