Examples of Satire in Twain's Writing
Satire is a technique that writers use to expose or ridicule the weakness, hypocrisy, foolishness or corruption of an individual or society by using humor, wit, irony or sarcasm. Mark Twain carefully chose his words and used satire in his books to address controversial or taboo issues that afflicted his society.
‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a book about Huck’s escapades as he helps Jim, a runaway slave, find freedom. Twain uses satire in this book to communicate his ideas about race, slavery, hypocrisy and the social climate. For example, toward the beginning of the book, Huck’s father imprisons and enslaves him. When Huck runs away and encounters Jim, who illegally escaped his enslavement, he initially feels conflicted about supporting Jim. This is satirical because in Huck's society, it was against the law to enslave a white person, but not a black person. At the same time, it was legal for a white person to escape enslavement, but illegal for a black person to run away from a master.
‘The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg’
“The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches” is a short story and a satirical replay on the biblical story about the Garden of Eden. The man in the title represents Satan, who visits “incorruptible” Hadleyburg. The man tempts the people of the town with a sack of gold. The townspeople resort to misdeeds in an attempt to acquire the gold, even though it didn't belong to them. Twain satirizes that it’s human nature to have and give in to temptations, and that even people of high integrity have their weaknesses.
“A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court”
In “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court,” engineer Hank Morgan accidentally travels back in time to the days of King Arthur. He uses the technology of his time to trick the people into thinking that he’s a magician and attempts to modernize the past. In this story, Twain satirizes the romantic ideas of chivalry and idealization of the Middle Ages, which was a popular theme in novels written during his time. For example, he demonstrates the gullibility of the people who lived during the Middle Ages using the character Sandy, who tells Morgan that the pigs are princesses under a spell when it’s obvious to him that they are not.
‘Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins’
“Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins” is a book set in the early 1800s. In the book, Twain satirizes the Southern aristocracy, racism, slavery and human nature. Twain wrote the following about one of the main characters, Roxy: "Only one-sixteenth of her was black and that sixteenth did not show... Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom, a Negro.” In the story, Roxy switches her baby with the slave owner's baby. The owner doesn't notice the switch and ends up selling his own son to another slave owner. Twain satirized that his society and the law did not see white people as individuals with rights if they have even a hint of African American heritage in their family history. The only right that white people truly gain is the ability to hurt and enslave those who are different without fear of punishment.
- Merriam-Webster: Satire
- Archive.org: ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Comrade)’
- National Endowment for the Humanities: Launchpad: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” by Mark Twain
- Archive.org: ‘The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories and Sketches’
- Archive.org: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
- University of Virginia: Yankee Anti-Catholicism
- University of Virginia: King Arthur's Court in MT's America
- Archive.org: Pudd'nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins
- Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images