Satire in Tom Sawyer

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  • 0:01 What Is Satire?
  • 0:42 Exaggeration in Tom Sawyer
  • 1:50 Verbal Irony in Tom Sawyer
  • 2:31 Dramatic Irony in Tom Sawyer
  • 4:11 Parody in Tom Sawyer
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of American literature. Author Mark Twain used various forms of satire to portray and criticize society in a humorous way.

What Is Satire?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, satire is the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, parody, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. American author, Mark Twain, is one of the best-known satirical writers in history. His novel about Tom Sawyer relies heavily on satire and humor to make observations about human nature. Twain does indeed use exaggeration and different types of irony, verbal and dramatic, parody to poke fun at the people and culture of St. Petersburg, the town where Tom Sawyer lives.

Exaggeration in Tom Sawyer

Like many kids, Tom often exaggerates his condition, particularly when he feels people are being unfair to him. One example is when he decides to run away and live as a pirate, because Becky Thatcher turned him down:

'He was gloomy and desperate. He was a forsaken, friendless boy, he said; nobody loved him; when they found out what they had driven him to, perhaps they would be sorry; he had tried to do right and get along, but they would not let him; since nothing would do then but to be rid of him, let it be so; and let them blame him for the consequences - why shouldn't they? What right had the friendless to complain? Yes, they had forced him to it at last: he would lead a life of crime. There was no choice.'

However, the truth is that Tom is not unloved; in fact, he's very popular. Even though Becky turns him down, she still likes him, as does another girl in the village. Tom also has friends, Joe and Huck, who want to run away with him. He is invited to parties and shown love from his family. Twain portrays Tom this way because his dramatics are funny, and also universal. We can relate to it.

Verbal Irony in Tom Sawyer

Verbal Irony occurs when a speaker says the opposite of what they mean. Tom and his friends' youth and lack of experience and education provides many opportunities for humorous, and often unintentional, verbal irony. For example, though they want to be pirates, the boys feel guilty after stealing bacon and ham, knowing that 'there was a command against that in the Bible.' The verbal irony comes in when the boys decide: 'that so long as they remain in business, their piracies should no longer be sullied with the crime of stealing.' Why is this humorous? The very definition of the word 'piracy' means 'to rob or steal.' Even though the boys feel too guilty to steal, they still plan to be pirates. Yet, they do the exact opposite of what pirates do.

Dramatic Irony in Tom Sawyer

Dramatic Irony occurs when the audience or reader knows important information that the characters do not. An example of dramatic irony is when Tom and his gang run away to live on the island as pirates. The townspeople of St. Petersburg assume the worst and mourn the boys' deaths. The audience sees that the sorrowful reaction of Aunt Polly mirrors Tom's fantasy from earlier in the book, when he had dreamed he had died and she felt sorry that she hadn't appreciated him:

'And he pictured himself brought home from the river, dead, with his curls all wet, and his sore heart at rest. How she would throw herself upon him, and how her tears would fall like rain, and her lips pray God to give her back her boy and she would never, never abuse him any more!'

Later, when it is assumed that Tom and Joe have drowned in the river, Tom hears Aunt Polly crying:

'But as I was saying. . . he warn't BAD, so to say - only mischeevous. Only just giddy, and harum-scarum, you know. He warn't any more responsible than a colt. He never meant any harm, and he was the best-hearted boy that ever was.'

'She began to cry. . . 'And God forgive me, I cracked Tom's head with my thimble, poor boy, poor dead boy. But he's out of all his troubles now. And the last words I ever heard him say was to reproach.' '

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