It is instructive to note that the most pervasive structural characteristic of Mark Twain’s work, of his nonfiction as well as his fiction, is dualistic. That observation is not worth much without detailed application to specific aspects of particular works, but even before turning to particulars, it is useful to consider how many “pairs” of contending, conflicting, complementary, or contrasting characters, situations, states of being, ideas, and values run through Twain’s work. One thinks immediately of Tom and Huck, of Huck and Jim, of Huck and Pap, of Aunt Sally and Miss Watson, of the prince and the pauper, of the two sets of twins in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson. One thinks of boys testing themselves against adults, of youth and adulthood, of the free life on the river contrasted with the settled life of the river towns, of the wilderness and civilization, of the promises of industrial progress against the backdrop of the humbler, traditional rural setting, of Eden and everything east of Eden, and, finally, of good and evil.
The tonal quality of Twain’s works is also dualistic. The jumping frog story is almost pure fun. “The Mysterious Stranger,” first published in bowdlerized form after Twain’s death, is almost pure gloom. Most of Twain’s fiction comes between the two, both chronologically and thematically. Except for The Gilded Age, which he wrote with Warner, the novels, from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the final two, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, fall within the thematic and tonal extremes established by the short fiction. That is, Tom’s adventures take place in the hallowed light of innocence and virtue beyond the reach of any truly effective evil forces, while Roxy’s adventures in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson are of almost unrelieved gloom. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is midway between the extremes, with its blending of the light and affirmation that shine so brightly in Twain’s childhood idyll with the darkened vision of the later years.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Nearly everyone agrees that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain’s second novel, is an American classic, and nearly everyone agrees that there is no accounting for its success. It is at the same time a novel of the utmost simplicity and of deep complexity. The novel is a marvelous boy’s adventure story, a fact given perspective by Twain’s observation that “it will be read only by adults.” That is, the essence of childhood can be savored only after the fact, only after one has passed through it and can look back on it. Popularizations of Tom’s adventures are produced for children, but the continuing vitality of the novel depends on the adult sensibility and its capacity and need for nostalgic recollection. Twain plays on all the strings of that sensibility as he guides the reader through Tom’s encounters with the adult world, represented by Aunt Polly and Judge Thatcher, through Tom’s romance with Becky, and finally to the adventurous triumph over evil in the person of Injun Joe.
Aunt Polly is the perfect adult foil for a perfect boyhood. Not only does she provide the emotional security that comes from being loved in one’s place, but she also serves as an adult Tom can challenge through his wits, thereby deepening his self-confidence about his place in the adult world. The fence whitewashing episode is surely one of the best known in American literature. In it, Tom not only outwits his friends, whom he persuades to whitewash the fence for him, but also successfully challenges the adult world, which, through...
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Aunt Polly, assigned the “boy’s chore” to him in the first place. The episode also provides Twain an opportunity to exercise his irony, which, in contrast to much that was to come in the later fiction, is serenely gentle here. Judge Thatcher represents the secure, if somewhat pompous, authority of the adult world beyond the domestic circle. The much desired recognition of that authority is achieved with decisive pomp when the Judge makes the treasure found in the cave legally Tom’s and Huck’s.
The romance with Becky is almost pure idyll, although the young lovers’ descent into the cave inevitably raises speculations about deeper implications. While Injun Joe as evil incarnate is believable enough to raise the hair along the back of the necks of adults as well as children, especially when the last candle burns out in the cave, there is never any doubt that Tom and Becky will be saved, that good will triumph—never any doubt, that is, for the adult sensibility, secure beyond the trials and tribulations of adolescent infatuation and terror.
The book as childhood idyll is really a simple matter, but that does not diminish the significance of that dimension of the work. Rather, it affirms an understanding of the book’s success on that level. There is more to be considered, however, especially in terms of the companion piece to come, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The poignancy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is attributable in part to its being an imaginative reconstruction of youthful experience from the perspective of early middle age. The actual historical frame of the re-creation adds its own deeply poignant dimension to the book. The American national experience was clearly in the transitional state between frontier and modern society when the novel was published in 1876. Twain’s idyll of boyhood is set in a time and place in history calculated to deepen the significance of the adult’s backward recollection of a time of innocence and joy. The American wilderness was never Eden, but that image has haunted the American imagination from at least the time of Cooper’s creation of his frontiersman, Natty Bumppo, down to at least the time of Robert Frost’s creation of his travelers through the dark, lonely woods.
