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The Mark Twain's Comedy Works

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Referred to as the “Father of Modern Satire” Mark Twain’s comedic works are appreciated universally and timelessly. Twain utilises a unique range of literary techniques to not only critique certain areas of society but also reveal his own sympathies and reflection of the time period he lived. For instance Twain’s ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ perfectly advocated his agnostic commentary critiquing God and organized religion as well as man’s susceptibility to the church. Moreover “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ displays racial attitudes of the time as well as his sympathies for the African American slave community. Furthermore ‘King Leopold’s Soliloquy” satirically criticizes King Leopold’s totalitarian rule over the Congo Free State during the 19th century. Likewise Twain’s ‘Letters from the Earth’ ridicules man’s ironic devastation of his fellow man and of the earth. Only upon analysing some of Twain’s most celebrated works we can assess his prevalence in today’s society and make parallels to modern comedians and political satirists.

It has been over a century since Mark Twain’s last work, The Mysterious Stranger, was published posthumously. Comprised of three short stories being The Chronicle of Young Satan, Schoolhouse Hill, and No. 44 The Mysterious Stranger, the most notable target of Twain’s satire is Christianity and what Twain saw as its imprisoning philosophy (Travis, p. 1). Twain’s assessment of God, Satan and the church resulting in barbaric consequences such as witch trials looks to convey religions control on humanity and humanities susceptibility to this power (Twain, 1916). Twain (1916 p. 36) writes “…Beyond these matters we were not required to know much; and in fact, not allowed to. The priests said that knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them, and God would not endure discontentment with His plans…” thus conveying the central position of the church and drawing parallels to 19th century America whereby often uneducated towns people lived out their lives in total trust in God and the Church (Travis, p. 11). Thus it is fitting of Twain to insert ‘Satan’ as the moralistic questioner rather than God (Travis, p. 11). Twain begins each of the stories by introducing a young male character that, in all the mystery shrouding him, shares powerful insights into modern ethics, religion, morality, and social justice (Travis, p. 11). Calling himself Satan, in all but Schoolhouse Hill, this often-unwelcome visitor serves as Twain’s microphone to voice the injustices that he thought threatened mankind. The story begins with Satan, creating living beings out of the dirt of the earth in front of the three boys, set specific tasks and then destroyed as “Satan reached out his hand and crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief and went on talking where he had left off…” (Twain 1916, p. 49). Twain cleverly creates this metaphor to advocate the ignorant and fickle nature of our relationship with a higher power or the church who Twain suggests must hate what he has created. Contrastingly in Schoolhouse Hill, instead the mysterious French stranger goes by the name of Forty-four and astonishes the school he has only arrived at by learning English in a matter of minutes (Travis, p. 14). The mysterious stranger goes onto recount the Genesis story of Adam and Eve highlighting the hypocrisy of having the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Twain (1916, p. 216) writes “His error was in supposing that a knowledge of the difference between good and evil was all that the fruit could confer.. .The fruit’s office was not confined to conferring the mere knowledge of good and evil, it conferred also the passionate and eager and hungry disposition to DO evil” to force his audience to question Satan’s guilt and shift this onus onto God who tempted his creations. With this Twain hopes challenge his largely orthodox Christian audience to ponder the doctrine of their church when the light at which Satan and God are viewed is reversed. Twain’s last manuscript, entitled No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, starts out dissimilarly to the previous two, as the stranger appears searching for human help (Travis, p. 16). Despite all the printers discarding the stranger the printing apprentice central to the story, August Feldner, reaches out to him so Twain may use his ‘Devil’ to challenge his audience again about religion and the human condition. As he states “Your race cannot even conceive of something being made out of nothing—I am aware of it, your learned men and philosophers are always confessing it. They say there had to be something to start with—meaning a solid, a substance—to build the world out of. Man, it is perfectly simple—it was built out of thought. Can’t you comprehend that?” (Twain 1916, p. 332) thus suggesting that man is not a spiritual being at all but a logical one who creates his own reality (Travis, p. 18). This acts to disband all the notions of heaven and creation acting as Twain’s definitive rejection of the existence of God (Travis, p. 18). Hence through all three manuscripts Twain perfectly advocates his mistrust and suspicion of the Christian message and critiques humans susceptibility to it.

Moreover Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ satirizes the unjust treatment of African American slaves in America through light-hearted comedy. Through the relationship between Huck and Jim (an African American slave), Twain effortlessly critiques unfair treatment of slaves prior to abolition allowing Huck and challenging the audience to develop a conscience for humanity (Twain 1884). Twain utilises colloquial language and various characters to represent key players and the political climate of the pre-civil war southern states. One main instance where Twain looks to convey this gross inequality is when Pap, Hucks Dad, while holding Huck captive goes onto rant “here was a free nigger there from Ohio… most as white as a white man. He had the whitest shirt on you ever see, too, and the shiniest hat; and there ain’t a man in that town that’s got as fine clothes as what he had; and he had a gold watch and chain, and a silver-headed cane—the awful- est old gray-headed nabob in the State. And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out” (Twain 1884, p. 27). The fact that this individual can be both rich and successful, two things Pap is not, but be undeserving because of his race highlights the gross animosity and unjustified treatment that created the double standard that was ripe in the south for so long. In addition Twain communicates his sympathy through the simple and innocent character of Jim. Jim’s reaction that people speak different languages, “Well, it’s a blame ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it” (Twain 1884, p. 80) is ironic because he cannot understand how we can speak different languages if we are all the same and yet accept his enslavement even though we are all the same. While Twain creates this reaction to be humorous and light-hearted he intends the underlying message of hypocrisy to be noticed and considered. Finally through the loved protagonist of Huck, Twain challenges us with his racial reservations. Huck’s recollection of his apology, “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way” (Twain 1884, p. 88) forces us to consider if should praise Huck for his still racist but progressive behaviour or question our own loyalties to Huck. Either way it is in this way that Twain not only critiques society but challenges them to consider their own beliefs.

