Mark Twain’s Satire in Huckleberry Finn
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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, published in 1885, is the sequel to his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer published in 1875. Huckleberry Finn tells the bond of friendship between Huckleberry Finn, a southern teenager, and Jim, an uneducated slave, encountering various characters and events as the two escape down the Mississippi River. The setting of the novel takes place during the antebellum era in America, in which slavery and racial prejudice were at the forefront of societal issues.
Twain’s emphasis on satirizing the flaws in American society makes this a frequently banned novel in the United Staes. The audience of the novel either do not see the satire and believe the novel is racist piece of literature or people recognize the satire and despise the image it places on whites and Americans. Twain utilizes the element of satire by presenting three different examples throughout the novel; racism, through the prospective of Pap, the hypocraful practice of religion as it applies to the Sheperdson and the Grangerford families, and human nature as it is exemplified in a backwards southern town and pitted against an angry mob.
Pap’s character is introduced in the the early chapters of the novel; his abusive nature and recent return causes Huck to flee with Jim, Mrs. Watson’s slave. In chapter five, Pap rants franticly concerning the government’s removal of Huckleberry Finn from his custody and the involvement of blacks in the voting process:
“Call this a government! 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 trouble and all the anxiety and all the expense of raising. Yes, just as that man has got that son raised at last, and ready to go to work and begin to do suthin’ for him and give a rest, the law up and goes for him. And they call that government! That ain’t all, nuther… Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there, from Ohio; a mulatter, most as white as a white man. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote, myself, if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote again.” (p. 41-43)
This passage isolates two perspectives of American culture through the eyes and experience of Pap’s character. His complaints against the laws of the government and racist opinion of blacks exposes a flaw of this established hierarchy. Whites are superior to blacks in society however, characters such as Pap, exemplify why whites are not superior and may be in fact inferior to blacks. Another thought to consider is, if Pap refuses to vote in a government where a black person is free to vote, a government which supports his lifestyle and his son, why do these racist white men continue to significantly influence decisions and control the laws passed within the government in America.
One specific type of satire that Twain uses is his attack on religious hypocrisy shown through the feud involving the Grangerford family. Specifically, Twain portrays the hypocrisy associated with Christianity through analyzing the Grangerford Family’s way of life. The Grangerford’s are a welcoming, kind group of people who attend church on a regular basis. In Chapter eighteen, the family is returning home from a church service when Huck notes:
“It was pretty ornery preaching- all about brotherly love… but everybody said it was such a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith, and good works, and free grace.” (p. 171).
From this passage, the Grangerford’s were a very moral family who prided themselves in the devotion to Christianity. This image of moral perfection projected by this aristocratic family is the opposite of the truth. The Grangerford’s attend a service concerning brotherly love and devotion, while continuing to foster aggression and act with antagonistic behavior based on their hatred of the Sheperdson family.
Twain reveals how their devotion to Christianity does not transfer into the families everyday actions. Twain satirizes the superficial character of the Grangerford’s and criticizes their appearance as devout Christians by revealing that sophistication and racial superiority does not always mean moral perfection. Days later combat takes place in the woods, and on both sides the animosity toward the other party is prevalent, men running along shooting and chanting violently. Twain highlights in this passage the insignificance that religion has on the everyday actions of those who call themselves Christians.
Witnessing the bloody battle, Huck decides to leave the good Christian family and has begin touring with the con-artist duo of the king and the duke. The two perform their rendition of the balcony scene in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. The group begins to ‘loaf’ around this town described in chapter twenty-one:
“Then we went loafing around town. The stores and hous- es was most all old, shackly, dried up frame con- cerns that hadn’t ever been painted; they was set up three or four foot above ground on stilts, so as to be out of reach of the wa- ter when the river was over- flowed…….All the stores was along one street. They had white do- mestic awnings in front, and the country peo- ple hitched their horses to the awning-posts.
There was empty dry- goods boxes under the awnings, and loafers roosting on them all day long, whittling them with their Barlow knives; and chawing tobacco, and gaping and yawning and stretch- ing — a mighty ornery lot……they called one another Bill, and Buck, and Hank, and Joe, and Andy, and talked lazy and drawly, and used considerable many cuss words. There was as many as one loafer leaning up against every awning-post, and he most always had his hands in his britches-pockets, ex- cept when he fetched them out to lend a chaw of tobacco or scratch.” (p. 214-215).
Twain directs his satire to the white race which is supposed to be superior to all others. Twain’s perspective however applies to every race or class; whites, blacks, northerners, southerners, this is simply how people are. He attacks all stereotypes in all races. Twain points out that human nature is the controlling theme in the town and in America. Folks reading this novel during the time of its publication could identify people in their lives who related to the citizens of this backwards town in the South. Twain pokes fun at racism itself, the idea of one race superior to all others is foolish.
In chapter twenty-two in this very same town, a drunken man is murdered by a man named Colonel Sherburn. Subsequently, a riotous mob parades through the streets knocking down the fence to Sherburn’s home. The mob is halted as Shernburn greets the mob with a rifle in his hand. A chilling silence occurs between Sherburn and the mob, this is where he delivers a proud speech to the mob:
“‘Do I know you? I know you clear through was born and raised in the South, and I’ve lived in the North; so I know the average all around. The average man’s a coward. In the North he lets anybody walk over him that wants to, and goes home and prays for a humble spirit to bear it. In the South one man all by himself, has stopped a stage full of men in the daytime, and robbed the lot. Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are brav- er than any other people — whereas you’re just AS brave, and no braver. Why don’t your juries hang murderers? Be- cause they’re afraid the man’s friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark — and it’s just what they WOULD do.
‘So they always acquit; and then a MAN goes in the night, with a hundred masked cowards at his back and lynches the rascal. Your mistake is, that you didn’t bring a man with you; that’s one mistake, and the other is that you didn’t come in the dark and fetch your masks. You brought PART of a man — Buck Harkness, there — and if you hadn’t had him to start you, you’d a taken it out in blowing.”
A significant part of what Sherburn says directly applies to the citizens shameful behavior. Southern justice as Twain points out, is often committed by a gathering of cowards who hide their faces and become judge, jury and executioner. Sherburn preaches to the angry mob pertaining to their nature and their lack of ability to stand against him individually. Sherburn can stand up to the crowd because no one in the crowd has the courage to defy him. Twain satirizes the idea of lynching entirely and human nature; following the mob’s decisions as opposed to each individual’s thoughts or beliefs.
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a black man is accused of sexually abusing a young white woman in 1930’s Alabama. In one scene of the novel, a crowd of angry white men form around the home of Tom Robinson, the man accused of the crime. During this scene Scout, a nine year old child, daughter of Atticus Finch , isolates one man from the angry mob, the father of a child she attends school with. In this example, the child subtly deconstructs the mob, focusing on individuality versus the mob. This novel, along with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn discusses the significance of an individual in a mob, though the novels were published nearly a century apart.
There are many examples of satire in “TheAdventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Through satire, Mark Twain shares his beliefs about racism, religion, and human nature, among many other topics that plagued the country at the time. The context of this novel spread throughout American culture, causing American’s to reflect on the society in which humans, primarily white men, have upheld since the founding of this country. In modern times, these bigoted, narrow-minded social problems are similar to the struggle of activist advocating for gay rights and woman’s rights. Twain’s satire is often subtle but has the ability to be very bold and upfront. Reading this novel as an American causes these citizens to accept their contribution to this society in which we live.