In his novel the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, Mark Twain uses satire frequently as a medium to display his feelings on a range of issues related to society at that time. Throughout the book, he ridicules many aspects of society, including the prevalent views on slaves and religion and their social structure. Even though the novel was set fifty years before it was published, the themes still held for contemporary society. This led to the novel being criticized widely due to it condemning the very society it was presented to. Today, however, readers can see the message behind Mark Twain’s satire much more clearly, as it does not mock us personally but rather a society that we have evolved from and tend to deride ourselves.
Mark Twain was deeply opposed to slavery, yet he does not openly display his views in the novel. Instead, he uses the subtlety of satire to bring his message across. In a time where the life of a slave was considered worthless, Twain used Jim to show us otherwise. Society considered slaves as possessions with no value other than that of money. However, as soon as Jim is free, he is rich. “I own myself, en I’s worth eight hundred dollars.” (100). This shows us that even though society considered the lives of slaves worthless, the monetary value that they put on slaves gave not only their lives value but also their freedom. Freedom brought more value to Jim’s life, monetary or otherwise, than he had ever possessed as a slave.
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Twain also shows us that society’s views of black people as incapable of human emotion were wrong. Throughout the novel, he develops Jim’s emotions. The irony in society’s expectation of Huck to feel bad for simply being human, and feeling pity for Jim, shows us the inhumanity of society itself. Huck realizes, however, that if he did follow society’s expectations and give Jim up to the slavers, he would “…feel bad – [he’d] feel just the same way [he does] now” (149). This leads him to disregard the expectations placed on him by society and “…bother no more about it” (149).
In the 1800s, religion was a large part of society. However, society was, on many occasions, highly hypocritical in its views on religion. For example, the slave owners would “fetch the niggers in and have prayers” (51), forcing them to become Christians while ignoring their Christian maxim, ‘God created all men equal’ by treating their slaves as lesser beings.
Twain also shows us the futility of society’s fanatic attempt to convert everyone to Christianity. This is brought to our attention comically with Jim’s view of King Solomon. Jim has been taught “…’bout dat chile dat he `uz gwyne to chop in two” (133). Yet, the significance of King Solomon’s test to determine who was the mother of the child was lost on his uneducated mind. Similarly, when Miss Watson tells Huck about the hell, he said: “I wished I was there” (50); Huck was never taught to grasp the concept of Heaven or hell; it was only described to him, leading him to believe that hell would be a far more exciting place to live than Heaven.
Society’s view of prayer is harshly criticized as well. For example, Huck was taught that if he prayed every day, “…whatever [he] asked for [he] would get” (60). We laugh when Huck tries this and “got a fish-line but no hooks” (60). Although this is comical, a much more serious issue is addressed. In its overwhelming zealousness to convert everyone, Christian society was decidedly un-Christian by spouting lies and half-truths to attract people to the faith.
Twain also passes judgment on society’s structure and laws at that time. The new Judge of St. Petersburg decides to follow social laws and forces Huck to stay with his drunken father instead of bringing him up in a good home by Miss Watson. The judge decides to reform Huck’s father by inviting him over for a day and cleaning, feeding and talking to him. Huck’s father takes complete advantage of the situation and promises to reform. Yet, that very night, he “got powerful thirsty and climb out onto the porch-roof and slid down a stanchion and traded his new coat for a jug of forty rods”(73). This situation humiliates the law of that time and shows the reader how ineffectual and gullible it was.
Today, we see the humour in Twain’s satirical portrayal of Nineteenth-Century society, but even this subtle mockery of their culture angered several people greatly. Critics today feel that he was not outspoken enough against the atrocities of that time, but if he had been more outspoken, society might have ultimately rejected his novel. Therefore satire was the perfect medium for Twain to present his views to the world without upsetting the masses. Thanks to this, we can today read about the wrongs of society at that time and endeavour never to repeat them.
- Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. London, Penguin books, 1884