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Irony in Mark Twain’s Short Stories

Irony is defined as stating the opposite of what is meant, more specifically ironic statements are an “interpretation different from the surface meaning of your words” (Lodge, 179). Mark Twain intertwines varying forms of irony, allusion, and humor in his short stories to discuss pertinent societal problems.

In “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” and “The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”, Twain uses an intrusive narrator to emphasize the absurdity of the situations which can only exist in Sunday-school books.  The narrator is shocked that the main characters in the stories never receive the fate they deserve which creates dramatic irony. Moreover, the intrusive narrator fixates on how the childhoods of Jim and Jacob never reflect what occurs in the Sunday-school books. Such is the case with Jim, from “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief”, who is never reprimanded for his behavior, but rather becomes “The infernalest wickedest scoundrel […], universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature” (Twain, 13). Furthermore, a satirical effect is created when the narrator briefly mentions the passing of the “good little boy” and the violent crimes of the adult Jim. Which allows Twain to target a society that attempts to teach children behavior that contradicts the realities of a materialistic and corrupt society. Therefore, the dichotomy between the absurd situations in the Sunday-school books and reality is emphasized.

There is also slight dramatic irony in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It”, in which the white narrator “Misto C” is ignorant to the aftermath of slavery and realities of a racial divide in America. This is seen when Misto C begins by asking his servant, Aunt Rachel, “How is that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble”. The story is then told word for word as Aunt Rachel describes her hardships as a slave and separation from family; though more specifically her youngest son who promises to find her again and buy her freedom.  After the Civil War, her son finds her and in a moment of joy and relief Aunt Rachel accepts the cruel reality as it is; she doesn’t resent the troubles in her life rather she gains strength. She ends with “Oh, no Misto C —, I hain’t had no trouble. An’ no joy!”.

Twain uses rhetoric and satire in the “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” and “Eve’s Diary”, by putting a spin on the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Rather than glorifying them, Twain emphasizes their human traits. In “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” we find Adam to be uninterested and lost in the Garden of Eden, where he finds a “new creature” (Eve) who annoys him. As the pair grow older, Adam begins to develop a fondness to Eve, and proclaims that his life couldn’t be complete without her; she is the missing half of his world. Twain in this way depicts human beings as well-intentioned though confused in their understanding of reality. Which in turn emphasizes the satirical effect created when this Biblical story is applied in the context of a realistic scenario.

The irony used in Mark Twain’s short stories to guide the reader to look past the fictional stories which make absurd claims to the realities of life. Furthermore, the rhetoric and irony created to allow us to recognize the faults which exist in society and acknowledge the reality of the world.


1 Comment

  1. sbnalsaadi says:

    I really enjoyed your take on irony in Mark Twain’s short stories. Something ironic that I recognized in this collection of short stories actually had to do with some of the titles of these short stories. For example, when you look at “Extracts from Adam’s Diary”, you can see that the subtitle says that it is translated from the original manuscript. I think this plays a big role in the short story because I believe that Twain drifted away from the original purpose of the religious Adam and Eve story. As opposed to talking about sinning within this short story, the characters seem to completely disregard the whole purpose of the biblical stories. Instead Twain writes about how Adam thought they were kicked out because of his bad jokes. This just shows how ironic the title is in comparison to the actual story because it is nothing like the original manuscript.

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