The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Satire as a Tool for Social CriticismGet Your
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Mark Twain in his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells of a journey that is undertaken by Huck, a self-proclaimed uncivilized boy, and a runaway slave named Jim. Although Mark Twain is often described as a comic writer, throughout this novel his uses satire in a manner that clearly illustrates a variety of problems faced by American society at the time that the novel was written.
Some of the social problems raised through Twain’s use of satire include social issues related to slavery, religion, morality, and class prejudice. The superficial nature of the humor occasioned by the satire fades and eyes are opened as the reader is forced to confront the need for social changes. Twain’s satire is most intimately associated with the pointing out of flaws and hypocrisies as they apply to individuals, to social institutions, and to society.
Huck and Jim confront these types of flawed social institutions and corruptions of ideal notions of ethical norms as they struggle to come to terms with their own roles in society. Twain therefore uses satire to create a point of view in which an apparently humorous journey actually represents a type of social criticism. The satire thus provides serious insights into human nature and society in addition to being entertaining and humorous at a superficial level.
One of the ways that Twain accomplishes this is by creating a low class boy in the form of Huck who seemingly represents an unethical lifestyle while simultaneously using Huck to point out what is morally wrong and hypocritical about the higher and respected classes who regularly attend church and present themselves as models of human respectability. This paper will discuss how Twain uses satire to accomplish these goals and what precise purposes that this use of satire served.
As a preliminary matter, before examining specific instances of Twain’s use of satire, it is necessary to note that Mark Twain knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It has been noted, for example, that “Despite what is often the darkness of Mark Twain’s message, he is also America’s great comic writer.” (Johnson, 1996, p. 223)
This is important because it demonstrates that Twain was known for using humor and satire in order to make political messages or to offer his own social criticisms. The following social criticisms made through the use of satire, as a result, are not simply opinions but well-established features of Twain’s writing style. It is also necessary to define what is meant with reference to the use of satire in literature. One Mark Twain expert has stated that “Satire is defined as literature in which vice and folly or certain human weaknesses are held up to ridicule, often with the purpose of instigating reform.” (Johnson, 1996, p. 223)
Two conclusions can therefore be drawn. First, Mark Twain was well-known for inserting dark messages into his writing while simultaneously making the stories humorous. Second, these dark messages are conveyed through the satirical portrayal of human weaknesses.
In his Explanatory note, Twain even uses satire to hint that he will be engaging in social criticism when he writes that “IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. (Twain, 1912, p. ix)
Twain is telling the reader in advance that there is nothing haphazard about his satire of individual speech and individual behavior; quite the contrary, he is telling the reader that his satirical techniques have been painstakingly considered and employed. Having established that Twain’s satirical intentions were deliberately used to convey social observations and criticisms, it is therefore time to apply these concepts to a couple of examples from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Satire and the Notion of Being Civilized
One of Twain’s main social criticisms is that American society is not really moral or ethical. He makes this criticism by using Huck to portray other individuals as proper and civilized while having Huck refer to himself as lacking these character traits. This happens from the very beginning of the novel until the end of the novel. In the beginning, for example, Huck states that “The Widow Douglas she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house all the time, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out.” (Twain, 1912, pp. 1-2)
Twain uses satire to portray the Widow Douglas as a respectable member of society who can teach Huck how to behave properly. But what Twain is really doing is ridiculing her because he also provides that Huck cannot stand her house and that he has no interest whatsoever in her notions of civilization. Despite the humor, Huck is leaving for a reason. The society and the civilized behavior represented by the Widow Douglas must not be all that it appears to be.
During Huck’s adventures his fears and distrust of people and society are consistently confirmed. Even when things seem to be working out at the end of the novel, Huck again rejects any attempt to be adopted. This time it is by Sally and Huck states that “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” (Twain, 1912, p. 405)
By ridiculing the civilizing desire of respectable members of society once again, Twain is criticizing conformity and the real social values. In much the same way that Huck is critical of civilizing influences and society, it is highly likely that Twain was also critical of the civilizing dogmas and social norms of his era, too.
Satire and Racism
In addition to using satire to criticize the true worth of civilized values and society, Twain also uses satire to point out the ugliness of racism. When Jim has finally been captured and is being held to be returned to his owner, Huck writes the following letter, “Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN.” (Twain, 1912, p. 296)
Miss Watson is a respectable member of society, but she owns another human being and she can get him back if she pays a reward. Twain is ridiculing the so-called respectable person wanting the reward and Miss Watson. Huck is at this point being used by Twain to show that all human beings can choose whether to be hypocrites or to follow their own moral values.
