The development of pessimism in the works of Mark Twain
AuthorSmith, Jan Therese
AffiliationSchool of English
Document TypeMasters Coursework thesis
CitationsSmith, J. T. (1976). The development of pessimism in the works of Mark Twain. Masters Coursework thesis, School of English, The University of Melbourne.
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© 1976 Jan Therese Smith
The tendency towards pessimism in the 19th century novel is one of the most fascinating of the broad movements in literature, largely because its manifestations are so varied. The later novels of Dickens and Madam Bovary and Crime and Punishment would seem to have little in common and yet, like so many other novels of the period from about 1850 to the First World War, they are marked by a sense of the waste of human potential, a sombreness and narrowing in what life has to offer. We naturally feel that there must have been something in the age itself which inclined those who recorded it towards a pessimistic outlook. Yet how we are to comment on this general tendency is a difficult matter. I feel that little of value can be achieved by identifying general qualities of the age and looking back to find their influence on a variety of writers, at least not by those whose primary interest is literature and not history, however closely the two are linked in this perspective. Rather, certain qualities of the late 19th and early 20th centuries can perhaps be suggested by studying the careers of particular writers and noting the ways in which their impressions and judgments about life and their own times converge. Although a comparative study of a number of writers, with this point of view in mind, would represent a fuller working out of my interest, I feel that it would be quite inappropriate to the length of this thesis and I am confining myself to a study of Mark Twain. Twain is a figure of exceptionally wide significance in relation to the issue of pessimism as a general tendency in the 19th century. In part, this is because of the explicitness with which Twain expresses his growing pessimism. In this he resembles Tolstoy, for by the end of their careers both writers had reached a position of explicit, cosmic pessimism; a position registered particularly forcefully by their readers because it seems, at least superficially, to contrast sharply with their best known works - Anna Karenina and Huckleberry Finn - which are particularly beloved by all readers for their rendering of some of the simplest and most deeply felt of life's pleasures and values. But in what his pessimism reveals about the times in which he lived Twain is of more direct significance than Tolstoy. For although his later years were marked by exceptional difficulties and sorrows in his personal life, it is not in terms of private suffering that he develops his pessimistic outlook, but in terms of his beliefs about nature and society. (From Introduction)
KeywordsMark Twain (1835-1910); pessimism in literature; criticism and interpretation
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