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Realism in Mark Twain’s Short Stories

Literary realism is a literary technique first introduced in France during the mid-nineteenth century, and later spread all over the world to regions such as the United States. In American literature, the realist movement spread post Civil War. Authors such as Mark Twain used realism as a vehicle to represent the lives of American individuals. Some often consider realism to be a response to romanticism. At this time many realist writers such as Mark Twain rejected the Romantic Movement. Instead, such writers chose to write in response to events taking place in the Civil War. Mark Twain and other wrote about the lives of average Americans and American ideals such as democracy.

Realism as a literary technique focuses on the structure of an economy, culture,  or society. Realist literature focuses on regular individuals and their daily lives in an unexaggerated manner with no romanticism. Mark Twain uses vivid and detailed description of the characters and their surrounding in order to enhance the reader’s experience. The purpose of this literary technique is to use information that relates to the audience. This form of literature allows authors to write bout situations in a manner that is true to life. This allows the writers to raise awareness of social evils so that people can fix it. Realism is evident in all five of Mark Twain’s short stories. The realistic features found in the following short stories can be categorized under a few main points taken from The Norton Anthology of American Literature.

According to Nina Baym, realist writers tend to write about human life as it is shaped by forces beyond human control.

In the following stories, Mark Twain constantly refers to religion as a force beyond human control that shapes the lives and mindset of regular individuals. In his first short story, “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief”, Twain tells the tale of Jim, a bad little boy who had a “streak of luck(Twain 13)”. The bad little boy who went against all the principles found in the Christian Sunday school books, was the one who prospered and became wealthy. There are two significant quotes in this story that go back to realistic literature. Twain writes” Nothing like it in any of the Sunday school books(Twain 11)”. Twain here writes this to prove that not every daily occurrence can be found in these religious scriptures. He ends off his story by stating “So you see there was never a bad James in the Sunday school books that had such a streak of luck as this sinful Jim with a charmed life(Twain 13)”. Twain shows the reality of the world we live in by falsifying the religious Christian establishment. It is finally important to recognize that Twain attempts to show how materialistic American society can be. Twain here juxtaposes the stories taught in Sunday school books with more realistic situations.

In his second short story titled “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”, Twain writes about Jacob Blivens. Jacob is a good little boy who follows everything that was required of him and lives according to the Sunday school books. Unlike Jim, Jacob never gets the credit he deserves. Jacob works hard and virtuously his entire life, only to end up getting punished and drowning for doing a good deed. Twain here uses these two short stories to show how absurd life can be. Twain shows that people cannot control their fate nor do they have the free will when it comes to following these absurd religious notions. The stories of the good and bad little boys use hyperbole to contradict the mainstream Southern society. Twain shows that regardless of the fact that religion surrounds these individuals, people are extremely materialistic and only those who cheat and steal prosper.

The theme of religion carries out in the story “Extracts from Adams’s Diary”. As opposed to talking about how religion controls the lives of individuals, Twain completely dismisses the impact of religion. Twain recalls the story of Adam and Eve as they go on their journey of discovery through the eyes of Adam. Twain places the story in Niagara falls and uses humor to describe Adam’s interactions with Eve. Adam begins by describing Eve as a a “creature with long hair( Twain 120)”. What makes this story more realistic is that Twain describes Adam and Eve’s interactions without any romanticism. The author’s description of Eve as an attentive human being, who loves to name things, goes back to human nature. Individuals tend to categorize things to help them differentiate and make life simpler to help create meaning. There is a slight bash to religion when Adam criticizes his son Cain by calling him a kangaroo, since he was foreign to him as well. Twain here took a religious story and altered it to not even consider god but rather social interactions. Twain also mocks the main idea of sinning that is found in the original Adam and Eve story. This is evident in the confusion that both Adam and Eve feel after being kicked out of Eden. When trying to understand why they were thrown out, Adam thinks that his bad jokes could be the cause.