Finally, in part because it is one of those many pairings of characters so pervasive in Twain’s work, Tom’s relationship with his half brother, Sid, should be noted. The relationship is instructive in that it foreshadows that of the later Tom-Huck relationship. Sid is the model boy who serves as Twain’s foil for Tom’s adventuresome independence. While Tom is never good in the subservient, lap-dog sense that Sid is, there is a kind of lateral movement of his character from the early to the later novel; in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom plays off the foil of Sid’s pious “respectability,” while in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom has moved over to provide a similar foil for Huck’s freedom.
The Prince and the Pauper
Unlike its predecessor, The Prince and the Pauper is a “children’s book” that has remained simply that, a book for children. Twain professed to have taken great joy in the writing of it, probably in part because of the relief he felt upon completing the troublesome A Tramp Abroad. His wife and children admired the book, as did William Dean Howells and the reviewers for the New York Herald, the Boston Transcript, The Atlantic Monthly, and Century. Nevertheless, the novel holds little interest for the mature reader except in terms of its relationship to the two superior novels that preceded and followed it.
Its plot hinges on one of Twain’s most explicit pairings, that of Prince Edward with the pauper Tom Cantry. The switching of these look-alike adolescents in the England of Henry VIII allows the prince to learn what poverty and hardship are like in the alleyways of his kingdom and the pauper to satirize, through his innocence, the foibles of royalty and court life. Neither the satire nor the compassion, however, ring true. It is almost as if Twain were finding his way from his first classic to his second through this experiment, set in a time and place far removed from his native Mississippi River valley.
With that contrast in mind, it is perhaps reasonable to see the prince and the pauper as another Sid and Tom, another Tom and Huck, all of the sets representing at various removes those two basic drives of Twain’s nature for respectability and freedom. Huck and Tom Cantry, the pauper, are “freer” than are Tom and Prince Edward, although the relationships are not that simple, since the members of each pair are attracted like magnetic opposites to their mates. This attraction is made most explicit in The Prince and the Pauper, where the two actually exchange places. Later in his career, in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain made a comparably explicit exchange with wholly tragic consequences. In The Prince and the Pauper, it is all play with little consequence at all except for the exigencies of a contrived, melodramatic plot. Twain’s truest pairing, that of Huck and Jim, was yet ahead of him.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is almost universally hailed as Twain’s best book, as well as one of the half dozen or so American classics of the nineteenth century. This is not to say that the novel is without defects. The ending, in particular, presents some very real problems, structurally, thematically, and rhetorically. The very high place of the novel, however, is generally conceded. This success depends on several considerations. In the first place, the novel continues the mythic idyll of American boyhood begun with TheAdventures of Tom Sawyer. That connection and that continuation by itself would have ensured the book a place in the National Archives if not the national heart. Most agree, however, that its success derives from even deeper currents.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is Twain’s best book because, for whatever reasons, he brought together in it, with the highest degree of artistic balance, those most fundamental dualities running through his work and life from start to finish. The potentially destructive dualities of youth and age, of the need for both security and freedom, of the wilderness and civilization, of innocence and corruption, all are reconciled by means of an aesthetic transformation. Historical, realistic dualities as well as psychological and moral dualities are brought into an artistic synthesis, into a novel, the most distinctive feature of which, finally, is its own modal duality, played out in the terms of a delicate balance between lyricism and satire.
Huck’s relationship with Jim, the runaway slave, is central to the novel’s narrative, to its structure, and to its theme. Escaping “down” the river, a cruel irony in itself, provides the episodic structure, which is the narrative thread that holds together the developing relationship between the two runaways on the raft. The escape, the quest for freedom, is literal for both Huck and Jim as they flee from Pap and Jim’s owner, Miss Watson. It may also be seen as symbolic on several planes: historical, philosophical, and moral. The historical setting of the novel is that pivotal era in American history when the new nation was being carved out of the wilderness. The flight down the river is a flight from the complexities of the ever-expanding, westward-moving settlements of the new civilization. The continuing vitality of the novel depends in part on the survival in the present day of the need for that imaginative escape. Like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Huck’s Mississippi River, originally an escape from what may now seem some of the simpler strictures of society, continues to serve the American psyche as an imaginative alternative to modern civilization.
