Last updated: July 19, 2019
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Mark Twain and Realism

When we talk about realism in fiction we are really referring to the sort of writing which explores the individual’s experience, his character, thoughts and motivation, psychological realism. This is the province of the nineteenth-century English novel.  The novelist takes us close up to his or her creations and examines and explains their experience in relation to other people in the novel and to the society around them.  The great novels show a moral engagement with life, a serious consideration of what are the mature choices to be made in dealing with the human world. We see decisions being reached and understanding developing.  So Elizabeth Bennet comes to realize her own errors about Darcy, and to see what she herself really wants in life; and Pip’s whole story is a sort of confession, a recognition of error and a process of learning wisdom.  Characters develop, and this is the central interest of the fiction.  At first glance Twain does not fit this description very closely.  His concerns are often satirical, even polemical.  He said of A Connecticut Yankee that the issues dealt with in the book – cruelty, injustice, feudalism, human degradation – “burn in me; and they keep multiplying and multiplying;… they would require a library – and a pen warmed up in hell” (Cox, 117-8).  Such purposes are quite different from those of the psychological novelist.  But in his greatest novel, Huckleberry Finn, the psychological exploration of character does take the central position in the book.  Huck’s story is one of gradual growth towards wisdom and maturity, and the power of the work lies in Twain’s ability here to base his critique of the human world in the developing psyche of his central character.

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There is a character in A Connecticut Yankee, of course, and his qualities do affect the fiction deeply.  Hank Morgan is not Twain, he is “a practical Connecticut man” (Twain, 1963, 23), product and agent of the modern technological world.  His modernity puts to flight the chivalric nonsense of Arthurian England by invention and reason.  He is “a man with the dream of a republic in his head” (216) and “a man of knowledge, brains, pluck, and enterprise” (52).  He abhors monarchy, like a good American democrat.  He hates slavery, snobbery, class distinction and feudalism.  But he is, Twain said, “a perfect ignoramus” (Cox, 120), for all his technical skill.  He lacks imagination, and is addicted to special effects, and his mind in the sixth century naturally turns towards ambition.  He would like to establish a republic and “I was beginning to have a base hankering to be its first president myself” (285).  Many of his inventions lead to destruction; he is fascinated by munitions and weapons.  The novel really goes awry half way through; the humor and burlesque of the satire on medievalism and tyranny works brilliantly, but Twain cannot sympathize with Hank Morgan for long because he is a representative of that modern world which, after the Civil War, swept away the Mississippi South that Twain loved.  Morgan’s character is conceived in increasingly hysterical terms as the novel progresses.  His final confrontation with knight errantry, with the modern technology of guns and electric fences, leads to something like the modern nightmare of man-made breakdown: “As to the destruction of life, it was amazing.  Moreover it was beyond estimate.  Of course we could not count the dead…” (309). The destructiveness rebounds upon him as he is unable to escape the stench and disease arising from the decaying bodies.

Character also plays an ambiguous role in Pudd’nhead Wilson.  For one thing, the novel is full of ideas of fatalism.  Roxy hears the negro preacher talk about predestination; we cannot be saved by good works, “Free grace is de on’y way, en dat don’t come fum nobody but jis’ de Lord; en he kin give it to anybody he please” (Twain, 1969, 72).  Tom is caught by the inescapable facts of his bodily identity: “Every human being carries within him from his cradle to his grave certain physical marks which do not change their character, and by which he can always be identified” (216).  In a world so bound by fate, character development is unlikely to be of interest, or even possible.  But Twain does produce one outstanding portrait, and that is of Roxy, “a creature of passion and despair rare among the wooden images of virtue and bitchery that pass for females in American literature” (Fiedler, 131).  She is a majestic figure, her face “shapely, intelligent and comely” (64), and utterly devoted to the son she substitutes for the “white” heir in the cradle.  She accepts her new relationship to him of slave to master, and becomes “the dupe of her own deceptions” (77).  Although she blackmails him into supporting her, there is no doubt that “she loved him” (173), even offering to help his debt problem by allowing him to sell her, an act of genuine selflessness which he abuses.  However, Roxy is really an agent of Twain’s central theme rather than a character interesting in her own right.  She appears perfectly white because she is the product of miscegenation, being only one sixteenth black.  Her fate illustrates the absurdity of the “fiction of law and custom” (64) which makes her a negro, and a slave. It is her adoption of her own identity as a form of abuse which is one of the most shocking features of the book’s commentary on slavery and received ideas. The greatest insult she can give to her son to explain his despicable behavior is “It’s de nigger in you, dat’s what it is” (157).  But Roxy is no rebel; she is as proud of Tom’s ancestry as are the foolish Driscolls and Essexes of their bogus chivalry and heritage.  Although Roxy is a splendid character, Twain’s interest in her is not really that of the psychological novelist.

It is in Huckleberry Finn that Twain successfully marries his moral, humane and even political concerns with the modes of realistic fiction, for it is in Huck’s own mind that the analysis takes place.  Huck speaks to us, but tells us more than he realizes, for he, like Roxy, is an unquestioning and conditioned member of the southern society that not only condones slavery but believes it to be a bastion of Christian society.  As Twain said in his autobiography, “Manifestly, training and association can accomplish strange miracles” (Twain, 1960, 30).  Huck’s story reveals his moral growth towards an understanding of where human reality lies, and his character develops towards maturity and a serious sense of responsibility.

Huck flees at the beginning of the novel from a “sivilization” that makes no sense to him, from the inane fantasies of Tom Sawyer (which are miniature versions of the follies indulged in by the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons) and from the anarchic destructiveness of his father.  Jim, the runaway slave, is his natural companion.  As Twain famously said in his notebooks, the novel was “a book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat” (Kaplan, 198). Huck’s reaction to Jim’s story about his escape troubles Huck’s trained conscience, though he has very little to thank civilization for.          Twain introduces even into his escaper the corruptions of a mad social ethic. His first response at hearing that Jim has run away is horror at Jim’s “crime” in stealing himself.  His conscience makes him feel guilty for sheltering Jim, but his sound heart has the right feelings, of compassion for a fellow human being who is suffering the barbaric treatment of slavery.  This conflict in Huck makes for some dramatic situations throughout the book.  Typically it is money which lies at the heart of society’s cruelty to Jim, Miss Watson “couldn’ resis’” (Twain, 1966, 96) the eight hundred dollars offered by the slave trader. And even Jim is corrupted by the slave society’s values; “I’s wuth eight hund’d dollars” (100).

Huck is no ideal outsider viewing corrupt society like an angel in heaven.  He is suffering from the conditioning that he has been exposed to. It takes him fifteen minutes to “humble (himself) to a nigger” (143) after the fog trick on Jim.  The book is full of battles like this inside Huck, which show us how his character is forming, and how he is learning to choose and judge for himself as a mature human individual. The snakeskin trick (107), with its near-fatal consequences, and the fog trick (143) are both Tom Sawyer-style idiocies, the results of which show how far Huck has in fact progressed beyond his insane friend. Shame follows Jim’s physical sufferings after the snake bite, and a stronger feeling of humility results from Jim’s reaction to the fog trick. These sorts of games, Huck realizes, are not the sort of thing one plays on people with whom one has a mature relationship. Huck and Jim are in a position of mutual care and trust; Jim can no longer be satisfactorily dismissed as the comic nigger.  His speech about “trash” (143) is a fine avowal of dignity, and it impresses Huck enough to make him break the habits of his society, after the fifteen minute struggle.

The biggest crisis to date for Huck comes in chapter 16 as the raft nears Cairo, where Jim hopes to escape up river to the free states. Twain shows with fine irony the absurdity of the civilized society’s values by acting out their workings in the innocent mind of Huck. Huck is naive and is no hypocrite; he is unaware himself of the ridiculousness of blaming himself for giving Jim freedom.  The plainness and honesty with which he tells us of his problem brings its stupidity to the surface. “I begun to get it through my head that he was most free – and who was to blame for it?  Why, me.” (145)   The word “free” has lost its meaning for society; otherwise it would not be possible to feel guilty for giving freedom to someone.  Conscience is the voice of society, and it tortures Huck.  With similar absurdity he feels guilty about offending Miss Watson by taking away her nigger. “Conscience says to me, ‘What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes’” (145). It drives us to see that Jim’s feelings too ought perhaps to be considered, and that Miss Watson’s guilt in “possessing” Jim is what should be the decent objection.  It raises the whole outrageousness of treating human beings as objects (comparable in value to the irresistible 800 dollars).

Another outrageousness emerges in Huck’s bizarre horror at Jim’s promise to steal his own children – “children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know” (146). We must ask how children can “belong” to anyone except their parents?  The mistakes – or crimes, perhaps – are clear in this peculiarly blind use of words.  Typically, Huck’s thoughts here fall into the pompous language of the society he has in fact left behind: “I was sorry to hear Jim say that, it was such a lowering of him” (146). Immediately the language does not sound like Huck’s; this is the hackneyed and unconsidered voice of conventional society. Huck does not betray Jim.  At the last moment his sound heart, his decent human feelings, won’t allow him to do it.  But we are not shown why exactly he makes the decision.  The fuller treatment of this situation must wait for the marvelous Chapter 31.

After the raft is run down by the steamboat at the end of chapter 16 we know that Twain stopped working on the book for several years, partly because of the difficulty he had run into with the raft floating further south after the confluence with the Ohio, and therefore taking Jim into increasingly dangerous territory for an escaped slave.  Through this central part of the novel the attention moves way from Huck’s moral growth to some extent and deals with an episodic series of events which dramatize Twain’s own horror at human folly, cruelty and dishonesty.  Here Huck acts as the constant moral touchstone, though he is only ever an observer rather than a serious participant. His encounter with the Grangerfords is another, more sinister type of Tom Sawyerish illusion.  Huck describes the situation naively, but through his utter honesty the full insanity of the situation becomes all the clearer.  He is impressed by the Grangerford house, but his honest eye picks out the details that symbolize its falsehood. The plaster fruit “was much redder and yellower and prettier than real ones is” but “you could see where pieces had got chipped off and showed the white chalk or whatever it was, underneath” (159).  Similarly, the refined society is gaudy and chipped.  The house has great “style” (the Tom Sawyer word; Huck is totally free of style, as is his language), but the style is a skin stretched over a void. The truth that all this “style” conceals is revealed in the gun battle in which Buck is killed, as well as various others on both sides.  Twain accentuates the horror of the scene, to make the contrast with the glamour of their “gentility” all the more striking.  It is a vivid depiction of nauseating barbarity – the wounded boys jumping for the river, the Shepherdson men running along the bank and shooting at them, and crying “Kill them, kill them!” (175), and the bodies whose eyes Huck covers respectfully. Huck’s moral nature is agonized by the events; “I don’t want to talk much about the next day … It made me so sick, I most fell out of the tree” (172).  But his horror is mixed with an uncontrollable sympathy for human weakness and stupidity.  Typically, he even sees himself as guilty – as if he cannot bear to attribute so much evil to the human race as to suggest that it is their faults.  His tears over Buck, “for he-was mighty good to me” (175), are the single flash of human feeling amongst all the lunacy.

It is the same with the King and the Duke.  Their exploitation of people’s temporary emotional intoxication at the funeral of Peter Wilks sickens Huck : “I never see anything so disgusting … It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race” (226), and he describes what they provide as “rot and slush” and “soul-butter and hog wash” (228), but he condemns not just the frauds but equally their self-indulgent victims. All the time Huck is the powerless though disgusted observer.  When it comes to lying his way through he fails miserably, for though lying for self-defence is an instinct to him, he is incapable of creating emotional untruths. As Levi Bell says, rightly, “I reckon you ain’t used to lying, it don’t seem to come handy” (266).   It is also interesting that Huck sees no reason for sympathising with the girls against the frauds.  His honesty sees that they are equally guilty and deserve no sympathy.  Only when they emerge from the general selfishness to treat him kindly does he change his view.

During the whole of the satirical section of the book, since chapter 16, the question of the search for freedom by Jim and Huck has been suspended.  Jim has been insignificant, and Huck has been the moral mouthpiece of Twain, with no extension of his character itself.

But when the King and the Duke sell Jim to the Phelpses for 40 dollars, Huck goes through the fullest and most explicit of his battles of conscience and heart, and comes to the open realisation that he loves Jim, and is willing to defy the codes of Miss Watson’s church and Tom Sawyer’s village for his sake.  In the previous crisis, when he told the men that his father had smallpox, he changed his mind about giving Jim up only at the last moment, and without any explanation.  Here he is alone, and we see the whole process of thought leading up to the deliberate moral choice.

Once again the force of the battle between deformed conscience and sound heart lies largely in the fact that the corruption is inside Huck himself.  When he thinks like a member of society he fails to see that there is anything ridiculous about accusing Jim of ingratitude to his slave-mistress from whom he has run away, just as the Wilks girls can’t see that it’s no good complaining about the negro family being split up when they accept the principle of selling them.  Again Huck describes his actions of humane pity and sympathy as shameful. With great skill Twain expresses the conflict above all in terms of language. When Huck is thinking with the deformed conscience, his thoughts drift into religious jargon.  Such words as “wicked” (281) are foreign to Huck’s real vocabulary.  He thinks about “the plain hand of Providence” (281), “One [with a capital O] that’s always on the look out” (281), about Sunday School and “going to everlasting fire” (282) for helping Jim, and so on.  In contrast to this, linguistically, is the phrasing of Huck’s recollection of Jim, and of their mutual affection and trust on the river. We see the very language of society being cast off.  His thoughts wander on the very edges of grammar: “… and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me…” (283). It is the image of the mind wandering spontaneously, where the truest reactions come naturally to the surface, and the sound heart triumphs.  The climax comes in the half-comic, half-tragic (for it implies his social isolation) decision: “All right then, I’ll go to hell” (283).  But of course it is not a total victory because Huck does not realize that his brand of morality is superior to that of the shore.  He thinks he will go to hell, and the only explanation he can find is that he just is a vicious person: he decides  “I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t.” (283).

He is shocked when Tom Sawyer says he will help to rescue Jim; he “fell, considerable, in my estimation” (296). The irony there is perfect, of course, because we can be quite sure Tom would not have helped in the rescue had he not known that Jim was already “free”, for Tom is the original tax-paying, church-going, prejudiced shore-dweller. Similarly he knows how to disguise his real feelings to the duke.  He cares about the sale of Jim, he says, because he was “the only nigger I had in the world, and the only property” (285).  No one would believe him if he said that some kind of affection tied him to Jim.  One of the most extraordinary moments in the book comes when he arrives at the Phelps farm and explains his late arrival with a story of the steamboat blowing a cylinder-head.  Was anybody hurt, asks dear old Aunt Sally.  “No’m.  Killed a nigger.”  “Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt” (291).

Then, of course, the novel collapses into the strange “comic” ending, where Huck’s new hard-won maturity seems to be set aside and he has to return to playing Tom Sawyer’s games.  At the last moment the serious subject returns when Tom declares that “Jim ain’t no slave; he’s as free as any cretur that walks this earth!” (365), which begs the question of who in the whole book is really “free” except Huck. Everyone is imprisoned in their illusions and self-deceptions. Huck seeks freedom, but there is only the “Territory” to “light out for” (369), and that will disappear soon as the modern world absorbs more and more of virgin America.

The creation of character by a writer in itself can sometimes be not very revealing.  The characters in Pudd’nhead Wilson, for example, represent attitudes and social facts in Twain’s story, and their development is minimal.  Even Roxy is a sort of literary statue rather than a being whose heart and mind we explore.  Psychological realism demands something more.  It involves the sort of revelation we get from Huck’s experience, with its inner debate, moral uncertainty and struggle towards resolution.  It is the achievement of this which makes Huckleberry Finn a great work, and a fit companion to the classics of the nineteenth century.








Works Cited.

Cox, J.M. “A Connecticut Yankee: The Machinery of Self-Preservation”. Reprinted in Smith, Henry Nash, ed.  Mark Twain.  A Collection of Critical Essays.  Englewood Cliffs; Prentice Hall, 1963.

Fiedler, Lesley A.  “As Free as any Cretur”.  Reprinted in Smith, Henry Nash, ed. Op.cit.

Kaplan, J.  Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966.

Twain, M.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Twain M.  Autobiography. ed. Charles Neider.  London: Chatto and Windus, 1960.

Twain, M.  Pudd’nhead Wilson.  Harmondsworth; Penguin, 1969.

Twain, M.  A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  New York; Signet, 1963