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Humor And Satire In Mark Twain’s Books

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Most people who have read Mark Twain’s books can’t help but feel conflicted with his writing style. It often straddles the line of being humorous and stinging. Satire is one of the mechanisms that he uses to highlight his main points. A lot of authors use this same technique to ridicule and expose some of the human characteristics that they find unacceptable. Mark Twain chooses his words carefully to reveal some of the taboos that had afflicted his society at the time of his writings. Most times he uses some sarcastic comments to reprimand or rather point out some of the things that people do wrong and still consider to be a norm. In his work, he also used satire as well as humor to criticize and mock the flawed and ignorant traits that human beings seem to turn a blind eye to. The settings of both stories are diverse and hence prove that these issues are not specific to one specific community or one side of the world. In this paper, I will argue that in Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain used irony and satire to mock the ignorance and flaws that are exhibited by the human race.

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Pudd’nhead Wilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson has three main plot lines that are joined together in the final murder trial that takes place at the end of the novel. The main character, Pudd’nhead Wilson is a foreigner from the north who visits the small town of Missouri and tries to build his career as a lawyer. He survives by doing several odd jobs and spends most of his time dabbling in some of the scientific hobbies that he has. On the other hand, Roxy is one of the main characters in the book. She is a beautiful slave girl who can easily pass for being white. However, she is one-sixteenth black which makes her impure in the eyes of the other white people who seem to rule over this town. Roxy makes the drastic decision to switch her infant child with that of her employer in order to save his life and save him from being sold into slavery as well. Her son grows up to be a cruel coward who seems to have a knack for making one wrong decision after the other. He also ends up selling his own mother back into slavery after she had finally gotten her freedom back. As if this was not enough, he also ended up killing his uncle. This all happens as he is attempting to commit a robbery. It is quite ironic and sad that after all his mother went through to save his life, he remains a thorn that she cannot succeed at getting rid of. One of the main topics in Pudd’nhead Wilson is about nature versus nurture. In this regard, Mark Twain focuses on what leads people to call one person dumb and another person smart. One of the novel’s themes is about the rules in society that determine where one person falls in the ‘hierarchy’ as compared to other people. According to Mark Twain, humor in his story is not only meant to teach, but also to preach. He uses humor as a way to point out the things that he does not find appealing but in a way that will have people laughing at themselves rather than being offended. His humor, however, is somewhat dry and would go unnoticed by some people or make them consider it to be just a plain insult. Mark Twain believes that using humor is the best way for people to deal with their anger appropriately and deal with their problems and issues that they are facing. Pudd’nhead Wilson is set in the early 1800s – a time when slavery was among the most practiced forms of trade. Mark Twain uses satire to criticize the southern aristocrats and the fact that they supported such inhumane practices. He uses Roxy to portray what he thought of these practices fully. In Roxy, he creates a character who was partly black and partly unknown. The truth is, Roxy’s skin color was white, but the fact that she had a mix of black blood in her automatically made her a Negro and a person to be looked down upon. He uses irony in this story to show that the aristocrats were willing to discriminate against one of their own for the one reason that she had tainted blood “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry”. As a result of this, Roxy was sold into slavery, and when she got a child, he too went down the same path as his mother. He may have had some part of white blood, but the small aspect of black blood in him made him tainted with inferiority and hence only deserving to be a slave to the white aristocrats. Roxy switched her child with the child of her master – Mrs. Droscoll so that in the end, the slave owner ended up selling her child instead of Roxy’s as was her intent. Mark Twain creates irony in this story because the slave owner wanted to sell Roxy’s child – Chambers, not because of his physical appearance but because he had some aspect of black in him. After the switch, the owner did not even notice that it was not her child. Essentially, it means that there the differences in the skin colors of the two children was non-existent. In the end, the slave owner loses her child and Roxy can maintain a close eye on her son as he is being raised by her masters. Twain satirizes this society and the law that does not recognize white people with a hint of any African American origin in their history. The only right that this law gives to the white people is the power to torture and beat those who were their slaves without any consequences or fear of punishment “There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless”. It gave them free reign to terrorize those they thought were inferior to them. The law made white people feel like they were more deserving human beings than others. The writer, however, questions their humanity when he points out that the slave owner did not even realize that her child had been switched. Most people would be able to tell if they were raising another person’s child. Mark Twain also makes the reader question just how humane a person is if they are willing to sell a child into slavery and separate them from their mother forcefully. It is also ironic that the person separating the two was a mother as well. One would think that a mother’s love would let her have an ounce of pity for Roxy. It is ironic that Chambers behaves just like the white slave masters (Dumas 154). While Roxy and the readers know that Chambers is impure, he acts in ways that confirm that all human beings are the same. Mark Twain uses his behavior to show that society is only divided on opinions, but the heart depends on one’s upbringing. Roxy made so much sacrifice so that her son does not end up living like a slave. However, since Chambers does not know that Roxy is his real mother, he treats her just like any other slave. He even tells her: “I’ve a notion to strangle you”.

