Mark Twain’s Views on The Role of Women in His Writings

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Published: Jul 17, 2018

Words: 4026|Pages: 9|21 min read

Published: Jul 17, 2018

"American literature is male. To read the canon of what is currently considered classic American literature is perforce to identify as male; Our literature neither leaves women alone nor allows them to participate." Judith Fetterley (Walker, 171)

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Mark Twain's writings fall under this criticism in the minds of many a literary critic, especially those of the feminist mentality. As far as Twain's art is concerned, the charges against him on this front are familiar ones: his women characters tend to be severely limited, stereotypical, and flat. Meanwhile, all of his truly interesting and more fully rounded characters - with some key exceptions - are male. (Fishkin, 58) But it would be a mistake to equate the limited range of roles Twain gave women in his work with the idea that women were of limited importance in Twain's mind. Twain's relationships with women, both in his life and in his writing, were far more complicated and interesting than this narrow image conveys. (Fishkin, 53)

Mary Ellen Goad defined the role that Twain wished women to play in his own life in order to illuminate his creation of female characters:

Twain viewed the role of the female in a particular, and, to the modern mind, strange way. He operated on the theory that the male of the species was rough and crude, and needed the softening influence of a woman, or, if necessary, many women. The primary function of the woman was thus the reformation of man. (Walker, 173)

In Twain's stories, Women frequently represent the moral standard by which men are measured. Changes in perceptions of the realities of women's lives during the last hundred years reveal that although Twain may have used idealizations of women as the basis for many of his female characters, those characterizations play a vital if not underrated role in the society of which they are a part. Though the male characters in the story may perceive these roles only as occasions for rebellion or opportunities for heroic action, the women represent both positive and negative values of the society in which they live. (Walker, 174)

Twain has come under much criticism for his portrayal of women. However, though the shortcomings of women have always been one of the principal themes of humorists, Twain is rarely cynical in this regard. He does not point out flaws and make fun, rather he creates characters to portray the specific aspect of society that he wants to critique. There are many passages in which Twain expresses his respect and regard for women. (Wagenknecht, 125)

The most prominent of the criticisms against Twain's women however, is the stereotypical way in which they are presented. When Goad discusses the female characters in Twain's work, she argues that they are merely flat and stereotypical, and that in fact they represent one of Twain's failures as a writer. "Twain," she says, "was simply unable to create a female character, of whatever age, of whatever time and place, who is other than wooden and unrealistic." (Walker, 173) In a similar vein, Bernard DeVoto claims, "none of Mark Twain's nubile girls, young women, or young matrons are believable: they are all bisque, saccharine, or tears." (Fishkin, 58)

Stereotypical women characters may be the norm in Twain's collection, but there are occasions when he struggled to push beyond the gender conventions that he usually conformed to. This is mostly evident in his portrayal of black women. Overall, his black female characters tend to have more depth and importance in the works that feature them. However, I will discuss this in more detail later on in the paper. The other instance in which Twain was obviously pulling for women was during the fight for women's suffrage.

Twain always had a soft spot in his heart for women. There is an interesting passage in his autobiography in which he declares that the whole population of the United States is now financially rotten, but immediately adds that, of course, he does not mean to include the women in that statement. In fact, most times when Mark Twain denounces the human race, it is generally understood that he is only denouncing the male half of it. (Wagenknecht, 126)

Though he may favor them, this does not mean that he always felt they should have had the right to vote. Prior to the 1870s he was an outspoken opponent of the women's suffrage movement and his articles ridiculing the women's rights movement won the applause and laughter of male audiences from coast to coast. (Fonder, 88) He would acknowledge that justice was on the side of female suffrage activists, but insisted that the vote in the hands of women would only increase mediocrity and corruption in government, and, at the same time, would lower women's status in society. (Fonder, 88)

