A Connecticut Yankee derives its brilliance, its humor and its themes from one source: a juxtaposition of times and its attendant values. Just as the mythic King Arthur embodies his age, the age of romantic chivalry, Hank Morgan is a type figure of the nineteenth century man "nearly barren of sentiment," freedom minded, shrewd and technocratic. Within this context several topics and themes recur:
Twain's Yankee's greatest fear and ultimate enemy is the Roman Catholic Church, which to him embodies the evils of manipulating religion for political purposes. He states that "the established church is only a political machine," bereft of the spiritual functions that it purports to serve. Hank accuses the church for shoring up the ills of the sixth century society: superstition; hereditary nobility; social inequality; the meek subservience of the masses to authority and tradition.
SlaverySlavery appears prominently in the work as a social ill that Hank seeks to abolish. The scenes Twain writes about the oppression and dehumanization of slaves are drawn largely from Russian and German sources, but also share its universal points with slavery in the United States. Hank and King Arthur become slaves themselves and are made empathetic to the plights of slaves; Twain uses their story as a condemnation of those who can claim the morality of a matter only on a superficial level, but who cannot move to action unless prodded by real experience.
Merlin (magician) v. Hank (technocrat)
In the book, Merlin represents superstition, bogus magic and the old order while Hank is the banner-bearer of "the magic of science," of civilization and progress. Their constant rivalry is the embodiment of the larger social project that Hank is trying to achieve in making England into an industrialized nation. But in proclaiming the eclipse and in the restoration of the Holy Fountain, Hank uses the same reliance on superstition that Merlin does against him. Hank's 'industrial miracles' can be just as manipulative Merlin's smoke-and-mirrors hoaxes. Although Merlin appears to be soundly defeated each time he challenges Hank's authority, he gets the last laugh as Hank's civilization destroys itself.
Training v. Nature
A theme central to all of Twain's satires is the question of the power of training against an inherent human nature. On most levels, Hank believes that training and influence determine the good or bad outcome of a society; his project of civilization is based on the belief that he can train the English people to think and thus, live differently. But he is at a loss to explain why, despite training, people revert to foolish and destructive practices.. Even after giving them a new world of technological and economic improvement, Hank finds that this is insufficient to keep them from abandoning his system for the Church's favor. Or, when considering hereditary nobility, he cannot explain why intelligent people bow and scrape to 'their betters' when it is only a superficial title that distinguishes them. Hank himself becomes an object of this line of criticism as he becomes a dictator, using violence to shore up his power. In the end, his creation folds in on itselffrom the dream of a peaceful democratic evolution, he emerges with the stench and destruction of total war. For Twain, the contradictions and depth of the problem are enough to make one "want to hang the entire human race" for its foolishness; against his own belief that people can improve his Yankee says, "Men are all fools. Born so, I guess."
The person of Arthur is an interesting, yet subtle theme in the work. While Hank, The Boss, is at the center of all of the action, Arthur and his relationship to the legend that Twain parodies are strong undercurrents. It is interesting to note that while Twain might have satirized and reduced Arthur to a cuckold king, impotent and useless to Hank's new England, he did not shrivel the beloved character of the legend. It is true that the King Arthur Hank serves yields his political authority to the Yankee, but he retains the authority of character that shines out in the legendary accounts. For Hank, the draw of Arthur is not his military exploits or the magical elements relating to his reign, but the idea that he represented an ideal of integrity and courage. When Hank frees a peasant family from Morgan Le Fay's dungeon, they exclaim that it is Arthur's word, "which is gold," rather than the weight of authority that Hank carries as The Boss that they trust. Arthur is described as a "just and fair" judge who does the best "according to his lights." Twain himself seems to acknowledge the best part of the Arthurian canonthe sense of honor and valor that surrounds the person of Arthur himself, even as he ravages the time and its conventions and laws.
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It was a desperate place for him to be in, and might cost him his life, but it was no use to argue with him. If he considered his knightly honor at stake here, that was the end of argument; he would stay, and nothing could prevent...
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Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court study guide contains a biography of Mark Twain, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.
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