The Mysterious Stranger

In The Mysterious Stranger, satirical elements are portrayed through a myriad of ways. These include dramatic irony as well as absurdity and fantasy. Mark Twain uses this to mock the insignificance and ignorance of the human race. He mocks the fact that they think of themselves as such superior beings and yet they have more animalistic tendencies compared to the animals themselves. He focuses on humans and draws attention to their flaws as well as the fears that seem to be governing them. He brings in a religious aspect to the story and uses it to mock the characters and humans in general. At the time of writing this novel, Mark Twain was already an old man, and he reflects on the multiple tragedies that he had had to go through in his life. This might be the reason why he seems to have such a bleak outlook on his society. His philosophical and religious views seem to conflict with each other. As he gets old, he is confronted by his mortality and the fact that he could also die despite the life that he has lived. He has addressed his own perception of morality and compared it to what people actually do. The Mysterious Stranger is a narration by one character – Theodor, who lives in a village called Eseldorf. The narrator tells of a stranger named Satan who once appeared in their village. This is the first instance of irony in the book. He says that he is the nephew of a fallen angel and he starts performing a lot of magic that captivated the people in the village. From the history of religion, it is common knowledge that Satan is not someone that human beings should be consorting with. However, in this story, he has been portrayed as a misunderstood black sheep who is only out to do good things. He says that he can see the future and he proves this by telling the boy of the ill fate that will befall him in the future. At first, the narrator does not believe him, but after what had been predicted comes to fruit, his faith is shaken. Satan continues to tell him about all the bad things that will happen not only to him but to his friends as well. It gets so bad that the boys decide to ask Satan to help them out and prevent all these bad things from happening. When Satan tells them, “Man is made of dirt – I saw him made. I am not made of dirt”, he wants to convince them that he is superior to them and as such, he can help them. However, instead of completely helping them, Satan just makes it look as if he is keen on helping.

For instance, when one of Theodor’s friend falls sick, he helps him die quickly instead of suffering for a long time. Mark Twain uses this story to mock the people’s beliefs in their religion as well as how it works. Instead of sticking to the God that they have believed in for so long, they chose to ask Satan to help them out of a situation that he had actually created. He portrays human beings as weaklings who are willing to forsake their beliefs the minute something gets too much for them to handle. They are also portrayed as people who waver so much in the face of danger. Satan, in the story is referred to as a beautiful, transcendent being that was pleasing to look at. Fallen angel or not, he was still described as a beautiful creature. When the boys first met him, they knew that they should be afraid. However, they also felt that something that beautiful could never be truly evil and hence saw no reason to be afraid. The writer uses this instance to show just how narrow-minded and vain human beings can be. They knew that Satan was not to be trusted, but because of his outward beautiful appearance, they decided to trust him. They know that it was wrong to commit murder yet when Satan helped one of their friends die quickly, they considered it an act of service rather than a crime not only against their laws but also against their religion. Mark Twain chose to focus his story around the little children to portray a sense of innocence. The adults had already fallen in their first encounter with Satan at the Garden of Eden. However, the presence of little Satan in the children’s life is intended to highlight the notion that Satan paints himself as: an unfallen and innocent angel. “We others are still ignorant of sin; we are not able to commit it. ” Even though the children seemed to be innocent, in the eyes of Satan, they were just as wicked as the adults. For example, Satan laughs at Theodor when he says that he participated in the burning of a woman who was suspected to be a witch because, ‘… if I had done as the others did it would have been noticed and spoken of. ” It is ironic that even though everyone is aware of Satan’s first fall, they still think that the little Satan is there to save them. Instead, Satan is interested in mocking the human race, for it has already fallen. He convinces the children that death and insanity are blessings to humanity and therefore life is not worth living. “He didn’t seem to know any way to do a person a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him. ” Interestingly, the children continued to believe in him and his miracles thus portraying how human beings are disillusioned. Mark Twain talks about the miracles that were performed by Satan in the Australian village. These included making clay birds fly. This really impressed the humans, and they were blind to the fact that they were just imitations of the miracles performed by Jesus. For example, Satan makes wine which is a similar situation to when Jesus turned water into wine in the bible. Human beings claim to be among the most intelligent beings in the world, and yet they could not see through these gimmicks. They were so desperate to believe in something else that they choose the absolute worst being to put their faith and trust in. This is very ironic considering that Christianity warns against the tricks that Satan can use to lure them, as Satan attempted with Jesus. Despite having spent centuries studying the bible and learning about it, they still fell into Satan’s trap.

