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Philosophy, Power and Truth- Mark Twain
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The third section of “Mark Twain’s Humor, Genius and Philosophy” was focused on philosophy and Mark Twain as a moralist. For someone just starting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this might seem like a shock since it opens with:

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

Mark Twain is witty and he often suggests the opposite of what you are supposed to believe morally. This is not the only case of the technique; in fact, Huck Finn is full of these situations. The author of the essay explains  “. . . Mark Twain throws over his ethical suggestion– a suggestion, by contrast, of the very converse of his literal words– the veil of paradox and exaggeration, of incongruity, fantasy, light irony. ” After reading more of Huck Finn, this is definitely clear. Just think of the most outrageous seeming parts of the stories: the behavior towards slavery, the fued between the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons, and the Duke and the King. These fictional characters and situations seem exaggerated throughout the story, but they highlight moral issues facing the country Twain was writing for.

This essay brings up two particular techniques that Twain used to impart moral philosophy to his readers. The first was prevarication or evasiveness. This is clear in the above examples. Mostly, Twain does not spell out morals word for word and went about explaining them in roundabout ways. Twain never says slavery is bad in Huck Finn, in fact Huck is sure that slavery is a right part of society, but he still defends Jim. The same elements that make Twain’s work seem ridiculous and amusing, are the ones that bring us moral truth.

The second concept is  mentioned only briefly, and is called Kismet (destiny). The characters in Twain’s books are affected greatly by circumstance. Mark Twain says in “What is Man?”:

. . . Neither religion, training, nor education avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man. Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an angel.

This is clearly also a part of his philosophy that is evident in his book. In a way, this theory works against morality, or at least informs it. Understanding Kismet means understanding that people are circumstantial so judgement is wasted unless one has had the exact same circumstances and the person they are judging.

All of these moral and philosophical techniques  and believes that Mark Twain uses does not take away from the power of the images he creates. His books may be calculated to impart a certain belief, but they still host powerful and truthful elements aside from philosophy. Perhaps these methods have even strengthened the images he’s created.  The historian Lesky said, ” Certain passages in his books on the subject of slavery . . .  are the truest things that have ever been expressed on the subject which vexed a continent and plunged a nation in bloody, fratricidal strife.”

Twain, Mark; Clemens, Samuel (2010-12-10). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Cambridge World Classics Edition) Special Kindle Enabled Features (ANNOTATED) (Complete Works of Mark Twain) (Kindle Locations 611-614). Cambridge World Classics. Kindle Edition.

via Mark Twain’s Humor, Genius and Philosophy, Part Three.


2 Comments to “Philosophy, Power and Truth- Mark Twain”

  1. allyssayanniello says:

    I think it’s really important to connect the two ideas (his prevarication and his stance on destiny) to get a full reading of Huckleberry Finn, or anything that he writes. The author of the essay we read really put a lot of faith into the idea that Twain was, if anything else, a sociologist even if he didn’t mean to be. And to understand all the points that he makes about humanity and human nature, the two points listed need to be kept in mind while reading.

  2. Katelyn Snyder says:

    Good point. These are things I didn’t know before reading this essay, but they definitely informed my reading. I felt like I understood Huck Finn much better as after reading this.

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