What is Mark Twain's defining characteristic as a comic author? 

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Perhaps Mark Twain's use of satire is more defining of his comedy than his famous use of regional speech.  In the above-mentioned short-story, "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," for instance, it is the satire of the Eastern narrator that predominates in the work; the use of the Western vernacular simply furthers this ridicule as Simon Wheeler "reeled off the monotonous narrative" in his inimitable manner.

Likewise, in many of his other works, Twain characteristically employs satire. His famous novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, strongly ridicules hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy as demonstrated by the Widow Douglas and Aunt Polly, two devout Christians who think that there is nothing wrong with slavery.  Near the end of the novel, having come to know and love Jim, who has demonstrated all the human emotions, decides that he will "just go to hell" and free Jim because he comes to the conviction that slavery is, indeed, wrong.  Certainly, too, Twain moves his satire to the exaggerated form of burlesque as he lampoons the aristocratic pretensions of the Duke and the King as well as the romantic fantasies of Tom Sawyer who has Jim rechain himself so that Tom and Huck can then "rescue" him.

In another work, A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain again employs satire to comic effect.  Hank Morgan, who goes back in time to the Middle Ages becomes powerful because of his more modern knowledge.  While he pretends to be advancing the way of life for the knights and the peasants, he really makes efforts to undermine the nobles whom he contends exploit the people with their talk of "divine rights."  However, he, himself exploits people by having them work in his factories and such.  Most of all, in this novel, Twain lampoons chivalric romances such as the Arthurian legends.

Lauded as one of America's greatest humorists, Twain's works offer subtle humor that provokes amusement and wry smiles with its light-hearted satire.  Of his work, Twain himself said,

"When I first began to lecture, and in my earlier writings, my sole idea was to make comic capital out of everything I saw and heard."

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Arguably one of the most defining aspects of Mark Twain's humour is the use of the vernacular to allow his characters to speak in their own unique voices and share their own perspective. Although this can be frustrating for readers who are perhaps unused to the Southern drawl of the United States, it certainly does add great humour to certain texts as we literally hear the speakers he dreams up on the pages that he writes delivering the lines as he imagines hearing them.

A great example of this is of course "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," when Twain narrates an encounter that he had where sophisticated East meets supposedly unsophisticated West and is shown to be the loser. Simon Wheeler, after "blockading" Twain with a chair in a corner, treats him to a tale which is recorded word for word, including such hilarious lines as these:

And he ketched Dan'l by the nap of the neck, and hefted him, and says, "Why blame my cats if he don't weigh five pound!" and turned him upside down and he belched out a double handful of shot.

The use of the vernacular and phrases such as "ketched" add great humour to the dead-pan delivery of such lines as we hear, along with Twain, the "vein of impressive earnestness and sincerity" with which Simon Wheeler delivers these lines, which of course is in massive contrast with the hilarious and ridiculous nature of what he is actually saying. For me, therefore, Twain's use of the vernacular is what distinguishes him from other comic writers of his time.

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