Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

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What techniques does Mark Twain use in "Cub Pilot on the Mississippi" to bring characters to life through speech, actions, and interactions?

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What a great question! When we look closely at how authors bring characters to life—that is, how they achieve characterization—we should definitely check out those three things: speech (how they talk and what they say), actions (what they do), and interactions (how they talk and behave with each other).

Let’s call those three things methods of characterization. (There are more than three, but those are a great start!)

And let’s take each of those methods in turn and find some examples from Mark Twain’s “Cub Pilot on the Mississippi.” Twain is a pro at bringing his characters to life, especially with dialect, so we’re bound to find lots of great examples.

First Method of Characterization: Speech. How Characters Talk and What They Say.

Here’s what Brown says when the narrator is clumsily attempting to fill the stove:

“‘Put down that shovel! Derndest numskull I ever saw—ain’t even got sense enough to load up a stove.’”

Read that out loud to get the full effect of Brown’s dialect. Can you hear how his language is so very southern, so very relaxed, so clearly demonstrating his lack of education? And hear how blunt he is toward the narrator, calling him a name (“numbskull”) and insulting his inability to perform a manual task. Wow. Not only are we getting a clear picture of Brown’s tyrannical attitude and his crude, even cruel, manners, but we’re also feeling sympathetic toward the narrator for bearing the brunt of it all.

Second Method of Characterization: Actions. What Characters Do.

Here’s what Brown does when he first meets the narrator:

“My new boss turned and inspected me deliberately and painstakingly from head to heel for about—as it seemed to me—a quarter of an hour.”

How awkward! We realize that the narrator is exaggerating when he says it took fifteen minutes for Brown to scrutinize him. Still, when we see what Brown does in this moment, we realize quite a lot about his character. He’s careful, thorough, and detailed. He’s not afraid to make people uncomfortable—he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that it’s impolite to stare at someone.

Third Method of Characterization: Interactions. How Characters Talk Together and Behave Together.

After Brown verbally abuses the narrator over and over, and after the narrator fantasizes about killing Brown, let’s see how the two characters interact as their mutual dislike escalates into violence:

“Brown, with a sudden access of fury, picked up a tenpound lump of coal and sprang after him; but I was between, with a heavy stool, and I hit Brown a good blow which stretched him out.”

This is quite an interaction! The narrator leaps into action, attacking Brown before Brown can hurl the heavy coal at the innocent boy, Henry. We’re seeing Brown’s vicious nature come to life before our eyes, and we’re seeing the narrator’s quiet acceptance of abuse suddenly shatter, his silent dreams of hurting Brown suddenly becoming reality.

To sum up, the three methods above are powerful tools for analyzing characters. Any time you see a character interact with someone else, do something, or say something, you’re probably witnessing characterization, a lively process at the heart of realistic, engaging stories, especially those told by Mark Twain.

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In his short story "Cub Pilot on the Mississippi," author Mark Twain captures a true moment in his life in which he became a cub pilot, meaning a young person apprenticed to learn how to pilot a steamboat along the Mississippi River. The short story actually consists of chapters 18 and 19 of his memoir titled Life on the Mississippi in which he goes into great detail about learning how to be a steamboat pilot. As in all of his literature, Twain both captures and parodies culture. Chapters 18 and 19 are some of the most serious sections in his work; in these chapters, he shows just how trying culture on the river can be by showing how much abuse he endured from the pilot Mr. Brown. To capture the abusive Mr. Brown, whose abuses were fairly characteristic of steamboatmen, Twain carefully mimics Mr. Brown's insults and expletives, which serve to bring Mr. Brown's character to life by parodying him.

One example of Twain capturing Mr. Brown's abusiveness can be seen in Mr. Brown's early lines in which he responds to Twain's comment that he is sitting on board doing nothing because he has "had no orders." Mr. Brown's furious and sarcastic remark shows how much he contrasts himself to Twain because Twain is an educated Southern gentlemen, not just a cub pilot:

You've had no ORDERS! My, what a fine bird we are! We must have ORDERS! Our father was a GENTLEMAN--owned slaves--and we've been to SCHOOL.

In other words, Mr. Brown is mocking Twain for behaving like a gentleman by feeling the need to be requested to do something before doing it. Yet, Mr. Brown's response says a lot about culture on the river. The culture is not civilized; it also demands constant hard work. In addition, though we see Mr. Brown's response to Twain is uncivilized and harsh, Twain's ability to mimic Mr. Brown through capitalized words, exclamation points, and later expletive slang, such as "Dod dern my skin," creates comedy. Hence, we see that, even though these chapters discuss serious matters, Twain is portraying these serious matters through parody, and his parody of Mr. Brown brings his character to life.

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