However, his views on this issue were obviously wavering. On one occasion when his satires brought a reply from a woman in defense of the suffrage movement, his humorous reply was exceedingly weak. He conceded privately "that his task would have been easier if she hadn't all the arguments on her side." (Fonder, 89)

This wavering eventually led to his acceptance and assistance in the fight for women's right to vote. In a public address of 1901 he declared,

I should like to see the time when women shall help make the laws. I should like to see that whip-lash, the ballot, in the hands of women. As for this city's government, I don't want to say much, except that it is a shame- a shame; but if I should life for twenty-five longer, and there is no reason why I shouldn't- I think I'll see women handle the ballot. If women had the ballot today, the state of things in this town would not exist. (Wagenknecht, 126-7)

Twain began speaking out about the issue frequently at public meetings for the cause. He now argued that the influence of women in politics would reduce corruption and increase the caliber of elected officeholders:

I think it would suggest to more than one man that if women could vote they would vote on the side of morality; would not sit indolently at home as their husbands and brothers do now, but would; set up some candidates fit for decent human beings to vote for. (Fonder, 90)

Although Twain was obviously idealizing the role that women could play in politics, this does not mean that he regarded all women as above criticism.

At the time of writing The Gilded Age, Twain jokingly advocated a women's party, not so much as a positive good as a way to appease the fact that "both the great parties have failed." (Fonder, 90) In the winter of 1868-69 Twain discovered a type of politicized woman who did not demand appropriations to supply Congress "with paregoric, Jayne's carminative, sugar plums, &c," as he had heard in his youth. Rather, he found the female rascal who would work and bribe "with all her might," not, however, as a voter or elected representative, but as a behind-the-scenes manipulator. (French, 111)

The female he created was Laura Hawkins. In her role as a woman lobbyist, Laura Hawkins is drawn with greatest accuracy. Laura was on excellent terms with a great many members of Congress, and there was an undercurrent of suspicion in some quarters that she was a lobbyist, but "what belle could escape slander in such a city?" (French, 112) Both for the novel and perhaps for historical accuracy, Twain decided to cast Laura as the more influential sophisticated type of lobbyist, who would lure her prey with a decoy of sex, and knew how to use sex as a weapon. (French, 114) In this case, Laura is not the mere stick or the untrue portrayal so often alleged. She is a carefully constructed historically significant woman lobbyist, and her life story and motivations are not far from reality. (French, 116)

Laura is the first female character Twain developed in any depth and the one who, even if only temporarily, has the potential to become a fully rounded figure. However, she fails to transcend the conventional stereotypes. As Susan Harris writes:

Never a literary feminist, Twain's portraits of women are persistently cast in one or another stereotypical mode, making them reducible to one or another literary paradigm and consequently controlled as more self-creating characters are not. Not only Laura but all women are other-directed in Twain's work; he could not imagine them other than in relation to men. (Fishkin, 59)

Harris also feels that Twain killed Laura off because he could not allow the presence of a female "trickster" to add to the chaos of the male world. She feels that Laura, this alienated woman, threatens to destroy Twain's scheme in which women's primary function is to provide security for men. (Fishkin, 61)

Twain's The Innocents Abroad shows a variety of stereotyped women. In a way that is not true to his private experience of the trip, Twain omits the friendships he made with women in his actual travels. Yet women are not entirely excluded from The Innocents Abroad. The encounters with female figures that he does relate revolve around perceptions that women are either angels or demons. Furthermore, he dramatized his encounters with European women in terms that emphasized the privileged status of an innocent American male in contrast with experienced, and sometimes repellent European femininity. (Stahl, 36) The sexual undertones are never clearer than in his account of his encounter with an attractive young woman clerk in a shot at Gibraltar. Here, the woman is more of a demon than an angel.

