Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Bossman

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the reader often questions the character of the protagonist, Hank Morgan. Twain’s exposition always leaves the picture unclear, as Hank’s narratives lack any clear indications as to his true nature. The only thing that is certain from the text is that he is a Yankee that worked as a superintendent at an arsenal, who suddenly found himself in King Arthur’s Court. Hank’s tone about the people of the time changes throughout the novel, but the reader also has the sense that although Hank believes his future in Camelot is bright, that this will ultimately not be the case. Twain’s ironic coding of Hank’s speech foreshadows the fact that the Yankee’s “modern” mind, particularly his implementation of certain technologies and politics, will have disastrous effects on Camelot.

Hank displays the characteristic Yankee arrogance, something that many Southerners still see in Northerners to this day, throughout the novel. While watching slaves being beaten, Hank says,

“I must not interfere too much and get myself a name for riding over the country’s laws and the citizen’s rights roughshod. If I lived and prospered I would be the death of slavery, that I was resolved upon; but I would try to fix it so that when I became its executioner it should be by command of the nation.” (190)

This excerpt clearly shows that Hank believes he will be the end all of slavery, but not by force. Instead, the “command of the nation” shall lead to abolition. Hank’s goal is not abolishing slavery through top-down ruling. Instead, King Arthur’s people will slowly be persuaded overtime so that eventually they would come together and tell the King that they are as a “nation” calling for the end of slavery (ironic because it was a kingdom, not a nation).

Twain clearly does not believe a word of what Hank is saying, particularly when it comes to the concept of overriding the country’s laws. Shortly before this speech, Hank is commanding the release of certain prisoners from the dungeon of Queen Morgan Le Fay. It matters not if these men are incarcerated for proper reasons; Hank is still showing his disregard for the rules of the time. Twain consistently shows that the Yankee does not respect the intellect of these medieval people and it is unbelievable to suppose that Twain actually believed Hank’s words were steadfast.

Although Hank may sincerely want the abolition of slavery to come by the nation’s command, the syntax of the sentence shows that he does not truly care by what means this command comes. Hank’s extensive use of “I” in the sentence illustrates that he will be the “death of slavery.” The people’s opinion will not be the main cause; it will rather be a mere reinforcement. The Yankee’s title is indeed the boss. It is quite ironic for the boss to say that he will not “interfere,” when the nature of a boss is to tell individuals how things should be done better.

Twain’s tone about the Yankee is dynamic, but Hank has always gotten his way throughout the novel. This casts a dark shadow on the rest of the narrative. In order to get his way this time, Hank must change an entire culture by making them believe that their current lifestyle is morally wrong without ever saying that directly. Unfortunately, the Yankee’s eyes are too big and his desire to implement modern politics will outweigh his patience for the culture to change. Twain believes that the Yankee has neither the fortitude nor the ability to teach the “nation” to command for the end of slavery; on the other hand Twain does believe that Hank is arrogant and stubborn enough to force this command on the people.


JamesGz said...

Woops! Forgot to say this was my graded Blog Entry for this week on Irony!

Adam Johns said...

This is a nice, detailed post - really, it amounts to an essay, and works well as such.

I don't have any particular complaints about your techniques, which are those of a solidly executed essay.

One thing I liked is that you reveal Twain as being involved in the dilemma of an anti-slavery Southerner; he simultaneously feels the moral outrage of slavery and moral outrage against the north, with all of its obvious and outrageous flaws (its long-enduring commitment to the slave trade among them.

I wonder a little if you underestimate Hank's potential for violence; in your quote, he does reveal that his apparent acceptance of slavery is only a temporary facade before the revolution (he's no John Brown, granted, but he is an abolitionist nonetheless).

The moment which impressed me most, although it's a small one, was your careful parsing of the nation/kingdom difference. Nice touch, and one I'll pick up on if we get a chance.