Thursday, February 7, 2008

Formal Blog #4 (option #1) The Irony of Hank Morgan

Towards the end of the book it seems as if Hank Morgan is conducting some sort of experiment with the poeple of the sixth century, in order for Twain to convey a message about the 19th century. It also appears that Twain, through Hank, wants to convey an even greater message about human nature and the way people behave in general, regardless of the time period. In dealing with the situation that occured at the manor house Hank states the following,

"It reminded me of a time thiteen centuries away, when the' poor whites' of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave-lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with slave-lords in all poiltical moves for the upholding and perpetuation of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour ourtheir lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them. And there was only one redeeming feature connected with that pitiful piece of history; and that was, that secretly the 'poor white' did detest the slave-lord, and did feel his own shame. That feeling was not brought to the surface, but the fact that it was there and could have been brought out, under favouring circumstances, was something - in fact it was enough; for it showed that a man is at bottom a man, after all, even if it doesn't show on the outside" (277-278).

One can see that the clear and obvious comparison that Hank is trying to establish here is the fact that these men who are blacksmiths, carpenters, etc. in the sixth century are the same as the "poor whites" thirteen centuries later. They are willing to kill their neighbors, for the nobility, because of the laws that have been ordered. They carry out these duties with zeal, even though at heart they know that these said "offenders" are truly just innocent victims. Essentially, they follow the laws of the nobility, just because it is all they know; it is tradition that has been passed on to them from generation to generation. Hank sees that these men behave the way they do simply because they are following the orders of the monarchy and not deciding what is right for themselves. Later on, he tries to get them to see how the nobility dominate and control their lives. He uses an example of wages and how the nobility decide on a fixed wage, based on nothing more than what they "think" to be the proper amount. He goes on to say that they have no idea what type of physical labor goes into each job, and therefore shouldn't have the authority to dictate the wages of those who do the actual labor. Earlier on when Hank goes shopping with Marco he tells him to watch his back talking, because it will continue to get out of hand and have negative results. So it seems that Hank is playing devil's advocate here, in order to do some type of experiment. He tells Marco not to back-talk, but later he tries to convince that they should have some say in what wages they get and ultimately have control over their own lives, without interference from the monarchy. He is looking for a specific reaction out of these men in order to prove a point. As we see later on he does get that reaction, which I believe is the exact one he wanted.

The men cannot comprehend a time when the workers will ever have a say in what wages they get and that would dare to rise up against those in charge. It is so mind-boggling to them that they harshly reject the thought and resort to the use of violence against Hank and the King. This proves Hank's point that these men are just like the "poor whites", as they are just as willing to fight for their opression as the monarchy which oppresses them. This proves a point that Twain wants to the reader to understand; that is a people that is so used to their particular way of life will reject the idea of change, even if it is in fact beneficial to them. It is against everything that they have been taught and they are willing to fight to save their tradition, even if it is one consisting of oppression.

The irony that exists here, is the fact that Hank wants to convince these people that deep down they despise the monarch and should rise up agianst the authority, when he was that oppressive authority in the 19th century. He wants to create a spirit of revolt in these men, but he only does it to prove that they will reject it. He knew that they would not accept the concept, because he plays on the fact that they are not intelligent enough to comprehend it in the first place. He just got more than he bargained for in the end when the mob trapped him and the King in the tree. He makes excuses for their witts, by saying that they only made the right choices by mistake and that he cannot possibly be prepared for any of their decisions because they don't do what they are "supposed" to do.

Another stem of irony that exists is the fact that Hank also wants to control this sixth century republic that he is building, yet he tells these men of revolting and standing up against authority. It is additional proof that he is so secure in the fact that these people will do the opposite and just allow him to control their lives, as the monarchy has done in the past. He is testing them out to see if his beliefs are correct; resistance and rebellion he recieves is his confirmation that he will be able to control these people. Basically by causing them to rebel against his ideas of a republic, he knows that once he has control and authority they will not rebel against the republic that he will have made. This confusing statement means that by proving that the people don't like the idea of rebelling against an authoritative rule, they won't rebel against Hank Morgan once he has authority; this means that he will be able to implement any type of system that he wants, in this case a republic.

This idea that Hank is still in control when a republic is implemented shows that in the 19th century, the people still are not as free as they think. There is still an authoritative power that has control over some aspect of the citizens lives'. This is what Twain wants the people in his time period to understand that they are even still not as free as they think. There are many aspects of a political system that the government has complete control over, while the people are under this misconception that mostly all governement decisions and policies reflect their opinions, wants and needs. Twain wants his readers to realize that they are not only still inder the control of their government, but that they have allowed themselves to be put in this situation. Sometimes, people get so caught up in tradition that they reject any new ideas in fear of the unkown. However, Twain points out that the rejection of these unconventional ideas can cause one to be manipulated into being controlled and therefore forced to accept the ideas anyway.

Sources: Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee At King Arthur's Court. New York: Penguin Books, 1971.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

This is a complicated and sophisticated argument, which you sustain at length. I didn't have it entirely figured out until this line: "Basically by causing them to rebel against his ideas of a republic, he knows that once he has control and authority they will not rebel against the republic that he will have made." This is a fascinating reading of Hank, which I'm going to keep in mind the next time I read/teach the novel: I think this understanding of him is highly compatible with a certain elitist notion of a republic as thoroughly controlled and headed by "experts."

One thing you're engaged with, at least indirectly, is the thing that liberals/radicals tend to find mysterious about "the people" year after year and century after century: why they seem to favor conservative institutions which operate against their own economics interests. One book I have in mind is Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas.

This was a provocative post.