A very handsome young lady in the store offered me a pair of blue gloves. I did not want blue, but she said they would look very pretty on a hand like mine. The remark touched me tenderly. I glanced furtively at my hand, and somehow it did seem rather a comely member. I tried a glove on my left, and blushed a little. Manifestly the size was too small for me. (The Innocents Abroad, 41)

She teases him with the pretense that the glove fits him perfectly, and that he has not ruined the glove that was too small for him. His friends go on to tease him relentlessly by repeating the woman's praise of his skill at putting on gloves.

The women featured in this travel book are one-dimensional, and only show up in brief episodes where they play only minor roles. However, in A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, Twain spends more time on his female characters. Nevertheless, they still each depict a stereotype about women.

In A Connecticut Yankee, Twain seems to suggest that in men the mitigation of pride and cruelty (the will to rule) is positive. Meanwhile, he also suggests that the only alternatives to women's victimization are domesticity or heartless female cruelty, which he shows through the characters of Sandy and Morgan. (Stahl, 98)

Connecticut Yankee also delves into the roles of traditional father and motherhood. It shows that the father can assimilate the qualities of the mother, but the mother dare not usurp the qualities of the father. Several episodes emphasize the mother-child bond as the primary defining characteristic of the woman. However, qualities which men and women are allowed to share in different degrees, particularly gentleness and compassion, make men human but women angels. (Stahl, 117)

The women in this novel show incredibly stereotyped roles. The ladies of the court are instinctively described as decorative, "that massed flowerbed of feminine show and finery." (Stahl, 94) "Sandy ; is a shallow simpleton." (Fishkin, 59) She rambles on and on without reaching any intelligent conclusion. Her ceaseless conversation with Hank is a "mill," her tongue and jaws are "her works," with the fatal flaw that she "finished without result." (Stahl, 102) Hank's mode of thought is linear and purposive, while Sandy is a comic representation of an opposite, female mode of expression.

Another stereotypical figure in A Connecticut Yankee is Morgan le Fay. This woman plays a part that is heartless, evil and cruel. Morgan is the demonic woman, beautiful and cruel. Hank points out her attractiveness as a woman, "To my surprise, she was beautiful; black thoughts had failed to make her expression repulsive, age had failed to wrinkle her satin skin or mar its bloomy freshness." (A Connecticut Yankee, 96) Her power as a woman, her sexual attractiveness, and her wickedness are inseparable. She is a thoroughly evil and threatening figure not only because she is a cold-blooded murderer, but also because she is so completely in charge. (Stahl, 104)

Of course, one of the novels for which Twain has been given much criticism is Huckleberry Finn. The object of praise, banning, and vexation during the hundred years since its publication, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has not exactly been seen as a novel about women in the nineteenth-century American society. Women tend to stand at the back and sides of the novel, nagging, providing inspiration, or often weeping or hysterical. (Walker, 171) Most of the female characters are derived from traditional and usually unflattering stereotypes of women common to authors and readers. The novel could serve as an index to common attitudes about women as reflected in the stereotypical images. (Walker, 172) As members of the gender responsible for upholding the moral and religious values of civilization, even when those values sanction slaveowning, the women make possible the lawlessness and violence of the men. (Sloane, 113) The Victorian definition of woman's role as moral guide would account for such characters as Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas, and Aunt Sally, part of whose function is to "civilize" Huck.

There are twelve women in Huck Finn aged fourteen or older. (Walker, 175) Of these, many are merely walk-on characters. For example, Emmeline Grangerford's sister, Charlotte and Sophia, and Mary Jane Wilk's sisters, Susan and Joanna. Sophia Grangerford is one-half of the Romeo-and-Juliet couple whose elopement triggers a renewal of the feud between the Sheperdsons and the Grangerfords. She is described as the stereotypical young woman in love, always blushing and sighing.

