Social and Economic Inequality
Twain’s novel demonstrates the stark contrast between two social classes in sixteenth-century England. The society of the day is organized around the idea of a class system. The noble class is a group of people who inherit titles and the corresponding wealth, and usually lands, as well. One is born into this class of status and privilege; such a designation cannot be earned through the accumulation of wealth. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the lowest class of society, that of paupers and peasants. These are individuals who usually have no education or even access to it. They typically manage to acquire a few coins by begging but often have no regular income. The prince’s world, that of the noble class, is associated with luxury, ease, and comfort, while Tom’s world is filled with drunkenness, violence, and ignorance. However, the noble class has its cruelties as well. The torturous punishments endorsed by King Henry are discussed in Twain’s novel, as is the frequency with which executions are ordered. In the violent world of the lower class, there are also kind and gentle people, such as Father Andrew, Tom’s mother, and the unnamed peasant woman who takes Edward in. In the world Twain portrays, members of the lower class are viewed by the noble class as inhuman and are readily disposed of (executed) for the smallest of crimes. The nobles are viewed by the lower class as objects of reverence and awe. They too are seen as barely human, but because of their elevated status rather than their degraded one. A smaller, third class is presented in the novel as well, though not discussed in detail. This class consists of business owners (such as innkeepers and merchants) who are neither wealthy nobles nor ignorant beggars. Through the adventures of both Edward and Tom, Twain portrays the best and worst of both the highest and lowest classes of this sixteenth-century society.
Closely linked with the social inequalities represented in Twain’s novel are the attendant economic disparities. The class differences discussed above provide the overarching structure of the society, and many of the other examples of prejudice and intolerance grow out of this structure. The economic disparities are strongly related to the class structure of society. Typically, the noble class is wealthy; although a nobleman may squander his wealth, he cannot lose the title to which he was born. By the same token, the lowest class is one marked by dire poverty, but someone from the lowest class of society might find a way to provide a living for himself. Yet no amount of wealth can make him a noble. The poorest of the poor are treated by everyone else with extreme derision. Edward, dressed in Tom’s beggar’s rags, is verbally and physically abused by his own soldier, who calls him ‘‘rubbish.’’ Simply having the appearance of someone who is poor (for the prince maintains his regal bearing and insists on his true identity) results in inhumane treatment.
Religious Conflict and Intolerance
In addition to the prejudicial treatment the lower class receives, religious conflict leads to injustices inflicted on various groups as well. A great deal of religious intolerance pervaded England during Henry VIII’s rule, stemming largely from the king’s break with the Roman Catholic Church and the resultant conflicts between Catholics and Protestant groups. Twain portrays some of this tension in his novel, as when Edward is imprisoned with Miles Hendon. Hendon and Edward watch two women, women who have demonstrated their kind and gentle natures in dealing with Edward in prison, being burned at the stake for their religious beliefs, which conflicted with those of the Church of England. Edward’s own prejudices against Roman Catholicism are hinted at in his comments about his half-sister Mary, who would later, as queen, repair the bond with the Roman Catholic Church that Edward, as king before her, would continue to sever, following his father’s lead. The young Edward speaks derisively of Mary’s dour and disapproving attitude and of her constant talk of sin. Another example of the religious conflict simmering in the country is embodied in the odd character of the Hermit. The Hermit claims to be an archangel and is devoured by his thwarted ambition to be appointed Pope. He blames King Henry, who, in severing England’s official ties to the Roman Catholic Church, essentially (in the Hermit’s thinking) prevented his rise to this powerful Catholic position. The king’s actions left the Hermit a ‘‘poor obscure unfriended monk.’’ While the Hermit is clearly depicted as suffering from insanity, his feelings, as a Catholic, of being abandoned and rejected by his king must surely have been felt among the country’s Catholic population as a whole.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.