About A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court


There are two approaches to A Connecticut Yankee: there are the numerous polemic digressions on such weighty subjects as social criticism on slavery, on the injustices of the Church and the nobility, on the absurdity of hereditary preferments, on the ridiculousness of knighthood, and on the existence of unjust laws. However, conjointly, we also have a very fanciful story (bordering on science fiction) which delights the reader with its inventiveness.

A Connecticut Yankee, interestingly, has frequently been referred to as Twain's most "magnificent failure." Of course, the novel is not a failure, but what has troubled many critics is the fact that the novel contains at least two major concerns and these concerns, at times, seem to contradict each other.

The first basic contradiction occurs when Hank Morgan, a representative of Nineteenth-Century Progress, is thrown back into the sixth century, where he is supposed to use his Yankee ingenuity and inventiveness to remove the barbaric ignorance and superstitions of that inhumane and unjust world. He is supposed to enlighten and improve these "innocent" people through the use of his modern skills and the inventions and political views of his time, but, finally, he not only fails, but he destroys, in large measure, a beautiful civilization (Camelot) that existed so peacefully and idyllically before his arrival.

The second contradiction occurs upon Morgan's return to the nineteenth century. In the final chapter, we hear him ranting and raving; his deathbed wish is to be permitted to return to his Camelot, his "lost land," his home, and his friends; he wants to be allowed to return to "all that is dear . . . all that makes life worth the living." His last wish is to rejoin his wife, Sandy, and their child, Hello-Central. When he thinks that he holds her, he thinks that all is well: "All is peace, and I am happy again."

Consequently, every judgment against Camelot, every harsh statement concerning the conditions of Camelot, every condemnation rendered against the entire feudal society of sixth-century England and all other objections are contradicted by Hank Morgan's nostalgic longings to return to that happy and innocent land.

We have, therefore, two different views throughout the novel; we have Twain's own condemnations of certain aspects of feudal England, and we have Hank Morgan's nostalgic longing for the beauty of a pure, simple, and innocent society. This is illustrated throughout the novel in many ways. There are long polemic digressions against knight-errantry, and alongside these digressions, Twain details the positive, chivalric nobility of Sir Launcelot. We hear other condemnations against the concept of monarchy, including the idea that when two people are dressed alike, no one can tell the difference between a commoner and a royal personage. In contradiction, Hank Morgan constantly reiterates the fact that no matter what one may do, one cannot disguise the fact that King Arthur has royal blood and a spirit that cannot be humbled or brought to yoke. Many more examples such as these inform the entire novel. Thus, it is for these reasons that the novel is often referred to as a "magnificent failure" — that is, Twain's social criticism is brilliant and pointed; Hank Morgan's view of Camelot, however, does not agree with the criticisms which Twain levels against Camelot and its institutions.

The subject matter of A Connecticut Yankee appealed to Twain because it was an age controlled by nobility and royalty, a subject which Twain enjoyed deriding. But in most of his novel, Twain was always fascinated by the concept of an innocent people dwelling in an innocent society. Furthermore, the subject matter of A Connecticut Yankee allowed Twain to specifically utilize his vast knowledge of history and biography, two subjects which occupied much of Twain's reading time; in addition, writing this novel allowed Twain the opportunity to meditate on the injustices inherent in human nature (or "the damned human race" as it was so termed in his later work, The Mysterious Stranger). The subject matter of this novel also allowed Twain to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes — using a language different from that used by either the common people or the educated people; the idioms and dialects of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and the archaic language of The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee are all illustrations of Twain's penchant for utilizing different sorts of language.