Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court as a Dystopian Work
For years, Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" has been primarily viewed as a work of simple satire. Twain, desiring to poke fun at a group of America's cultural critics, chief among them Matthew Arnold, who claimed that cultural life in the U.S. treaded on shallow soil, takes aim at the venerated institutions of Britain. The author attempts to show that his country's lack of romanticized social structures, meaning an absence of royalty, the Catholic church, and long-dead knights and princesses, was far from a cultural weakness. Twain explodes the myth around idealized chivalric society and proves it to be no match for the Nineteenth Century man.
The book follows Twain's protagonist Hank Morgan, a pragmatist and the author's model of self-made, turn-of-the-century industrialist, through a time travel jump that lands him in Sixth Century England, specifically at the fabled Camelot. Here Hank, through ingenuity and entrepreneurial vigor, quickly ascends to the top of the socio-political structure of King Arthur's Court. What's more, Twain takes great pains in ridiculing both the role of the church in England and the ignoble position and lack of intelligence of the ruling royalty. He also pokes fun at the romanticizing of English culture during this period by illustrating the prostrate and dependent nature of the British aristocratic system -- a system void of democratic mechanism.
As a work of social satire, the beginning of the novel is fairly successful. At the outset of the work, Twain accomplishes what must have been his original task.
"The opening chapters, the direct attack, the simple, straightforward narrative that compresses much action into little space, the magnificent prose infused with his finest humor, are at the very summit of his accomplishment. Here, as in much of Tom Sawyer and most of Huckleberry Finn, he is a great novelist" (DeVoto, 274).
The work devolves from its first chapters, however, and becomes something very different by the end of the novel. A Connecticut Yankee's climactic, blood-letting ending, in particular, stands out as amateurish bungling by the author. Twain, in a burst of what seems, upon initial investigation, a beginning writer's attempt to resolve a novel that has spiraled out of his control, kills off his antagonists and finally his protagonist as well. It seems that Twain throws his hands up in frustration and ends the action in an orgy of electrocutions and Gatling gun fire. ". . . the book is chaos. Twain's mind was not able to stay within[satire's] limits. His imaginative ferment demanded gigantic expression," (DeVoto, 278). An alternate reading of the conclusion, however, allows the reader to take a vastly different critical angle on the book.
When viewed through the lens of anti-utopian or dystopian analogy, "A...