Twain has Huck make his own choice when he refuses to send the letter to Miss Watson; specifically, Twain had Huck state that “It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:”All right, then, I’ll go to hell”–and tore it up.” (Twain, 1912, p. 297)
The good people owned and sold other human beings, but Huck was going to hell because he refused to engage in the racist thoughts and practices. This is an excellent example of how Twain used satire to convey a social criticism of racist ideas and practices. Huck was a moral human being despite descriptions the contrary.
In conclusion, satire was consistently used by Mark Twain throughout The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in ways that highlighted flawed individuals, flawed ideas about civilized behavior, and flawed notions of moral societies. His most critical attacks seemed to be against social hypocrisy and racism. But everyone has a choice and Twain allowed Huck to make his choice. Huck chose to flee and remain free in his own mind rather than being forced to become a flawed member of respectable American society.
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Johnson, C. D. (1996). Understanding Adventures of Huckleberry Finn A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Satire as a Tool for Social Criticism
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Satire is a genre of literature in which things such as vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are ridiculed with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually comedic, it is usually used for constructive criticism. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, satire is used to point out the faults and stupidity of America and its people during the 1840s and to ridicule them in a comedic way. `In this story, Twain uses many examples to express social satire. One of these examples is religious. Religion is a big topic in Huckleberry Finn and Twain does a good job using satire to make the story funnier and also to criticize religious following during the 1840s.
Two examples of religious satire in this story are the Grangerfords and Huck. The Grangerfords may seem like a pleasant and respectable family, who love God and attend church, but in actuality, live in a world of violence. The family has had a hardcore feud going on with the nearby Shepherdson family for about thirty years, killing off members of each family, one by one, until all are dead.
The Grangerford family represents religious hypocrisy very clearly by attending church with their guns, placed between their knees, ready to shoot if needed. Afterwards, on their way home, the family talks about how they enjoyed the sermon (which happened to be about brotherly love) and about faith and good works. The next day, one of deadliest feuds occurred and many family members died. They may act like a religious family, but disrespect God by feuding, even in the house of God. Huck also plays a big role in the satire of religion. He does this by trying to be religious, but not understanding it at all.
An example of this is in the first chapter when Huck sees Widow Douglas “grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them.” Here Huck doesn’t understand what she is really doing, which is saying her mealtime prayers. Also, in chapter three, after listening to Widow Douglas’ view of heaven, Huck decides that he would rather go to the bad place than the good place. This scenario tells us that it is ok to have your own views on religion. All in all, for religion, Twain tries to teach the moral of practicing what you preach. Don’t just do it, do it with heart.
Religion isn’t the only form of social satire that Twain uses in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He also uses lying as a form of satire. Lying plays a big part in the story and is used throughout the whole book. The main character, Huckleberry Finn, is the main culprit for this topic. Huck lies throughout the whole book and rarely tells the truth. He is a mastermind when it comes to lying, doing it very well without getting caught. He is constantly creating stories to get out of sticky situations and even creating fake identities to keep himself from getting caught after running away.
The Duke and Dauphin also play a large role in the topic of lying in this book. The Duke and Dauphin travel around scamming people in whatever way they can. They do this by telling major lies. They even go to the extent of pretending to be the brothers of a dead man just so they can receive money from the will! As the story moves forward, Twain displays the bad affects that lying has on people and how it can hurt others. He shows Huck grow more mature, learning that telling the truth is usually the right thing to do.
Out of all of the forms of social satire that Twain uses through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, slavery is the biggest topic. Slavery is represented throughout the whole novel, whether racist terms are being used or slaves are being beaten and whipped. Even though The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published around forty years after the story had taken place and slavery was long gone, people were still extremely racist. In the book, Twain focuses on the cruelty of slavery and how it ridiculous it was and is. An example that Twain uses to express the ridiculousness of slavery is when Jim is on the Phelps farm. After being unshackled and taken out of his room to do a job, Jim is brought back to his room and left unchained. Here he has a chance to escape but doesn’t.
Social satire is used many times to reflect the morals of certain groups and time periods, while making fun its beliefs and criticizing their flaws. The social satire used in Huck Finn was used to ridicule the flaws of the 1840s and also the flaws, such as racism, that were still strong during the 1880s, when the book was published. Throughout the story, Twain does a good job of ridiculing the flaws of those times in a funny, comedic way, and also
reflecting the morals that should be followed.