A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court | Chapters 29–30 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 29: The Small-Pox Hut

Hank Morgan and the king come upon a hut. Inside they find a woman who is dying of smallpox. Her husband has already died of the highly contagious disease, and her daughter is dying of it upstairs. Hank tries to get the king away, worried he will catch the disease, but the king insists on staying. He even carries the dying daughter down from the loft where she has been lying. Hank admires the king and sees this as an act of true nobility, since smallpox was an incurable disease in the 6th century. Hank muses, "Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility ... He was great now; sublimely great." They watch the woman caress and comfort her dying daughter, and Hank notices the king crying. Hank asks her about her story, and she describes how her three oldest sons were falsely imprisoned. Also, the family was impoverished because of a whim of the lord who owns their land. Worse yet, she—sickened by smallpox—said something blasphemous and the Church forbade anyone to help the family because of her crime. Then the daughter breathes her last and the woman stops telling her story to grieve.

Chapter 30: The Tragedy of the Manor-House

By midnight the woman is also dead. They cover the bodies and leave, but no sooner do they walk out the door than they hear footsteps. They hide and hear voices: the family's three oldest sons, somehow free from their imprisonment. Hank Morgan is glad they got free, but King Arthur says the men should be returned to the lord who imprisoned them. Arthur sees their escape as an insult to the lord. The weather is stormy, and as Hank and King Arthur travel away from the hut they find nine bodies hanging in the trees. Next they find a manor house, almost burned to the ground. Crowds of people are milling about, and Hank suggests they conceal themselves until morning. Then they find a hut where they can stay with a man and his wife. The king offers to buy their house so they are not exposed to smallpox, but the husband and wife say they have already been exposed. Hank says both husband and wife bear the "waffle-iron face," referring to scars associated with smallpox survivors.

The couple report that most people believe the escaped sons murdered the lord who had imprisoned them and set fire to the house. A mob of people, stirred up by the dead lord's servants, went looking for the escapees. The king warns the husband and wife of the murderers' escape, but Hank can tell the couple isn't really interested in the three men's capture. Hank reflects on how the class structure traps the peasants into hunting three of their own because they fear retribution if they don't. He compares them to "poor whites" of the Southern United States. Despite being mistreated by wealthier white people, they were always ready to side with the abusive white slave owner rather than the abused slave. The king scolds their host for delaying to spread the word about the escapees. Hank offers to take the man to show him where they saw the escapees. When they get outside, away from the king, he tells the man he thinks the escapees did the right thing. The man is relieved and grateful. Hank meditates on his desire to change the political system of 6th-century England, creating a "modified monarchy" for King Arthur's lifetime and then abolishing monarchy entirely.

Analysis

To fully appreciate King Arthur's heroism in Chapter 29, the modern reader needs to understand a little about smallpox. Smallpox was a highly contagious and often deadly disease which was common throughout much of human history. Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, although some vials of the disease still exist in laboratories. In addition to a high fever, which the infected woman mentions in the novel, smallpox also caused lesions to break out on the skin. For those who survived, the disease would leave behind serious scars on a person's skin. This is probably what Hank Morgan refers to when he mentions the "waffle-iron face" of the couple who host them in Chapter 30. In the 6th century people had no understanding of germ theory, which would not be conceived of until the 19th century. Lacking the understanding that smallpox is caused by microorganisms, people often saw those afflicted by smallpox and other diseases as cursed or rejected by God. Under those beliefs King Arthur is not only risking his life, but also his immortal soul because he is helping someone God has rejected. Hank, with the benefit of 19th-century knowledge, does not believe it, and he does not seem personally afraid of the disease. This may be because smallpox was the first disease ever for which people created a vaccine to guard against it. That vaccine was invented in the late 1700s, almost a century before Twain was writing. Hank plausibly could have been vaccinated, meaning he was not at risk in the same way the king would be.

When the king and Hank flee in Chapter 30, they encounter a strange sight: bodies hanging from the trees. Although technically it is possible British peasants could have engaged in this sort of behavior, Twain's inspiration came from much closer to home: lynchings. Lynching is punishment of an individual by a group or mob for crimes which the individual may or may not have committed. In the 1880s, lynchings were fairly common in much of the United States. In the South, African-Americans were often lynched after being accused of crimes ranging from murder to rape to less serious offenses. Far more African-Americans were lynched in the South than people of other ethnicities. Based on Hank's reactions, Twain was clearly not a fan of the practice. Mobs that seek to impose justice care little whether the person actually did anything wrong: they simply want to punish someone. This unpleasant element of human nature has been around for centuries. Shakespeare documents it in his play Julius Caesar: a mob kills an innocent poet who has the same name as one of the conspirators.

Twain explicitly mentions the South in Chapter 30, when he compares the peasants of Arthur's time to the "poor whites" of the American South. "Poor whites" were white Southerners who did not own slaves and therefore had to work their own land. In the pre-Civil-War South there was a strict social hierarchy, and poor whites were near the bottom—but still above slaves. Poor whites were often just as cruel to African-Americans as slave owners, despite the slave owners treating poor whites only moderately better than their slaves. The peasants, Hank thinks, are much the same. They will turn on each other to please an abusive lord and his family, rather than band together with others who suffer to end the abuse. For the 1880s, this was a fairly radical notion, since Twain is suggesting the poor whites and the newly freed African-Americans are equals. To a modern reader, on the other hand, this is common sense. But many white people of the 1880s would have been outraged if they were told they were equals with African-Americans.

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