The author makes fun of human nature that pushes them to believe in things despite knowing fully well that they are either not true or not right. Mark Twain clearly feels that human beings are too gullible and this does not say much about their character. Throughout the story, there has been glaring evidence that Satan is not who he claimed to be and was not the rightful leader for the people. At one point there is one old woman who decides to speak up against him, and asks that people be bathed and washed rather than bleed for their maladies. This woman was hanged for her ‘heresay’, and people didn’t lift a finger to stop it. This is irony incarnate, considering the same bible they believe in condemns murder and instructs against harming innocent people for any reason whatsoever “For a million years the race has gone on monotonously propagating itself and monotonously reperforming this dull nonsense”. In this story, Satan tells the boys how humanity does not have any form of intellect and is only governed by its moral compass. He even shares the stories that are told in the bible but puts a different spin to them. For instance, in the story of Noah and the great flood, he portrays Noah as a drunkard who could do nothing to help others. This is ironic because the boys had been taught about these bible stories and they knew exactly what happened. However, when this new being who performs miracles changes the narrative, they are willing to go ahead and believe him and change all their beliefs. This portrays humans as uncertain, weak beings who are willing to follow anyone as long as they are telling them what they need to hear. They are not willing to stand up and fight what they believe in for they usually pick the easy way out, much like electricity – we look for the path that has the least resistance. In this case, the path that has the least resistance is to go along with what Satan wants and not put up any form of a fight. Satan blames Adam and Eve for people not worshipping him and believing in him. He tells the boys that the first man ruined his image and his plans, and as a result he considered human beings to be unintelligent beings. Satan tells the boys that the first man was a coward and a hypocrite. The boys actually believe him. This is quite unfortunate because, in a roundabout way, Satan was referring to all human beings as hypocritical cowards.

One would expect these boys to speak up and defend themselves. Instead, they choose to be quiet and accept what was being said about them. They were easily manipulated into forgetting that they were even getting angry in the first place. “No, we will drink one another’s health and let civilization go. ” Mark Twain, however, is not of this opinion and expresses his displeasure in how easily humans allow others to manipulate them. Satan claims that he can see the future and claims that his rule will never change because he can see well into the future. These boys have already seen how he makes the future come true by manipulating a certain aspect of the present to suit him. Instead of questioning his ways, they choose to believe them despite the glaring proof that he was not as powerful as he claimed to be. In fact, his power came from the fear that he instilled in them. The worst part is that Theodore the narrator once described his home as a magical and beautiful place. However, when Satan comes in and turns it into something different, they don’t speak up and try to stop him. The author expresses his view of man as being complacent people who would rather just be quiet rather than do anything about their situation.


In both of the stories, Mark Twain is trying to give the reader an image of a man losing his mind and finally falling apart. It is a call for people to look at themselves and ask themselves whether they have lost their authenticity and are just living their lives as per someone else’s rules. In the novels, Mark Twain irony and satire to compel people to look at the realities of life and not at the illusion that they would choose to live under. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, he uses satire and irony to portray the ignorance of people towards evils such as racism and slavery. Roxy is sold into slavery despite being more of a white than a black. It is however interesting when the slave masters could not distinguish Roxy’s real son from her master’s son. Instead of enslaving Roxy’s son, they end up enslaving the master’s son. However, once Chambers grows up, he just acts like the other slave owners for he treats Roxy badly without knowing that she is her birth mother. In The Mysterious Stranger, Satan wipes out the same civilization that he had created without feeling any remorse for his actions. In this story, Mark opines that human beings need to take a deeper look at themselves and try to regain some of the humanity that they seemed to have lost along the way. The fact that people forgot their humanity and are so cruel to each other is part of the reason why Satan can infiltrate their lives.

10 December 2020

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