Outer Formality does not hide inner cannibalistic nature
Congressmen are important as they maintain order within society, however it can be argued that congress is the only distinct criminal class. Twain’s political views are regarded to be incoherent as critics are uncertain as to which side of the spectrum he classifies as. The only certainty is that Twain does not hold congressmen in the highest regard and is quite spiteful towards them within his stories. In Mark Twain’s short story Cannibalism in Cars, the congressmen use congressional language when performing violent actions in order to distance themselves from the reality of their cannibalistic nature because civil form insulates them from their actions. The text presents this through the use of satirical devices such as: irony, understatements, and reversal. The use of these devices illustrates political satire which heavy-handedly criticizes the cannibalistic nature of congress, but also illustrates a larger satire which addresses civilization as a whole.
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The senators’ congressional language illustrates irony based on the content of their speech. Irony is defined as “the meaning that a speaker implies differs sharply from the meaning that is ostensibly expressed” (Abrams 186). Irony is prevalent as the senators view the meals with delight and explain that it brings them “joy too deep for utterance now” and that it is the “cheeriest hour of [their] eventful life” (Twain 113). The focus of the quotations is the words “joy” and “cheeriest”. The senator describes cannibalism as a cheery and joyful experience however, as an audience we understand cannibalism clearly differs from the meaning that it is expressed as. Cannibalism is connotated with discontent, stress and displeasure which are all antonyms of “joy” and “cheeriest.” This illustrates irony because there is a juxtaposition between the verbal words describing the situation and the actual reality of the situation. The irony forms juxtaposition which represents how congressmen tend to formalize their words in order to get the vote, as it is more appealing to lie than to be honest.
Twain uses the literary device of understatements to attain political satire. Understatements minimize the severity of a situation and make the characters appear better than they actually are. The language the senators use during the voting process to choose their “meal” understates the seriousness of the situation. The speech understates the foolishness of the senators as they are willing to vote and agree upon which of their colleagues will be eaten next. This understates the situation as they are committing murder, but it is overshadowed due to their procedure, sophisticated approach and language. The cannibalism is understated as they choose their victims with “an election by ballot” (111). Using an election to vote on the next meal understates the cannibalistic nature of the senators as it hides their disturbing actions by expressing it in a formal matter, making it easy to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. After one of the meals the senator was so pleased with the victim that he “wrote [the victim’s] wife so afterward” (114). This is basically the senator giving compliments to the chef which normalizes the severity of cannibalism as it is incorporated to be seen as a comical effect. This normalization of cannibalism understates the severity of their actions which exposes the cold and callous tendencies of these senators.
Twain also shows an ironic reversal which the audience is exposed to throughout the narrative that illustrates the irony of using congressional language to describe murder. Congressional language is expected to be sophisticated, civil and proper, but the congressmen use the language to decide on cannibalism, an uncivilized and barbaric topic. The men are proper and sophisticated in their approach and then voice either their satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The senator describes the breakfast as “splendid” (114) and “one of the finest [he] ever sat down to” (114). He then decides to skip dinner and wait for another election because the victim’s old and tough taste created a “dissatisfaction” (114). This demonstrates reversal because the men approach it as a real meal even though the menu is grotesque. The realistic human response to cannibalism is recognized as discontent, discomfort and makes a person question their morals. The senators’ opposing behaviours illustrate their abnormal moral tendencies compared to the average person. Rather, they describe their experiences with cannibalism as splendid and go into detail about their preferences of taste and become rather picky. The senators’ lack of emotion and recognition of their actions forces the audience to realize that this is larger than a political satire and allows them to understand that cannibalism is a metaphor for the poor and selfish decisions congressmen make. Thus, it is the displaying of these decisions and deciding factors in a formal manner that reveals their darkness.
Cannibalism in Cars is constructed with political satire but is satirical about civilization as a whole. The narrative uses irony, understatements and reversal to depict these satires through the use of congressional language. The irony comes from the juxtaposition between the verbal words describing the situation such as “joy” and “cheeriest” and the cannibalistic reality of the situation which is undeniably the opposite of cheery. Understatements within Twain’s text lessen the severity of cannibalism as it is hidden by formal language and congressional procedure. Reversal illustrates that the senators do not have any recognition or remorse for their actions as they lack the humane response to cannibalism. This text uses these three devices to encourage civilization to realize that it is about who is committing the cannibalism rather than cannibalism itself. Congressmen, such as those whom are depicted within the text as cannibals, do exist in the world. Just because these people have the abilities to present themselves with formal procedure and language, does not mean their decisions and actions are necessarily the most honest and morally correct.
- Abrams, Meyer Howard, and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2015.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Oxford University Press, 2013.
- Seybold, Matt. “The Apocryphal Twain: ‘Politicians Are like Diapers.”.” Center for Mark Twain Studies, 15 Jan. 2019, https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-politicians-are-like-diapers/.
 Seybold, Matt. “The Apocryphal Twain: ‘Politicians Are like Diapers.”.” Center for Mark Twain Studies, 15 Jan. 2019, https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-politicians-are-like-diapers/.
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