Satire in Huck Finn

English 11 Honors: American Literature

What is satire?
“A work or manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity.”
-Harmon and Holman
Today, forms of satire can be literary (books, essays, stories, i.e. the printed word), but also cartoons, songs, and the performing arts.

For example . . .

Social Commentary






Social Change

To deliberately use wit to imitate style of a
work or individual
Similar: Take-off, spoof, lampoon, burlesque


To present things that are out of place or are absurd in relation to their surroundings

Satire uses irony: the recognition of
a reality different than appearance.

Verbal Irony: a figure of speech in which what is said is the opposite of what is meant Situational Irony: a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended, so that the outcome is contrary to what was expected. Dramatic Irony: the audience’s knowledge of events or individuals surpasses that of the characters.

We all know what exaggeration is, taking things to an extreme degree, thereby revealing foolishness or weaknesses of the subject. Exaggeration of a person’s traits is termed caricature.

What makes satire satire?
Social commentary. That is, the writer ridicules or pokes fun at certain aspects of society he or she finds repugnant in hopes of changing it.

Targets? The Usual Suspects. Vanity, hypocrisy, religion, bigotry, human vices, sentimentality, greed, celebrity worship, materialism, hubris, dumbing down of education, snobbery, foolishness, cruelty, insensitivity, laziness

Advantages of Satire

Most miss author’s true intent; therefore, censors don’t “get it” and author stays out of prison
Nice change from “preachiness” of other approaches to reform “Stealth” weapon useful when taking an unpopular stance in repressive society

• •

Short and punchy

Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift is a case in point. His “A Modest Proposal” suggests that poor Irish parents be encouraged to sell their own children as food. His true purpose, of course, is to attack indifference to the plight of poor.

Read the following excerpts from Huck Finn and try to identify what social problem Twain is criticizing. What P.I.I.E. techniques does he use to make his point? Huck: ―Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle, and before I could budge it was all shriveled up. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck, so I was scared and most shook the clothes off of me. I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away . . . (4) Pap: ―Well, I’ll learn her [Widow Douglas] how to meddle. And looky here—you drop that school, you hear? I’ll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better’n what he is. You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear? Your mother couldn’t read, and she couldn’t Write, nuther, before she died. None of the family couldn’t before they died. And Here you’re a swelling yourself up like this. I aint the man to stand it – you hear? (19)

Irony of Situation
In situational irony, an event occurs that violates the expectations of the characters, the reader, or the audience. Mark Twain’s writing often depicts irony in human behavior.

What is ironic about the fact that, although nobody went to Pap’s cabin to rescue Huck, a crowd of people gathered on the steamboat to search for Huck’s remains? In another instance, what is ironic about the fact that there is a three hundred dollar reward being offered for the capture of Jim, but only a two hundred dollar reward being offered for the capture of Pap, a man believed to have murdered his son? What does this fact reveal about society’s view of Jim, and the weight given to Jim’s “crime”?

Group Scavenge
In groups of 3-4, comb through Chapters 1-12 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and excerpt passages demonstrating satire. Identify what is being satirized, how it is being satirized (which of the P.I.I.E. elements), and what Twain may be hoping to change. Excerpt Topic being Satirized P.I.I.E. Hope for Change

Example: ―The widow she cried over me and called me a poor lost lamb…she put me in them new clothes again and I couldn’t do nothin’ but sweat and sweat and feel all cramped up‖ (1).

Reformer mindset

Parody:(Widow D) Incongruity:(street wise Huck as lost lamb)

Help others based on their needs not one’s own ego.