Week 2

On the Transcendentalist Values of Twain’s work The Christmas Fireside

Transcendentalist values, considered the inverse of the Enlightenment movement by some (Wayne 168), are distinguished by their reliance on the self, and a focus on belief in individuals. In Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the prolific writers of Transcendentalist thought, a major tenant of self-reliance and self awareness is nonconformity, the act of going against a culture that seeks to smother the greater nature of man. In his work The Christmas Fireside, Twain explores the hypocrisy of the Victorian norm–the commonly held religious expectation of “bad” behavior being punished by a work of Providence–through his counter-cultural satirical piece.

Twain’s format of the tale of Jim–not of James, the name given to “most bad boys in the Sunday books”–follows the expected format of a Sunday tale, with a young boy and his mother (Twain 20). Throughout the piece, the writer tells the story in almost a rambling fashion, giving no emphasis on the ironic tone of the piece, but makes a point of utilizing repetition to manipulate how to interpret the tale. Each paragraph that goes over another explanation of Jim’s bad behavior begins with “Once”, similarly to how children’s (and Sunday school) stories are expected to go into the misadventures of a bad child. However, these setups never end in the young boy being magically punished through spiritual happenstance (which he points out himself when telling of when Jim framed George at school), a common conclusion at the time in order to inspire the fear of Providential punishment. His repetition of the word “strange” and pointing out how unusual Jim’s situations work are purely ironic–since it’s implied not to be strange at all—and forces the reader to stop and acknowledge each situation and how it never resolves the way it is expected to. That Jim, despite his “bad” nature, never faces the divine punishment that has been said happens in such situations. These ideas–the idea that bad deeds are surely punished by God to keep the listener in line–are not only refused, but turned on their head by how long and just how much Jim is able to get away with, up to “brain[ing his large family] with an axe one night” and still “universally respected” by his peers (Twain 23). The underlying messages of the text were virtually unheard of being publically spoken in Victorian society, one of the most conservative periods in English history, but Twain’s skillful writing manages to tell a curious story without hamfisting the commentary he weaves in between Jim’s “sinful[ly] charmed life” (Twain 23). Enforcing this silent norm not only teaches and gives the expectations that an all-knowing God will omnisciently punish the wicked, but keeps the “good” hearted people in a state of “conscious guilt”(such as George) that allows those who are engaging in socially unacceptable behavior to continue their behavior without the criticism from peers (Twain 22). Not only that, but that the “bad” behavior is rewarded due to this cultural silence. Hypocritically, those are the same reactions that allow those “universally respect[ed]” people to gain higher positions through “cheating and rascality” allowing them to maintain in that position (Twain 23). In revealing these inconsistencies and difference in authority, Twain’s Fireside can certainly be read through a lens of transcendentalist nonconformity, in which his story of Jim examines the hypocritical expectations of Victorian society.
Works Cited:
The handout, I cited the printed pages
Wayne, Tiffany K. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. https://books.google.com/books?id=hckauAdkix0C. Accessed 24 Jan.
2017.

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