One of the most effective techniques an author can employ to engage the reader is the use of satire, which, with its blend of humor and social commentary and criticism, typically makes for interesting reading. Two novelistic examples in which satire is used extensively and effectively are “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain and The American by Henry James. While these novels are distinct in terms of their subject and their plots, they share areas of overlap when the objects of the authors’ satiric attention are analyzed as issues of class and social satire are present in “The American” by Henry James as well as in “Huck Finn” by Mark Twain.
There are two main categories of satire that can be identified in each of these novels. The first category of satire is cultural, while the second category addresses class issues. By poking fun at all sorts of cultural and class signifiers of this literary and historical period that Mark Twain in “Huck Finn” and Henry James in “The American” seem to view as both artificial and superficial, the authors tell stories that are not only entertaining, but which are also socially significant and relevant.
The geographical and psychological settings of the two novels are completely distinct; one occurs in a pastoral section of the American south, in which the landscape is as important and defining as the characters themselves, while the other is set in Europe. In the latter, the markers of luxury and taste are evident from the novel’s opening, setting the stage for the satiric criticism that is to come. While “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” explores the relationships among people from different racial groups, “The American” is focused on the transfer of national identity to another continent, one that is perceived to be more cultured than the United States. These dualistic dynamics at play in each of the novels establish the tension that the authors manipulate in order to use satire as a means of criticizing social and cultural constructions.
In “Huck Finn” one of the most important criticisms that Twain lodged against North American culture was its enslavement of blacks. A serious subject to be sure, Twain made the subject interesting and provocative because of the way that he used humor and biting criticism and satire to attack what was called a peculiar social institution. There are many moments in “Huck Finn” where Twain exposes the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of slavery through satiric means; one of these episodes is when Jim is being held in a shed owned by the otherwise good, Christian family, the Phelpses. The family needed Jim’s help to complete a task that they could not do on their own, so they went to the shed, unshackled him briefly, asked him to help them, and then returned him to the shed. In this moment, Jim has the chance to escape but does not, and the ridiculousness of the situation is exposed through this ironic exchange between the captive Jim and his temporary masters.
In “The American” by Henry James, cultural satire is also an important element driving the narrative, yet its subject and its intent are different. “The American” by Henry James, opens with Newman, the main character, sitting in the Louvre Museum, overwhelmed by all of the amazing art that he has seen. This experience compels him to move to Europe, where he expects he will experience the best of everything that the world has to offer. Though he has made his fortune in the States, he is ready to leave everything behind in search of what he perceives to be a more cultured society. The series of events in “The American” by Henry James set into motion by this decision, however, expose what a folly such thinking was, and James is merciless in his making fun of Newman and others like him, who reject their own cultural identity in favor of an idealized culture that they do not truly understand. When Newman returns to the States at the end of the novel, essentially defeated, the satiric point has been driven home. Unfortunately, though, it appears that while the reader has learned a great about the nature of cultural identity, Newman has learned little, if anything at all, about the subject.
Just as culture is the source and subject of satire in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and in “The American”, so too is the subject of class. In fact, one may contend that class and culture are, at least in these two novels, portrayed as concepts and social constructs that are linked inextricably. Clearly, in “Huck Finn” the main characters are of the lowest social castes in society, and Twain pokes fun at them a bit, emphasizing the idiosyncracies of their language, their dress, and their social habits. Twain does not intend to be shaming, however; instead, he simply wants the reader to see and comprehend how others view these characters, and how class status shaped their experiences and the responses to them as people. This is one of the most sophisticated uses of satire in “Huck Finn”, as it subverts the reader’s expectations and compels him or her to figure out just what Twain means when he makes fun of characters for whom he really wishes the reader to feel great empathy. Twain effectively conveys to the reader that class is a social construct; in other words, it is not natural or inherent to any society, but it is developed as a way to separate people from one another. Through his deft use of satiric commentary, Twain calls the reader to question the value and utility of such social constructions.
Similarly, James utilizes satiric techniques to expose some of the ridiculous characteristics of the upper class, both in Europe and in the United States. From page one there is clearly satire in “The American” by Henry James as he places his characters in places and situations that are representative of the highest class and cultural achievements, but then confuses or questions the characters’ roles within these places and situations vis-à-vis their inability to negotiate such experiences effectively. James cleverly injects satire throughout the novel in subtle ways. Consider for example, the names of the characters: Newman, whose name is a thin play on words for the person he is striving to become; Urbain, who represents the urbane world to which Newman cannot gain access; and Bellegarde, whose family name represents the pinnacle of European sophistication. These are all ways in which the author invites the reader to question the class distinctions that both unite and divide the characters in The American.
Satire is a technique that can be used effectively to draw the reader into a story and encourage him or her to identify with the social criticism that is being lodged against the time, place, and people represented in a novel. While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The American are distinctly different novels in terms of character, setting, place, and plot, both Twain and James use satire skillfully to expose and question artificial divisions constructed by culture and class. In doing so, they subtly attack these social institutions and question their value to the functioning of a healthy society. One can see that there are numerous ways in which satire can be deployed over the course of a novel, from the actual events of the plot to more subtle devices, such as naming of characters. Ultimately, the use of satire is a clever literary technique that, in the right hands, can produce conversation and social change through literature.