Mark Twain's Satire

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Mark Twain is perhaps America's best known writer of satire. Twain used his novels, stories, and essays to poke fun at America's failings, sometimes in gentle ways, and other times in dark and pointed ways.

An American Satirist

Mark Twain is known primarily as a humorist, famous for such quips as 'It is better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.' Even the prestigious prize for American humor, which has been given to writers and performers such as George Carlin and Tina Fey, is called the 'Mark Twain prize'.

Twain is one of America's best-known and most beloved writers. Through classics such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Twain earned enormous popularity in his own lifetime and has continued to be read by successive generations.

Twain primarily used a form of humor known as satire, the use of humorous exaggeration and irony to expose people's failings and stupidity. In his books, stories, and essays, Twain took aim at what he saw as the stupidity and hypocrisy around him, ridiculing close-minded small towns, religious hypocrites, and dishonest politicians, as well as attacking practices such as slavery and imperialism.

Kinds of Satire

Satire can take many forms, but is typically defined by its focus on social criticism. It exists to call out problems in the world, and hopefully change them, through ridicule. Satire is usually broken into two general classifications: Horatian satire and Juvenalian Satire.

Horatian Satire

Horatian satire, named for the Roman writer Horace who frequently used it, is a gentle, light-hearted form of satire. It often aims to point out folly and stupidity in the world, as opposed to outright evils. It does this through mocking public figures and institutions with exaggeration and absurdity.

The TV show The Simpsons is a modern example of Horatian satire. It uses wit to make fun of the foibles of politicians and celebrities, as well as institutions such as school and church, such as when the First Church of Springfield's marquee sign reads 'Private Wedding, Please Worship Elsewhere.'

Juvenalian Satire

Juvenalian satire is also named for a Roman satirist, Juvenal, and is distinguished from Horatian satire by its more abrasive tone. While Horatian satirists want to gently call out folly and stupidity, Juvenalian satirists want to very pointedly call attention to evils in the world and shake their reader into action. While Juvenalian satire can sometimes still be funny, it is usually a darker humor, and much Juvenalian satire is not funny at all.

Perhaps the most famous example of Juvenalian satire is Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal.' The essay suggests that England solve the problems of poverty and lack of food by taking the children of poor Irish people and using them as food. The proposal is supposed to shock and disgust the reader, but by the end of the essay, the reader is meant to ask himself if the proposal is any more savage than letting children die in the street. The essay is darkly funny at times, such as when Swift discusses different preparation techniques for the children, but is meant to also be shocking and horrifying.

Twain's Horatian Satire

Much of Mark Twain's most popular work uses the gentle mockery of Horatian satire. For example, The Innocents Abroad, the bestselling book of Twain's lifetime, is a perfect example of Horatian satire. The book is a nonfiction telling of Twain's travels to Europe and the Holy Land. It mocks the ways these countries attempt to package and sell their history for the enjoyment of tourists like Twain. Twain uses the contrast between his frequently boring and frustrating trip and the grandiose descriptions in other popular travel writing of the time to much humorous effect.

Twain's most famous book, and most famous use of satire, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is another great example of Horatian satire. Twain uses the innocence and of his young hero and narrator, Huck, to point out the hypocrisies of the adult world. Huck doesn't understand why, for example, he will go to hell for helping the escaped slave Jim and chalks it up to his lack of education, while the reader understands that Huck is the one who is actually thinking right about the issue.

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