The most obvious reformers in Huck Finn are the Widow Douglas, Miss Watson, and Aunt Sally Phelps. They are all vaguely defined civilizers who worry about manners, clothes, and religion. However, the key to the differences among these three is their marital status. (Fishkin, 59) No matter how devoutly some women of the time clung to a state of "single blessedness," marriage was the only widely sanctioned state for an adult woman. (Walker, 176) Widows had a somewhat better time of it than spinsters in the public eye. At least they had had a husband at some point. The image of the widow, at one time a wife and probably a mother, is somewhat softer. The spinster, presumed to be unwanted, is presumed to be ossified. (Sloane, 104) The married woman, assumed to be in her proper element, provides the most contented image of the three, and therefore is likely to be the mildest reformer of all.

In Huck Finn however, the relationship between Huck and the women is more complex and dynamic than a simple response to stereotyped figures. Miss Watson is a constant nagging presence who is particularly concerned with Huck's manners and his education. The widow is a far gentler reformer than her unmarried sister and often intercedes between Huck and Miss Watson to lessen the other's severity. But Aunt Sally, because of the particular stereotype upon which she is based, is an ineffectual reformer, though reforming is clearly her function. (Watson, 179)

Huck's response to Aunt Sally's discipline is to ignore it. He says it, "didn't amount to nothing." On the other hand, his reaction to the Widow Douglas's disappointment in his backsliding early on in the novel had been to try to "behave a while" if he could manage to. (Walker, 180) The widow managed to touch Huck's humanity, but Aunt Sally merely touches his backside with a switch. The fact that Huck can ignore Aunt Sally's female authority testifies to both his only lack of significant maturity and Mark Twain's awareness of the final futility of women in his society. (Walker, 181)

All three of the women who attempt to make Huck conform to society's rules are derived from traditional stereotypes of women who may superficially be seen as mother figures from the same societal mold. (Sloane, 122) However, Huck's more complex and ambivalent relationships with them point out the social realities they represent. His own boyish immaturity at the end of the novel shows through his ambivalence about women. (Walker, 172)

Though Twain's white women characters tend to be static and stereotypical, there is nothing static or stereotypical about some of his more prominent black women characters. This is specifically shown through "Aunt Rachel" in "A True Story," and "Roxy" in Pudd'nhead Wilson.

"A True Story" has some obvious purposes. Two of these are to make clearly evident the dignity of the black woman, and the love of the slave family. In the course of her tale, Aunt Rachel emerges as one of Twain's most rounded character creations, and she lives up to the expectations that her description provides:

She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. (A True Story, 95)

Aunt Rachel is one of the noblest characters that Twain ever created. Anyone who could endure all that she had and still emerge with such a sane, healthy, and even happy attitude has to possess a large portion of "what Maynard Mack calls the qualities of a true hero." (Fenger, 41) She is more than a good person, because she has suffered much of man's inhumanity and it has not broken her or made her cynical. She is a powerful, proud, articulate woman whose emotional depths dwarf those of the genteel narrator - "Misto C" - who introduces her. (Fishkin, 62)

Her final revelation, "Oh no, Misto C-, I hain't had no trouble. An' no joy!" is bitterly ironic. (A True Story, 98) She has bad much trouble in life, but she is still able to experience joy. It has made her superior to the mass of men- able to laugh at man's foolishness and to give the appearance of never having had any trouble in sixty years of living.

Although Aunt Rachel's story is a sorrowful one, Twain keeps it from being reduced to an overly sentimental sob story or a complaint by the clever way he allows her to tell it. The intent of the subtitle is plainly to claim the status of history rather than fiction for the story, and perhaps to warn the reader not to expect humor as its central feature. (Gibson, 42) As for his repeating the tale "Word for Word as I Heard It," this can scarcely be literally true. He said, "I have not altered the old colored woman's story except to begin it at the beginning, instead of the middle, as she did- and traveled both ways." (Gibson, 42) A story as powerful as hers could only be told in the first person, and with her own language. She tells her own story with such intensity of feeling that the reader is compelled to accept its truth and to sympathize with her.