Realism is also used in “Eve’s Diary”. This story describes the interactions between Adam and Eve from Eve’s point of view. First of all, Eve proves that she is strong and independent, unlike the original religious story. Eve exhibits her strength in her will to continue reaching for what she wants. She says “So I cried a little, which was natural, I suppose, for one of my age,and after I was rested I got a basket and started for a place on the extreme rim of the circle,(Twain 200). The strength exhibited here is in Eve’s determination to get what she wants. Although she fails in reaching for the stars, she still gets herself back up and tries again. At this point in the short story, Eve is left alone to survive. As opposed to focusing on any romantic features, Twain actually displays the conflicts between the two characters. He shows the frustration behind adapting to new places and meeting new individuals, especially those who are opposite of you in their actions. The true realism in these stories is the vivid description used to describe daily life and moment-to-moment existence. As a good realistic work, the reader is able to identify with the story. In the end of both short stories, the narrators make the relationship between the two characters evident by showing how Adam and Eve would rather be together outside as opposed to being apart. The narrator’s drift from the original religious story allows the reader to focus on the relationship between the characters and how individuals socially interact.

Another important aspect of realistic literature according to Nina Baym states that Writers are dedicated to capturing the social, natural, and linguistic features of particular regions. 

As a realist writer, Mark Twain uses regional writing in his stories to show the beauty of the characters as they are. Regional writing can be seen in “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word”. Twain uses the character of Aunt Rachel, a former slave, to show the Southern culture through her thick Southern accent. Aunt Rachel states “ So I says dat word, too, when I’s riled(Twain 47)”. Here Aunt Rachel is referring to a quote her mother used to say when she threw tantrums. Twain uses Aunt Rachel to expose the unfalsified and unromanticized world of his characters. He shows that Aunt Rachel was not as advantaged as the ignorant narrator. Twain shows his subjects as they are without creating an idealized version of the character. It is imperative to recognize the difference between the narrator’s and Aunt Rachel’s language. While the author may sound ignorant, his words are more proper and grammatically correct. Aunt Rachel on the other hand speaks with a thick accent that may sound to some as slang. This however is only to highlight the dialect of uneducated former slaves. This allows readers to understand the struggle that Aunt Rachel and many former slaves faced. Twain is also subtly hinting at another important aspect of realistic writing, the focus on raising social awareness on matters such as racial inequality.

According to Nina Baym One of the most prominent features or issues of realistic literature referred to racial inequality. 

It is important to recognize that the realist movement spread in the United States after the Civil War. This meant that racial inequality and racism and slavery were topics commonly addressed during this movement by realistic writers. One story that focuses on the matter of racial inequality is the story “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word”. Twain describes the social and racial injustices Aunt Rachel faced during her time as a slave. The ignorance of people during this time was common and can be seen in the narrator’s question “Aunt Rachel, how is it you lived sixty years and never had any trouble?(Twain 46)”. Slavery was an economic system that the narrator was born into. The narrator himself was learning new things from Aunt Rachel but couldn’t see her as an individual who’s struggled. He only began to question it after talking to Aunt Rachel at the time she was no longer a slave. Aunt Rachel responded by telling him her story as a slave. She states “Dey put chains on us an’ put us on a stan’(Twain 47)”. A reader is able to empathize with the character and realize the severity of slavery. African Americans were forced to face many obstacles to to the social ignorance evident. This helps show that the legacy of slavery and oppression was saved and shown in realistic literature.

The realistic movement was a significant literary movement that raised social awareness on social injustices. It showed the ignorance and hypocrisy in society. Twain used his platform to not only raise awareness, but also to protect the legacy of important social issues. In all of Twain’s short stories realism is evident whether it be in relation to racism or religion. Through the use of description and characters, Twain vividly describes the daily interactions between individuals. Realism was used to make readers relate to the characters,

Works Cited

Baym, Nina, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. A.

New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

Twain, Mark. The best short stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove,

Modern Library, 2004.




  1. aalghoraiyr says:

    i liked your work and ideas. it made me learn about the mainstream southern society.

  2. am33ners says:

    I really enjoyed your blog and the in depth explanation of the realistic movement. It made me understand the reason behind Twain’s use of vivid details and take on religious stories. One point that really interested me was your point on regional writing. I never thought to differentiate and ask why Twain chose to write the short story using a Southern accent. One point that I wanted to question was to what extent are people actually able to control their fate. I understand that the stories show that the characters have no free will but at the same time they choose what situations they are placed in. Also, don’t you think that there is evident use of hyperbole in these stories. Although they have realistic aspects some of the plots are exaggerated and sometimes I question to what extent they could actually happen.

  3. nabakhanisa says:

    Ooh very interesting! I enjoyed your analysis of ‘regional writing’ and how you tied it into racial inequality as presented in the True Story Word for Word. I like the way you phrased it: “Twain is also subtly hinting at another important aspect of realistic writing, the focus on raising social awareness on matters such as racial inequality.”

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