The philosophical dimensions of the rapidly disappearing frontier are those of nineteenth century Romanticism. Celebrating their freedom on the raft from the legal and social strictures of the town along the river, Huck and Jim are at the same time affirming the central Romantic thesis concerning people’s need to return to nature and to the natural self. There are two kinds of Romanticism in the novel: that which Tom espouses in his adolescent preoccupation with adventure and that which Huck practices on the river under the stars and, most significantly, in the final resolution of the problem of Jim as a runaway slave. Twain holds up Tom’s bookish Romanticism as childish at best and, for the most part, as silly. This attack on Romanticism—a secondary theme in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Twain sends the derelict steamer the Walter Scott to its destruction on a rock—was one of Twain’s lifelong preoccupations. It was continued with vehemence later in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but its deep-running, destructive potential for Twain is harnessed in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The satire is there, but it is in the largely playful terms of the antics of the king and the duke, their mangling of William Shakespeare, and the graveyard art and poetry of Emmeline Grangerford. This playful treatment of one of his serious themes results in part from the fact that Twain is here working a deeper vein of Romanticism in the person of his supreme fictional creation, Huck.
The moralclimax of the novel comes in chapter 31, when Huck decides that he will “go to hell” rather than turn in Jim. The difficulties with the ending of the book derive largely from that relatively early resolution of its central theme. Shortly thereafter, Huck is reunited with Tom, who is responsible for all the preposterous plans to save Jim, who, ironically, no longer needs to be saved. There are real problems here with the plot, with motivation, and with the prose itself, which is no longer sustained by the lyricism of Huck’s accounts of life on the raft. The artistic achievement of the climax, however, makes such problems pale into relative insignificance. Twain embodies in Huck and dramatizes in his decision a principal line of American political and moral thought that has its roots in Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, its “philosophical” development in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau, and its aesthetic transformation at the hands of Twain and Whitman. Huck is the embodiment of both the political and the Romantic ideals of common humanity, with no past or roots, whose principal guide is experience rather than tradition. He is one of the principal literary symbols of that fundamental American mythical dream of moral rejuvenation in the edenic wilderness of the “new” continent. He stands at the center of nineteenth century American literature and at the center of Twain’s achievements.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s attack on the Romantic glorification of the past is a peripheral theme. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is central and devastating, both in the novel itself and in its signaling of the direction in which Twain’s thought and creative energies were heading. Although this, too, is a child’s book of a kind, there is about it none of the idyllic radiance of Adventures of Tom Sawyer nor the harmonious balancing of opposites of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Rather, there is finally outright war between the forces of the feudal past and those of the progressive present, with considerable ambiguity about which is to be considered the good and which the evil.
There is no doubt that the reader’s sympathies at the outset are with the Yankee mechanic, Hank Morgan, who, after a blow on the head, wakes up in King Arthur’s England of 528 c.e. After saving himself from execution as a witch by “commanding” a total eclipse of the sun, he vies successfully with Merlin for power and prestige at court. He is like Huck in his commonsense responses to life in general, and in particular to the romantic claims of the feudal society in which he finds himself. He is unlike Huck in his vigorous progressivism, in his determination to bring the fruits of nineteenth century democracy and technology to feudal England. He introduces explosives, sets up schools to train workers in the mechanical arts, gives instruction in journalism to his page with an eye to a national press, and stretches telephone lines haphazardly across the countryside. His talents, taken for magic for the most part, earn for him the title “the Boss,” and the abiding enmity of Merlin, whom he replaces at court. He plans to declare a republic after Arthur’s death, and the sixth century kingdom enjoys all the fruits of progress: schools, trains, factories, newspapers, the telephone and telegraph.
The end of the story, however, just before Hank returns to his own century, pictures anything but the envisioned utopia. Arthur dies in a battle with Lancelot, Camelot is reduced to shambles, and Hank fortifies himself in a cave against the surviving chivalry of England. One of his final concerns is with the pollution caused by the dead bodies piled in the trenches around his fortress. The repressive, superstitious nightmare of feudal society has been compounded by the fearful efficiency of nineteenth century technology.
The ambiguity of the ending of the novel is symptomatic. The artistic balance of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is no longer in evidence. Twain, always something of an allegorist, was by 1889 becoming more and more a polemicist, increasingly more interested in conflicts between abstract ideas and values than in the development and portrayal of human characters in all their complexities. Hank can be identified with Huck in terms of their common sense and their human values, but the big difference between them is that Huck’s chief concern is with another human being while Hank’s is with an abstraction called feudalism.
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson
Twain was to do some of his most important writing in the last two decades of his life, including short fiction and social and moral criticism. His best novels, however, were completed in 1875 and in the 1880’s. Of those coming after 1889, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is the most readable and the most consistent with the principal direction of his deepening cynicism about the “damned human race.” The novel’s only really interesting character is Roxy, a slave woman who switches her son with that of her owner, Percy Driscoll, to save her child from eventually being sold “down river.” The whole of the dark tale that follows indicates, in Maxwell Geismar’s words, how much “irony and tragedy have taken over the center stage in [Twain’s] comic proscenium of life.”