Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Oh! The irony of it all... (Formal Blog)

“The earl put us up and sold us at auction. This same infernal law had existed in our own South in my own time, more than thirteen hundred years later, and under it hundreds of freemen who could not prove that they were freemen had been sold into life-long slavery without the circumstance making any particular impression upon me; but the minute law and the auction block came into my personal experience, a thing which had been merely improper before became suddenly hellish” (Twain 321).

In the novel, “A Conneticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court,” Hank Morgan comes face to face with the institution of slavery in the 6th century. He criticizes the practice as part of his overall loathing for the feudalist nature of King Arthur’s reign, but rarely intervenes or attempts to change the practice within the kingdom. He accepts that the slaves are chattel and treats them as such. He is much more interested in the abuses perpetrated again the “freeman” by the Church, the nobility and the King than with the institutional cruelty and denigration inherent in the practice of slavery. He speaks of slavery as an abstract condition – that is, until he and the King are sold into slavery themselves.

Suddenly, Hank Morgan sees the realities of slavery first-hand. He is insulted, angry and resentful. Does he feel this way because he has lost his rights as a freeman? No. He feels this way because he and the King were, “sold at a figure which makes me ashamed every time I think of it. The King of England brought seven dollars, and his prime minister nine; whereas the king was easily worth twelve dollars and I as easily worth fifteen.” (Twain 321). Twain is not necessarily leveling a critique only against the institution of slavery but at any system which commodifies the value of a person (including capitalism), which is something that Morgan does repeatedly throughout the book.

Even as Morgan rails against the idea of a monarchy throughout the book and demonizes the Church and the nobility, he is casually assigning a dollar value to his and the King’s lives (and, by extension, to the lives of everyone around him). He is offended when the earl does not see his value and importance; he is shocked when they are “sold at auction, like swine” (Twain 321) for a price that makes him embarrassed. He uses the earl’s ignorance of his and the King’s “value” as a further indictment of how naïve and idiotic the man is. How can Morgan legitimately or persuasively argue for equality, democracy and freedom when he is constantly valuing everyone less than himself? How is he different from the nobility or King at all? Clearly in Morgan’s mind he sees a marked difference; but Twain goes to great lengths to show that the difference is not nearly as great as Morgan would like to think.

Twain drives this hypocrisy home with a series of lines in the following chapter in which Morgan states “I take my oath that the thing that graveled him (the King) most, to start with, was not this (the indignity of slavery), but the price he had fetched! He couldn’t get over that seven dollars… It shames the average man to be valued below his own estimate of his worth; and the king certainly wasn’t anything more that an average man, if he was up that high” (Twain 325). The irony of this statement is quite clear: what Morgan castigates the King for is something that Morgan indulges in all of the time. He is constantly assigning people value, perhaps not monetarily, but certainly in the way that he decides whether or not to send someone to his special schools, the way that he decides that the nobility are fools and expendable and in the way he consistently manipulates and treats the common citizenry that he comes across in Britain. Slaves are a population which Morgan observes but has no passion or sense of justice for. Even when he learns that his fellow slaves are sentenced to death he is only concerned for the King (and himself of course). The slaves are just another group of expendable commodities. Morgan states when he is re-arrested and learns that the knights will be too slow to save him, “Nothing in the world could save the King of England; nor me, which was more important. More important, not merely to me, but to the nation – the only nation on earth standing ready to blossom into civilization” (Twain 347).

Morgan is so blinded by his ideas, his skills and his self-worth that he dooms an entire society in his pursuit to change and modernize that same society. He carefully selects those (the ones he has assigned value) he wishes to survive his plans for social upheaval and unknowingly or unthinkingly facilitates the death of them all. Once he sets his revolution in motion, Morgan is unable to control the circumstances which ultimately lead to their collective demise.

Clarence writes, “We were in a trap, you see – a trap of our own making. If we stayed where we were, our dead will kill us; if we moved out of our defenses, we should no longer be invincible. We had conquered; in turn we were conquered” (Twain 406). The final punishment and judgment that Twain bestows upon Morgan is that he survives and returns to the 19th century with the document (his journal) detailing his miss-steps, his arrogance, the final indignity of utter failure and the documentation of the demise of all of those that he held dear, like Marley’s chains or a big fat albatross.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

Continuing your closing idea a little bit: beyond simply returning with the record of his own mis-doings, he is punished by ultimately failing to remember that he actually belonged to the 19th century: he dies, remember, fantasizing about defending the king. After all his attacks on the 6th century, and all his boasting that he will conquer it, it conquers him.

Your discussion of Hank and commodification could easily be extended and rendered explicitly Marxist - commodity fetishism runs rampant through this book.