Roxana in Pudd'nhead Wilson is always cited as the great exception in Twain's portrayals of women. She is the rarest of beings in his work- an attractive, passionate, adult woman. Joyce Warren suggests that Twain's rigid gender stereotypes applied strictly to white womanhood, and by virtue of her race, Roxy escaped the strictures Twain normally placed on women. (Fishkin, 61) Roxy is physically prepossessing, enterprising, cunning, and genuinely interesting and engaging. She demonstrates Twain's ability to conceive of women as something other than "prepubescent schoolgirls, matronly old ladies, or demonic sorceresses." (Fishkin, 62)

Roxana is also more complex than either of the stereotypes most commonly used by white authors to portray women of her race and status. As Carolyn Porter has noted, Roxy "exposes not only the falseness of the Mammy/Jezebel opposition, but also the inadequacy of either ?Mammy' or ?Jezebel' to contain or represent the slave woman." (Fishkin, 62)

When Twain associates the black race with the female sex, he represents racism in the uncontroversially loathsome form of slavery. (Jehlen, 109) Clearly, Roxana's status as a mulatta (feminine) is crucial to Twain's story. As a mulatta, Roxana certainly exposes the covert tradition of miscegenation, but her serial ordeal as a mulatta mother intent on saving her son exposes much more. (Porter, 123)

Roxana is, within herself, a set of contradictions. She sounds black, but looks white. She is majestic in form and stature. She is fair complexioned and has a "heavy suit of fine soft hair" but a checkered handkerchief conceals it. Though she is sassy among her black friends, she is humble and quiet among whites. (Porter, 124) Therefore, though she may look white to the unknowing onlooker, her speech is what identifies her as black despite her white skin. And because of this discrepancy, she is able to avoid the typical stereotypes of the white female.

Twain does tend to be lacking in female central characters, and those that he does present tend to be very stereotypical of those in the nineteenth-century. He also tends to portray his black females with more depth and personality than he does his white females. However, I do not agree with those feminist critics who claim that Twain himself was a misogynist. Perhaps he found women to be an easier facilitator to comment about society with. Or maybe he just had so much respect for the female sex that he did not want to place them in the middle of one of his escapades.


Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. "Mark Twain and Women." The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain. Cambridge University Press: New York, NY. 1995.

Fenger, Gerald J. "Telling It Like It Was." Critical Approaches to Mark Twain's Short Stories. National University Publications: Port Washington, NY. 1981.

Fonder, Philip. "A True Story" Critical Approaches to Mark Twain's Short Stories. National University Publications: Port Washington, NY. 1981.

Fonder, Phillip S. Mark Twain, Social Critic. International Publishers: New York, NY. 1958.

Gibson, William. "The Artistry of ?A True Story'." Critical Approaches to Mark Twain's Short Stories. National University Publications: Port Washington, NY. 1981.

Jehlen, Myra. "The Ties that Bind: Race and Sex in Pudd'nhead Wilson." Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. Duke University Press: Durham, SC. 1990.

Poirier, Richard. "Huck Finn and the Metaphors of Society." Twentieth Century Interpretations of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Prentice-Hall, Inc: Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1968.

Porter, Carolyn. "Roxana's Plot." Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson. Duke University Press: Durham, SC. 1990.

Sloane, David E. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: American Comic Version. Twayne Publishers: Boston, MA. 1988.

Stahl, J.D. Mark Twain: Culture and Gender. The University of Georgia Press: Athens, GA. 1994.

Twain, Mark. "A True Story." The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain. Ed. By Charles Neider. Handover House: Garden City, NY. 1957

Twain, Mark. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Tom Doherty Associates: New York, NY. 1991.

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. Bantam Books: New York, NY. 1964.

Wagenknecht, Edward. Mark Twain: The Man and His Work. Third Edition. University of Oklahoma Press. 1967.

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Walker, Nancy. "Reformers and Young Maidens: Women and Virtue in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." One Hundred Years of Huckleberry Finn: The Boy, His Book, and American Culture. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, Missouri. 1985.

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