Critical Essays Characterization in A Connecticut Yankee


In traditional terms, there are no characters in A Connecticut Yankee: There is only Hank Morgan. The other characters who appear are only pawns who serve to reflect some quality of Hank Morgan's. For example, Clarence appears more than any other secondary character in the novel, and we know that Clarence grows physically from a young page ("he was hardly a paragraph") to a fully mature man in charge of all of the Yankee's operations, but we are aware of only his chronological development. Or else, Hank Morgan and King Arthur travel together for eleven chapters, but we never really get to know the king; he remains a distant, shadowy figure, completely undelineated.

Hank Morgan is an ingenious, inventive Connecticut Yankee, filled with practicality and common sense, believing in complete democracy, opposed to the Catholic Church, and possessing a disdain for royalty and nobility; he finds knight-errantry to be absurd and childish. Thus, we have Hank Morgan, champion of nineteenth-century democracy, commerce, industry, progress, and science, placed in a society that is controlled by heredity, aristocracy and a dictatorial church and infested with unjust laws, injustices, and inhumanity.

While acting as the champion of the modern, nineteenth-century view, Hank Morgan's main attitude is his desire to show off. His love of an effect, his eye for the stage value of a matter, and his wish to perform picturesquely are all directly related to his indignations and his prejudices.

Because he has a more advanced knowledge of technology and because he has been exposed to thirteen more centuries of advancement, and because he knows how to do ingenious things, such as make gun powder, build a locomotive, and set up a telephone line, Hank Morgan immediately assumes that he is a superior being: "Here I was — a giant among pygmies, a man among children, a master intelligence among intellectual moles; by all rational measurements the only actually great man in the whole British world." It is his belief that because he is technologically more knowledgeable than other men, he is superior as a human being; this leads Hank Morgan to attempt to change, improve, and "civilize" Camelot, but in the process, he destroys it.

While acting as the champion of the modern, nineteenth-century view, then, Hank Morgan becomes essentially an unscrupulous opportunist who is more concerned with bringing personal glory to himself and in controlling other people than he is in actually improving the lot of mankind in general. Beginning with his first "miracle," Morgan is intent that the center of all attention must be constantly focused upon him. Most of his actions are performed for the purpose of self-glorification and personal gain. For example, when he performs two of his great "miracles" — the blowing up of Merlin's castle and the restoring of the Fountain of Holiness (using Greek fires and Roman candles for the effects), he makes sure that there are large numbers of people there to appreciate him and his efforts. He craves attention and is always on the lookout for the "theatrical effects" that he can achieve in his performance.

Yet while disdaining superstitions, especially the many superstitions that the Church has burdened the common people with, Hank Morgan constantly uses the superstitions of the common people to gain power for himself. In this way, he does not differ significantly from the Church — which he disdains. Ultimately, the long tradition of the Church and its control upon the superstitions of the people defeat Hank Morgan when it announces its Interdict. At this time, the people whom Hank has trained revert back to their religious and superstitious ways; ironically, they have seen Hank Morgan's scientific inventions not as science but as some new sort of magic. Thus, Hank Morgan's power is gained through superstition, and he is also defeated by superstition.

It should be stated, however, that Hank Morgan possesses real humanitarian concerns. He does not understand fundamental nature sufficiently to be able to respond to the real needs of the people of Camelot, but he believes that if he technologically provides a better soap that the people will become a cleaner people spiritually. However, one doesn't clean the inner soul of a people by washing the outer layers of the skin. While Hank Morgan is opposed to all types of injustice (all precedence given to heredity, to nobility, to a dictatorial church, and to all non-humanistic matters), yet he is not sufficiently educated to appreciate that the souls of people need to be changed gradually. And even though Hank Morgan is an advocate of progress, a man whose views, attitudes, and intentions are to be admired, yet his personal flaws — prudery, lack of insight, and desire for self-glory — cause him to become the "evil invader" of the innocent and idyllic land of Camelot. This, in turn, was responsible for Twain's later saying of Hank Morgan: "This Yankee of mine has neither the refinement nor the weakness of a college education; he is a perfect ignoramus; he is the boss of a machine shop; he can build a locomotive or a Colt's revolver, he can put up a telegraph line, but he's an ignoramus, nevertheless."