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Furthermore ‘King Leopold’s Soliloquy” satirically criticizes King Leopold’s totalitarian rule over the Congo Free State through a fictional monologue where Leopold speaks in his own defence about all the “good” he intended for the poor people of the Congo (Twain, 1905). The text begins with a sardonic note “The publishers desire to state that Mr. Clemens declines to accept any pecuniary return from this booklet, as it is his wish that that all proceeds of sales above the cost of publication shall be used in furthering effort for relief of the people the Congo” (Twain 1905, p. 1) to ridicule King Leopold and crown himself the hero of this story before it has even begun. Similarly Twain puts text supporting Leopold II at times in the shape of a cross, highlighting the irony and hypocrisy of the words with religious imagery (Dwight 2007). Even Twain’s punctuation and over the top rhetoric looks to ridicule King Leopold as a mad bumbling leader who is offended by the publics lack of praise for him. Twain writes “Oh, well, let them blackguard me if they like; it is a deep satisfaction to me to remember that I was a shade too smart for that nation that thinks itself so smart. Yes, I certainly did bunco a Yankee—as those people phrase it. Pirate flag? Let them call it soo—perhaps it is. All the same, they were the first to salute it” (Twain 1905, p. 7) which not only mocks King Leopold’s regime but also his own, goading the American public to notice their obligation to help by pointing out that the International Association of the Congo was first recognized by the US (Dwight 2007). King Leopold’s Soliloquy acts as another example of Twain’s wit and bravery to highlight injustice, and criticise particular powerful bodies of society through irony and exaggeration, which is a testament to his legacy.

Finally Twain’s ‘Letters from the Earth’ satirizes man’s ironic devastation of his fellow man due to the hypocrisy of our creation. Similar to his political critique, Twain’s eleven letters written by Satan to the archangels Gabriel and Michael remains pertinent today highlighting the irony of humanities hypocritical and self destructive nature (Twain 1962). As a testament to their content, when the ‘Letters’ were to be published in 1939, Twain’s daughter objected to their posthumous publication on the grounds they did not truly reflect her father’s religious views (Walden 2013, p. 3). In 1960 she finally lifted her objections in hopes that the world was a more tolerant place Walden 2013, p. 3). Firstly Twain looks to highlight the insincerity of humanity as a creation of god as “All nations look down upon all other nations. All nations dislike all other nations. All white nations despise all colored nations, of whatever hue, and oppress them when they can. White men will not associate with ‘niggers,’ nor marry them. They will not allow them in their schools and churches. All the world hates the Jew, and will not endure him except when he is rich…” (Twain 1962, p. 3). Twain’s repition of ‘All’ and use of ‘nigger’ and Jew emphasize that even himself is not a reflection of a holy intention but are genetically built to belittle each other. Moreover Twain points out humanities bizarre beliefs about themselves, denoting “that the human being, like the immortals, naturally places sexual intercourse far and away above all other joys — yet he has left it out of his heaven!” (Twain 1962, p. 4) pointing out that the notion of a heaven leaves out everything humans find most enjoyable. Furthermore Twain’s observation “…that the human being is a curiosity. In times past he has had (and worn out and flung away) hundreds and hundreds of religions; today he has hundreds and hundreds of religions, and launches not fewer than three new ones every year. I could enlarge that number and still be within the facts” (Twain 1962, p. 5) thus highlighting another duplicitous phenomenon of the Christian story. Twain considers the question that if we are made of one creator why are we obsessed with finding alternatives and therefore either humanity or God or both are broken. Twain’s style and rhetoric are typified in “Letters from the Earth” as he continued to make accurate critiques on the human condition against and without fear of the heavily Christian country he lived.

Upon analysing some of Twain’s most prolific works, his prevalence and legacy remain strong today as a lead for our current political satirists and comedians to follow. Political satirists such as Stephen Colbert and John Stewart’s clever critique of their government, particularly the Trump Phenomenon, is intently similar to Twain’s critique of his own and foreign governments of his time. Moreover the raw brand of humour used by Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman was pioneered by first by Twain’s courage to tackle delicate issues such as sex and racism in a time when society was less tolerant. Essences of Twain’s work can be found in the majority of modern political and societal critique and has either directly or indirectly influenced some of the most popular comedy of our time.

In conclusion Mark Twain’s comedic works are appreciated universally and timelessly. ‘The Mysterious Stranger’, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, ‘King Leopold’s Soliloquy” and ‘Letters from the Earth’ all utilise a unique range of literary techniques to not only critique certain areas of society but also reveal his own sympathies and reflection of the time period he lived. Only upon analysing some of Twain’s most celebrated works we can confirm his prevalence in today’s society and make parallels to modern comedians and political satirists alike. Twain’s legacy will continue as a blueprint for comedians and commentators as well as an enjoyment for those who simply enjoy his funny stories.

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The Mark Twain’s Comedy Works. (2021, August 13). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-mark-twains-comedy-works/
“The Mark Twain’s Comedy Works.” Edubirdie, 13 Aug. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/the-mark-twains-comedy-works/
The Mark Twain’s Comedy Works. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-mark-twains-comedy-works/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
The Mark Twain’s Comedy Works [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Aug 13 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-mark-twains-comedy-works/
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