Puritan Perspectives on Social Class and Proper Behavior in Mark Twains

The works of Mark Twain, particularly “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” provide a fascinating glimpse into the socio-cultural landscape of 19th-century America. While Twain is often celebrated for his humorous and satirical portrayal of society, it is imperative to examine his narratives through the lens of Puritan values and beliefs. The Puritans, who were prominent in shaping early American society, held distinct perspectives on social class and proper behavior. This essay will delve into the Puritan influence on these themes as depicted in Twain’s aforementioned works.
Puritanism and Social Hierarchy
Puritanism, a religious movement that emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries, greatly influenced the development of American society. Puritans emphasized the importance of living a virtuous and godly life, and their beliefs had a profound impact on notions of social class. In “The Prince and the Pauper,” Twain presents a striking juxtaposition between the lives of the two main characters, Tom Canty and Edward Tudor, who exchange identities. Tom, the pauper, experiences the harsh realities of poverty, while Edward, the prince, navigates the privileged life of royalty. This duality allows Twain to shed light on the stark divisions between social classes in the context of Puritan beliefs.
Puritans believed that one’s social standing was often indicative of their spiritual worthiness. The idea of predestination, central to Puritan theology, implied that God had already determined the fate of individuals. As a result, material success and social status were frequently interpreted as signs of God’s favor. Twain’s depiction of Tom’s hardships and Edward’s privileges underscores this Puritan perspective. Tom’s struggles are emblematic of the Puritan notion that adversity could be a test of faith, while Edward’s luxurious lifestyle aligns with the Puritan belief in divine blessings for the chosen few.
Proper Behavior and Moral Conduct
Puritanism placed a strong emphasis on moral conduct and proper behavior. Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” provides ample opportunities to examine the interplay between Puritan ideals and the characters’ actions. Tom Sawyer, the mischievous protagonist, often finds himself entangled in various escapades that challenge societal norms. His encounters with Aunt Polly and other authority figures serve as a platform to explore the Puritan concept of morality.
Puritans believed that strict adherence to moral codes was essential for salvation. Twain’s portrayal of Tom’s dilemmas reflects the tension between his innate curiosity and the Puritan emphasis on obedience. Tom’s exploits, such as playing hooky or tricking his friends, highlight the struggle between personal desires and societal expectations. Through Tom’s character, Twain critiques the rigidity of Puritan morality, suggesting that blind obedience may hinder genuine personal growth.
Contrasting Perspectives and Satire
While Twain’s portrayal of Puritan values in his works is evident, it is crucial to note his satirical approach. Twain was known for his wit and critique of societal norms, and his depiction of Puritan perspectives can be both faithful and satirical. “The Prince and the Pauper” uses the characters’ experiences to challenge Puritan notions of inherent virtue in social class, suggesting that true character is not bound by birthright. Twain employs humor and irony to underscore the limitations of a rigid class-based society.
In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” Twain’s satire manifests in his portrayal of the townspeople’s hypocrisy. Despite their adherence to Puritan ideals, characters like Aunt Polly and Judge Thatcher often succumb to their own vices. This irony serves as Twain’s commentary on the gap between professed moral values and genuine behavior.
Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” offer an intricate exploration of Puritan perspectives on social class and proper behavior. The influence of Puritan beliefs is palpable in the characters’ struggles, choices, and interactions. Twain’s nuanced portrayal, characterized by both fidelity and satire, underscores the complexities of these themes within the context of 19th-century America. By examining the intersection of Puritanism and Twain’s narratives, we gain valuable insights into the socio-cultural tapestry that shaped the nation during this era.

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