A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court should have offered Mark Twain one of his best opportunities to attack the repressive and antidemocratic forces that he saw in post-Civil War America as well as in sixth century England. That the attack becomes in large part an exposé of the very system he sought to vindicate reveals as much the deep division in the author’s own nature as any problem inherent in the material itself. Ironically, much of the interest the work continues to hold for readers is based on the complications resulting from Twain’s inability to set up a neat conflict between the forces of progress and those of repression. Hank Morgan’s visit to King Arthur’s court not only unveils the greed and superstition associated with the aristocracy and the established Church but also reveals some of the weaknesses in humans that enable oppressive parasitical institutions to exist. The industrial utopia Hank tries to establish in sixth century England is no more than a hopeless dream.
As a character, Hank is, in many respects, a worthy successor to Huckleberry Finn. Like Huck, Hank is representative of the common people and, at his best, he asserts the ideal qualities Twain associates with those who escape the corruption of hereditary wealth and power and the conditioning of tradition. Unlike Huck, however, who is largely an observer powerless to change the system, Hank is given the opportunity to make his values the basis of a utopian society. While Huck sees being “civilized” as an infringement on his individuality and freedom, Hank is, in his own way, fully civilized according to the standards of the world he represents. The pragmatic wit that enables Huck to survive against all odds becomes for Hank the basis of his rise in the industrial system to a position of authority and success. He fully accepts the nineteenth century doctrines of laissez-faire capitalism, progress, and technology as the best social and human principles. Hank represents Twain’s vision of technological humankind as a social ideal, the greatest product of the greatest society.
Twain’s choice of Arthur’s court as the testing ground for Hank’s ideas was not accidental. Most immediately, the author was offended by Matthew Arnold’s attacks on the American glorification of the common man and the view of America as a cultural desert. In attacking the golden age of chivalry, Twain...
(The entire section is 986 words.)
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