Evaluation of Satire in Mark Twain’s “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy”

In order to better understand the effect of the use of satire in Mark Twain’s “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy,” one must examine the time during which the piece was written, the author, and the piece both broken up into individual parts, and in its entirety.   The essay was published in May of 1870.  The civil war ended in 1865, and the fourteenth and fifteenth amendment were ratified in 1868 and 1870 respectfully. They were, along with the thirteenth amendment, known as the Reconstruction Amendments. The purpose was to repair the nation after the civil war, securing liberties for its residents. Mark Twain’s “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy” was written only months after the ratification of the fifteenth amendment. The use of immigrant workers used for the railroad expansion and gold rush caused a boom in the Chinese population in San Francisco in the late 1860s and early 1870s. While still early in his career, Mark Twain had already become known as a humorist by the time he wrote “Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy.” With both the author and the history in mind, the effect of the essay can be seen.

Initial analysis should begin with the title. Clearly it is the persecution that is disgraceful, not anything that is done by the boy. This perspective must be kept in mind, for it can be lost upon the opening sentence as the boy’s actions are illuminated. The boy had been thrown in prison for stoning a Chinese man. The following line introduces the first satirical device, the use of an exclamation point. The line states “What a commentary is this upon human justice!” The immediate switch from a singular event to a generalized statement with a strong exclamation suggests that it is the second line that is more important than the first.  The rest of the introduction looks not at the boy specifically, but what may have led a nice school boy to commit such a crime.  The broad statement in the second sentence allows the reader to see that criticism of the justice system is the underlying theme of the boy’s story.

The tone of the rest of the essay is serious and the diction is somewhat heavy, which adds to the use of satire when Mark Twain starts a sentence seriously and ends up in an outlandish, unexpected direction. For example, Mark Twain wrote, “It was in this way that he found out that in many districts of the vast Pacific coast, so strong is the wild, free love of justice in the hearts of the people, that whenever any secret and mysterious crime is committed, they say, ‘Let justice be done, though the heavens fall,’ and go straightway and swing a Chinaman.” The extreme nature of the end of the sentence strikes the reader as a commentary on the values of the Pacific coast, but in a way that is condescending. The condescension is the voice of the author, letting the reader know that the anecdotes are used in a way that should evoke frustration. It is as if the author is saying, “who in their right mind would come to this conclusion?” The use of this technique effectively pulls the attention to the heart of the issue. The illustration of the boy connected the criticism to a story with which the readers can visualize, providing clear imagery.

While the use of humor in this essay is dark, it fulfills the definition of satire as given in the previous post. Mark Twain utilizes a style that sets up the reader to understand the subject of the criticism, and with the use of extreme anecdotes he supports his analysis that is rooted in a common story. Given that a writer known as a satirist and humorist wrote the essay during a time of expanded liberties and a period of reconstruction, the reader is well prepared to receive satire-laden nature. Upon the first read the tone is evident, which makes the piece a successful satire.


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