Life on the Mississippi

by Mark Twain

Start Free Trial

What literary devices are used in Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As with all of Twain's works, there are a number of literary devices carefully woven into his text, one of the most important being his use of dialogue.  One of the hallmark's of Twain's writing is his use of dialogue spoken by people from all walks of life, including blacks.  Twain was one of the first American authors, for example, to accurately capture the speech of the American slave and the free black. He was also a master of rendering southern speech.

In the first few pages of Life on the Mississippi, Twain includes a fairly long quote from Huckleberry Finn that perfectly depicts rural Southern speech of the 19thC, including a great deal of back-and-forth banter between Huck and Jim, replicating both white and black speech patterns.  The capturing of accurate dialogue, the regional speech patterns of common people, was a way of creating what literary critics call verisimilitude, the semblance of reality in a work of fiction.

A bit further into the book, when Twain is describing one of his first experiences as an apprentice pilot, he describes the difference between the way a landsman would ask for something to be done and the way a first mate on a steam boat would ask for the same thing.  Instead of asking someone to move a plank forward by two feet, the mate on a steamboat would yell, "There! there! Aft again! aft again! . . . Dash it to dash!. . . Vast heaving. Vast heaving, I tell you! Going to heave it clear astern?" Twain's comment on this tirade is, " I wish I could talk like that."  In Life on the Mississippi, as in all of Twain's works, use of dialogue is one of the most important literary devices at Twain's command because it puts the reader into the world Twain is describing--confusing, exhilarating, real.

Throughout the book, Twain uses countless metaphors to create vivid imagery in the minds of the reader.  For example, in one instance, when Twain, as the apprentice pilot, is getting instruction from the pilot, he forgets what he's just been told about the river.  The pilot asks him "what do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?"  Twain's response is, 'Well--to--to--be entertaining."  The next line is, "This was a red rag to the bull," a great metaphor (a bullfight) for the anger of the pilot when he realizes his apprentice hasn't been paying attention.  These types of metaphors are scattered throughout the work, and the beauty of metaphor is that it allows the writer to compare one situation with another--in this case, the abstract concept of anger is made visual and concrete by the reference to a bull seeing a red flag.

As Twain begins to learn his trade as a pilot and understand the Mississippi River, he makes the observation that "The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book. . . ," an image that even the most land-bound reader could understand and appreciate.  This particular metaphor--the river as a book or his ability to "read" the river--appears in many passages in Life on the Mississippi, and is probably one of the most remembered comparisons in this work.

As you can see, there are literary devices throughout the book, but woven into the discussion so seamlessly that they seem not to be devices.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial