Social Satire in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Satire is a writer's literary vehicle for social reform. The rationale behind satire is, by no means, destructive. On the other hand, by intermingling humor and wit with a critical attitude, the satirist seeks to have a remedial intent on human institutions. Satire makes us go though self-introspection and become conscious of the inherent frailties that shroud most of our faith and beliefs. By making vice look hideous and with its didactic intent, satire explores means to restructure accepted conventions.

      In his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain employs a number of ways to satirize the American society of his times. He subjects the concepts of religion, family as well as those of social conventions, to ridicule. It drives the contemporary reader to discern the intrinsic blemishes in the society of our times as well.


      Through the feud of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, Twain seeks to disparage the illogical concept of family honor.

      In Chapter 16, Huck and Jim's raft collides against a big steamboat and the two of them get temporarily separated from each other. Subsequently, Huck bumps into the Grangerford family. Posing as George Jackson, he confirms that he is not "a Shepherdson" and gains entry into their house. He is mighty impressed with their high standards of living and their gentility. They are well-bred people.

"Col. Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born...There warn't no frivolishness about him, not a bit, and he warn't ever loud. He was as kind as he could be- you could feel that, you know, and so you had confidence........He didn't ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners - everybody was always good-mannered where he was. Everybody loved to have him around, too; he was sunshine most always - I mean he made it seem like good weather." (Chapter 18).

      They live in style and possess all the finesse expected from their class. They have a big house and over a hundred slaves - one for every member of the family. They have a large Library with a fairly good collection of books on Classical Literature, Medicine and a plethora of other subjects.

"It was a mighty nice family, and a mighty nice house, too. I hadn't seen no house out in the country before that was so nice and had so much style." (Chapter 17).

      But beneath this veneer of gentility, there lurks imprudence and illogicality. The family is involved in a bloody feud with another aristocratic family in their neighborhood, the Shepherdsons. The cause of the feud is not clear to anybody. This makes it all the more inane.

" knows, I reckon, and some of the other old people; but they don't know now what the row was about in the first place." (Chapter 18).

      Buck says that the feud is more than three decades old and that he is unaware of the exact reasons.

"Well, who done the shooting? Was it a Grangerford or a Shepherdson?" "Laws, how do I know? It was so long ago." (Chapter 18).

      The point that Twain is trying to drive home here is that there is nothing wrong with one's attempt to uphold one's family honor. It is, indeed commendable. The fault lies with an arbitrary concept where gory battles are fought without any cogent reason.

When Buck acquaints Huck with the fact of the feud, Huck expresses his desire to know more about it. Buck is amazed to learn that Huck has never heard of a "feud", and surprised when, Huck communicates his desire to hear the rationale behind it. The phony aristocracy, which Buck has been brought up amidst, questions Huck's upbringing and environment just because he has never heard of a "feud". "Why, where was you raised? Don't you know what a feud is?" Despite having no idea about why, in the first place, the "feud" began, Buck can go on endlessly about the 'definition' of a feud.

"Well," says Buck, "a feud is this way: A man has a' quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man's brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in - and by and by everybody's killed off, and there ain't no more feud. But it's kind of slow, and takes a long time" (Chapter 18).

      The final fight between the two families was triggered by Sophia's Grangerford's elopement with Harvey Shepherdson. Armed with an inexplicable sense of style, there is a gruesome battle that leads to the death of Col. Grangertord and his sons, Buck, Tom and Bob. Whether it is really worth sacrificing the lives of so many family members, together, for some hazy notion of family honor, is a question that still remains unanswered. This uncalled for massacre is, indeed, annoying as the two aristocratic Southern families could go to such an extent, unnecessarily sacrificing the lives of their family members, practically for naught. Twain denigrates the fact that people prioritize romantic notions like stateliness and magnificence over human lives. A realization of how the older generation can almost hypnotize the younger ones and makes them resort to irrationality in their dealings also bothers us.

      It is ironical that the two families are regular church-goers. I hey talk of "brotherly love", "free grace" and "preforeordestination".

Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback. The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall. The Shepardsons done the same. It was pretty orner preaching-all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, andi don't know what at all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet. (Chapter 18).

      Despite sermons on brotherhood, they carry guns to church and their intolerance towards each other leads to a gruesome massacre.

      It is interesting to note that, despite their contempt for each other, they have a considerable amount of respect for each other. Mr. Grangerford tells his son, Buck that he shouldn't shoot from behind the bushes, like a coward, but that he should be man enough to step out into the road and kill his enemy..

      Twain was simply trying to portray the society of his times where, under the garb of elegance and poise, the so-called aristocrats indulge in less-than-admirable' activities. Despite the grandeur associated with their lives, they are far from being infallible. They embody aristocratic pretence and romanticism of the times; it is an ideal that Twain considers ridiculous. According to Twain, Romanticism made one move away from and lose touch with reality; the belief that romantic imagination is one of the "perversions" which must be "unmasked".

      Twain also renders his contempt for romanticism and satirizes it through Emmeline Garngerford, the dead daughter of the family, She writes weepy eulogies and depressing sentimental poetry in the true Romantic tradition.

      People from lower classes, such as Huck and Jim, are more capable of rational thinking and have a more matured outlook towards life. As compared to the nobles, Twain holds the so-called plebs in high esteem.


      Later, in Chapter 21, Huck, along with the "King" and the "Duke", comes to a shabby and unimpressive town with inhabitants who are "loafers" and an "ornery lot". Here, they come across an old drunkard named Boggs. He makes his appearance once in a month and threatens to kill someone or the other, but never hurts anyone. This time he has come to settle scores with the wealthiest man in town, a Col. Sherburn, who has apparently swindled him. As a result of the former's "cussing" and shouting, Col. Sherburn gets irritated and warns him to stop lest he should kill him. And, sure enough, Boggs continues with his annoying "cussing" and gets shot by the Colonel.

      The 'Boggs-Col Sherburn' incident shows the unbalanced sense of justice that is at the heart of society. Boggs behaved in an irritating yet harmless way. He gave empty and meaningless threats. He, after all, never really hurt anyone physically. Twain' s acknowledgement that Boggs was "the best naturedest old fool in Arkansaw - never hurt nobody, drunk nor sober", is indeed pitiful. The novelist reflects how vicious one can be towards one's fellow beings. It is, indeed, ironical how ghastly acts of murder go unpunished while innocuous threats can lead to such dire consequences. Twain lucidly communicates his view of not only the society of Arkansas but those of the entire world.

      Even more pathetic is the scene where the villagers, in their fury decide to "lynch" the murderer and retreat like fools. Col. Sherburn chastises them for being cowards who have conceived the ridiculous idea of lynching him on the instigation of a "half-man" named Buck Harness.

"Why, a man's safe in the hands of ten thousand of your kind- as long as it's daytime and you're not behind him.. The average man's a coward.... Your newspapers call you a brave people so much that you think you are braver than any other people whereas you're just as brave, and no braver. The average man don't like trouble and danger... a mob; they don't fight with courage that's born in them, but with courage that's borrowed from their mass, and from their officers. But a mob without any man at the head of it is beneath pitifulness".

      Col. Sherburn's speech exposes the reality behind the facade of bravery. Via the colonel's tirade, Twain presents his own view that man is, basically, a coward. He is capable of nothing but to "droop your tails and go home and crawl in a hole".

      Law doesn't punish murderers because "they're afraid the man's friends will shoot them in the back, in the dark". Here, Mark Twain also ridicules mob mentality. The fact, that they all decide to tear down to the colonel's house and "lynch" him, is not out of any sense of justice for Boggs. It is simply a knee-jerk reaction and they disperse almost as soon as they had gathered.

      Twain also scoffs at the useless pastimes that people have. They indulge in and derive pleasure from senseless activities like seeing dogs chase pigs, witnessing a dog-fight or setting dogs' tails on fire.


      (a) Gullibility of the Mob: In Chapter 20, the "King" and the "Duke devise ways to raise some money. They come to a small town where they behold an incident of religious preaching with the townspeople indulging in melodrama. After their histrionics, the King walks up to the stage and puts up another show. Pretending to be a pirate, who has pledged to reform himself as well as all his peers in the Indian Ocean, he swindles the congregation. For this, he collects contribution from the audience. The money amounts to eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents.

      This episode provides another rationale for Twain to mock at the over-zealous religious lot. Instead of using their common sense to assess the credibility of the "pirate", the gullible lot is taken in by him and donates to his cause. In their naivete, they have assumed a misplaced concept of Faith and God's Love.

      (b) The Cowardice of Mankind: The 'Boggs-Col. Sherburn' episode is Twain's invective against mob-mentality. The mob is almost a character in its own right. It lacks the power of individual reasoning and prudent judgment and does everything as a knee-jerk reaction. Such a revelation almost makes us wriggle with shame as the attack is directed towards humanity in its entirety.

      (c) The Royal Nonesuch: In chapter 23, the "King" and the "Duke" set the stage for the performance of the "Royal Nonesuch" plays. They dupe the audience with a pathetic performance. When people realize that they have been hoodwinked, they decide to entice others to watch the plays. The selfishness of the masses is highlighted here. It is funny how, instead of helping their friends and neighbors avoid wasting their time and money, they encourage them to watch such useless performances so that nobody can laugh at one another. People would rather fool their friends than let them know how foolish they have been. Twain makes a derisive comment on the fragility of the human ego another "social ill" that is omnipresent.

      The episode displays the gullibility of the masses and how easily they can be taken in. The punch line, "Women and Children not allowed", is enough to beguile people into believing that it must be some grand and ostentatious performance.

      (d) The Peter Wilks Episode: In chapter 24, Huck, the "King" and the "Duke" get an opportunity to enter the household of Peter Wilks, a well-off tanner who has just breathed his last. The family and neighbors are waiting for the deceased's brothers to arrive from England. Posing as William and Harvey, the English brothers of the deceased, the two frauds plan to cheat them. The way everyone welcomes the "brothers" speaks volumes of the gullibility of the masses. It is disturbing how a theatrical display of emotions is enough for the lot to be taken in. Huck deems the melodrama "enough to make a body ashamed of the human race". And this is exactly Twain's own view.

      The people are credulous enough to ignore the dismal lingo used by the King during the funeral ceremonies. Despite his claims to be an "Englishman", he talks of the "funeral orgies" instead of the "obsequies". To top it all, he has the gall to say that "orgies", and not "obsequies" is a more appropriate word in the context.

"Obsequies ain't used in England no more now - it's gone out. We say orgies now in England. Orgies is better, because it means the thing you're after more exact. It's a word that's made up out'n the Greek orgo, outside, open, abroad; and the Hebrew jeesum, to plant, cover up; hence inter. So, you see, funeral orgies is an open er public funeral."

      His malapropisms are unpardonable and yet the gullible mob is blind to it. Nobody doubts their authenticity not because they have solid reasons to their belief but simply because everyone else believes then. This is nothing but mob-mentality that Twain derides. Sensible people like Dr. Robinson, who raise questions to their, legitimacy, are shooed away.

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