In his chapter about allegory, David Lodge defines the term as, “a specialized form of symbolic narrative, which does not merely suggest something beyond its literal meaning, but insists on being decoded in terms of another meaning,” (Lodge, 143). In other words, Lodge says that if a story is an allegory, it insists on being interpreted symbolically. In this case, readers may find it impossible to understand it only literally. When this theory is applied to the short stories of Mark Twain, the reader has no choice but to search for a meaning beyond the superficial elements of plot and characters. Twain’s writing style does not make this too difficult for the readers, as it forces them to think critically about the stories.
“Part of the pleasure of this kind of fiction is that our intelligence is exercised and flattered by interpreting the allegory” (Lodge, 144).
Superficially, Twain’s short stories are exactly that; stories. However, the subjects that the stories allegorize are not immediately clear to the reader, so they must interpret the implied meaning in order to find the implicit. It is hidden between the lines of narration, and so the reader must make connections between the stories and the context in which they were written.
The greatest example of this is Twain’s “Extracts from Adam’s Diary.” At first glance, this short story is a collection of diary entries written by Adam, the first man created by God and the first man on earth. To readers, these documentations of Adam’s day-to-day life are humorous interpretations of the original biblical story; one would never guess that Twain targets Calvinism through this story. There is no mention of the word Calvinism nor reference to religious belief, only an unusual retelling of the story of Genesis. To uncover the allegory, the reader must first understand Twain as an individual. Mark Twain strongly opposed the Calvinist belief that humans are either bound to hell or are saved from punishment, but this does not depend on the individual’s actions or choices. One’s fate is determined solely by the grace of God, and Twain was enraged by this idea. This story, as well as “Eve’s Diary,” allows readers to sympathize with Adam and Eve who were expelled from Eden for committing very human mistakes.“She says the snake advises her to try the fruit of that tree, and says the result will be great and fine and noble education.” Eve was not pressured to pick the forbidden fruit but convinced that there was no wrong in doing so. Her intention was not to defy. Eve genuinely believed that picking the fruit would have a great result. Like every other human being, Adam and Eve were victims of their own nature. Their mistake of picking the fruit damned them to earth as punishment, despite neither of them having evil intentions. They were still confused and new to their humanity, and Twain heightens the idea of this unfairness by presenting it through the two most familiar figures to readers.
“The development of an allegorical narrative is determined at every point by its one-to-one correspondence to the implied meaning” (Lodge, 143)
In this quote, Lodge implies that an allegory can only be determined if it is intertwined with the implied meaning of the narrative. “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief,” for example, is about a bad little boy named Jim who is entirely unlike James, the typical bad boy in Sunday school books. The story implies that Jim is a bad boy who gets away with his bad actions and thrives on the suffering of the innocent and good. Yet this allegorizes the dishonorable and cunning individuals in society who gain power and wealth, while those who are honest and good do not. Mark Twain conveys this idea through the story’s fictional characters and events, allowing readers to see the fault in their society.
In “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper,” Mark Twain uses allegory to target those who set Sunday school books as examples of reality. In this story, Jacob dedicates every moment of his life to following in the footsteps of the boys in the Sunday school books. Like Jacob, those who follow these books have a misconception of reality. This story also allegorizes the hypocrisy of the church at the time. Power and status were no longer given to the honest and the devout, only to those who were able to succeed in the materialistic world. People were deceiving and cheating their way to success, yet there was always a nearby church that taught its young followers using Sunday school books, distorting the followers’ vision of reality.
“Allegory is yet another technique of defamiliarization” (Lodge, 145)
In literature, to defamiliarize is to take something familiar to the reader and warp it until it becomes unfamiliar. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is widely familiar. However, Mark Twain defamiliarizes the well-known biblical story in “Extracts from Adam’s Diary,” as well as “Eve’s Diary.” He does this by providing a humorous interpretation of Adam and Eve’s day-to-day lives, which many readers may not have even considered before. Twain’s interpretation strips the two figures from the holy rendition they are most commonly presented in, and instead lays bare their mistakes and faults. By depicting Adam and Eve in such a human way, readers can connect or even relate to these holy figures. Twain makes readers question certain aspects of their religion they never thought to question before. One never truly thinks about Adam and Eve’s day-to-day life or how they would have lived as the first humans on earth, and this brings them closer to readers.
Mark Twain lived in a time when slavery was a part of every American society. There was an evident social hierarchy in which slaves stood at the very bottom, at the mercy of their masters. However, Twain defamiliarizes the social hierarchy that most had come to accept in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard it.” In this story, Twain creates a narrator that is representative of the white American population, allowing the author to allegorize the oppression that these people are blind to. When Aunt Rachel, who is a slave, talks over her master and tells him the story of her life, the narrator says, “she towered above us, black against the stars.” (Twain, 47). Here, Twain defamiliarizes the social hierarchy by reversing the positions of slave and master. In the end, the white master is shocked into realizing his own oppression and is rendered speechless by Aunt Rachel’s story. He never understood the lives of the slaves, and now realizes that he is one of the many that have oppressed slaves like Aunt Rachel and are the source of their suffering. By using defamiliarization in this story, Twain is able to target readers that are just as blind as the narrator, shocking them into discovering the corruption within their society.
After reading Mark Twain’s short stories through the lens of Lodge’s theory on allegory, the reader is able to understand the author’s purpose for writing such unusual fictional stories. The reader is also able to uncover the allegories that Twain hides between the lines of his narration. Religious corruption, societal misconceptions, and the oppression of slaves are all ideas that Twain conveys through his stories, and discovering his methods of breaking the barriers of fiction in order to do this only enhances the readers’ appreciation for the writer’s work.
– Sally K.