A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court


Mark Twain

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mark Twain

Mark Twain was born in Missouri in the 1835, when slavery was still legal in the state. He spent much of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. At the age of 12, shortly after his father died of influenza, Twain left school and became first a printer’s apprentice and, later, a typesetter and printer. He read voraciously at public libraries in his free time, completing his informal education. Ultimately, Twain realized his childhood ambition to become a Mississippi river boat captain, a job he held until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Twain and his brother Orion then moved to Nevada, where Twain turned to journalism after failing to find success as a miner. Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870. They had four children, one of whom died in childhood, and two of whom died tragically in their 20s. Although Twain made good money as a writer, he lost much of it investing in technologies that failed to take off. In his later years, Twain became increasingly depressed following the deaths of his wife and two of his adult children. He died of a heart attack in the spring of 1910.
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Historical Context of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Published several decades after the end of the American Civil War, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is nevertheless deeply concerned with issues of slavery, social caste, and civil strife. Hank frequently compares feudal society to American slavery, and in a climactic scene, Hank experiences what it’s like to be on the auction block himself after he and King Arthur are captured and sold as slaves. It’s useful to consider Hank’s forceful rejection of medieval chivalry in light of the way that the Confederate States of America co-opted the language of chivalry to defend their way of life during the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction. And, given the entrenched social class structure of America in the late 1900s, Hank’s condemnation of the feudal system also offers a critique of turn-of-the-century American Culture. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court follows the Arthurian mythology by depicting the brutal civil war that destroyed Camelot and killed King Arthur himself. But the reader must interpret the vicious violence that characterizes both this conflict and Hank’s final battle against chivalry in the context of the American Civil War. In this brutal conflict, nearly one in four soldiers died, and the United States lost 2 percent of its overall population to the war. The other main contemporary context of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the technological advancements of the late 19th century. Mark Twain was deeply interested in technological development; he was friends with Nikola Tesla (the inventor of alternating current or “AC” electrical power), and he invested much of his personal wealth into innovations like the Paige typesetting machine (which, unfortunately for Twain and his family, failed miserably). Still, the novel features many technological advances of the 19th century, including steam locomotion, the telegraph, gatling machine guns, the telephone, and electric power.

Other Books Related to A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is a work of science fiction that borrows from the conventions of medieval chivalric romances (tales of knights and their adventures). On the science fiction side, it is linked to other works of the then-new genre that were being published in the late 1800s, including Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards: 2000-1887 (published in 1888) and H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (published in 1895). Both novels, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,  use the device of time travel to examine pressing issues of their own time, including the advancing state of technology, the benefits and limits of capitalism and democracy, and issues of social class. More directly, because it is set in Medieval Britain and at King Arthur’s court, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court takes inspiration from medieval literature, especially Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (published in 1485). In fact, Twain directly quotes or closely paraphrases several passages from Morte d’Arthur in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and the authorial narrator of the first and final chapters of Twain’s novel is shown reading Mallory at the beginning of the book. Morte d’Arthur assembled legends of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table from various French and English sources to provide a complete, authoritative version of Arthurian mythology. Twain most likely read Sidney Lanier’s somewhat edited version of Malory’s work, The Boy’s King Arthur, which was first published in 1880. In using satire to explore the ideals and limits of civilization, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has much in common with Twain’s own The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which satirizes entrenched American ideas about civilization and racism. And finally, as a castaway on an uncivilized island in a distant time, Hank’s experience in Arthurian Britain parallels that of the title character in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (published in 1719). Hank makes a direct comparison between himself and Crusoe early in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and both men use their superior reason, intelligence, and ingenuity to impose civilization on wild and untamed lands.
Key Facts about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  • Full Title: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
  • When Written: Between 1885 and 1889
  • Where Written: Twain mostly composed A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court during vacations at his family’s summer home in Elmira, New York, but he finished it in Hartford, Connecticut.
  • When Published: December 1889
  • Literary Period: American Realism
  • Genre: Science Fiction, Satire
  • Setting: Sixth-century Britain, during the reign of the legendary King Arthur
  • Climax: Hank and his small band of “republicans” confront 30,000 knights in a battle to determine whether England will be controlled by medieval chivalry or a 19th-century democratic technocracy.
  • Antagonist: Merlin
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

Unaccountable Freaks. Twain was born just two weeks after Halley’s Comet passed by earth in 1850, and he felt an affinity for the heavenly body, telling people that he expected to die when it next reached its perigee because “The Almighty has said…‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Eerily, Twain died of a heart attack in 1910—just one day after the comet’s closest approach.

Reel Classy. In 1909, Thomas Edison visited Twain’s summer home and filmed the author walking on the property and having tea with his daughters. Later, Edison included this footage in a two-reel silent film adaptation of Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper.