In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Hank Morgan travels back in time from nineteenth-century America to sixth-century England, where he becomes the second-most powerful man in King Arthur’s kingdom. In this position, he tries to single-handedly establish an industrial civilization 13 centuries ahead of its time. But to succeed in this effort, Hank must overcome the “training,” of Arthur’s citizens. Hank maintains that training—the values and ideals a person is taught—is the strongest determiner of a person’s character. Thus, his efforts to establish a new civilization also examine whether nature or nurture (a person’s upbringing or, in Hank’s words, “training”) has a more powerful role in shaping a person’s personality. Hank attributes the many flaws he sees in medieval society—from the nobility’s arrogance to the lower classes’ extreme, self-defeating respect for authority—to the training that medieval institutions (especially the Roman Catholic Church) have imposed on society. In other words, he believes that training is more powerful than nature and, by extension, that new training can easily replace old training. Thus, he thinks that if he can simply inject 19th-century values into medieval society through advertising, technological advances, and “man factories” (Hank’s term the schools he establishes), then he will be able to single-handedly bring about the most peaceful governmental revolution of all time.
But there are indications along the way that Hank’s ideas are misguided. King Arthur, for example, retains a noble bearing despite being captured, sold as a slave, and viciously beaten over the course of the novel. This should suggest to Hank that nobility and courage are innate parts of Arthur’s character, not just the result of his royal training. Meanwhile, Hank is so convinced of the superiority of his modern, democratic, American ideals that he never considers that he himself, though vastly outnumbered by medieval, feudal Britons, refuses to abandon his own training. The book never fully resolves the question of whether nature or nurture plays a stronger role in shaping society or influencing a person’s behavior, but it does suggest that a person’s character—as a combination of both nature and nurture—rarely strays from its well-worn path. When civil war and religious strife break out, the medieval people quickly revert to their old ways, forcing Hank to admit that his project has failed. He then blows up his “civilization-factories” and makes his last stand with his protégé Clarence and 52 boys young enough that they’ve spent more than half of their lives in Hank’s educational factories. Thus, the novel suggests that once a person’s character is fully entrenched, it can never completely change—regardless of how their character comes to be,
Nature vs. Nurture ThemeTracker
Nature vs. Nurture Quotes in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
I was not the only prisoner present […]. Poor devils, many of them were maimed, hacked, carved, in a frightful way; and their hair, their faces, their clothing, were caked with black […] blood. They were suffering sharp physical pain […] and weariness, and hunger and thirst, no doubt; and at least none had given them the comfort of a wash, or even the poor charity of a lotion for their wounds; yet you never heard them utter a moan or a groan, or saw them show any sign of restlessness, or any disposition to complain. The thought was forced upon me: “The rascals—they have served other people so in their day; it being their own turn, now, they were not expecting any better treatment than this; so their philosophical bearing is not an outcome of mental training, intellectual fortitude, reasoning; it is mere animal training; they are white Indians.”
He spoke of me all the time, in the blandest way, as “this prodigious giant,” and “this horrible sky-towering monster,” and “this tusked and taloned man-devouring ogre”; and everybody took in all this bosh in the naivest way, and never smiled or seemed to notice that there was any discrepancy between these watered statistics and me. He said that in trying to escape from him I spang to the top of a tree two hundred cubits high at a single bound, but he dislodged me with a stone the size of a cow, which “all-to-brast” the most of my bones, and then swore me to appear at Arthur’s court for sentence. He ended by condemning me to die at noon on the twenty-first; and was so little concerned about it that he stopped to yawn before he named the date.
[…] many of the terms used in the most matter-of-fact way by this great assemblage of first ladies and gentlemen in the country would have made a Comanche blush. Indelicacy is too mild a term to convey the idea. However, I had read “Tom Jones” and “Roderick Ransom,” and other books of that kind, and knew that the highest and first ladies and gentlemen in England had remained little or no cleaner in their talk, and in the morals and conduct which such talk implies, clear up to a hundred years ago; in fact clear into our own nineteenth century—in which century, broadly speaking, the earliest samples of the real lady and real gentleman discoverable in English history—or in European history, for that matter—may be said to have made their appearance.
They were the quaintest and simplest and trustingest race; why, they were nothing but rabbits. It was pitiful for a person born in a wholesome free atmosphere to listen to their humble and hearty outpourings of loyalty toward their king and Church and nobility; as if they had any more occasion to love and honor king and Church and noble than a slave has to love and honor the lash, or a dog has to love and honor the stranger that kicks him! Why, dear me, any kind of royalty, howsoever modified, any kind of aristocracy, howsoever pruned, is rightly an insult; but if you are born and brought up under that sort of arrangement you probably never find it out for yourself, and don’t believe it when someone else tells you.
La Cote was much depressed, for he had scored here the worst failure of his campaign. He had not worked off a cake; yet he had tried all the tricks of the trade, even to the washing of a hermit; but the hermit died. This was indeed a bad failure, for this animal would now be dubbed a martyr, and would take his place among the saints of the Roman calendar. Thus made he his moan, this poor Sir La Cote Male Taile, and sorrowed passing sore. And so my heart bled for him, and I was moved to comfort and stay him. Wherefore I said—
“Forbear to grieve, fair knight, for this is not a defeat. We have brains you and I; and for such as have brains there are no defeats, but only victories.”
Oh, it was no use to waste sense on her. Training—training is everything; training is all there is to a person. We speak of nature; it is folly; there is no such thing as nature; what we call by that misleading name is merely heredity and training. We have no thoughts of our own, no opinions of our own; they are transmitted to us, trained into us. All that is original in us, and therefore fairly creditable or discreditable to us, can be covered up and hidden by the point of a cambric needle, all the rest being atoms contributed by, and inherited from, a procession of ancestors that stretches back a billion years to the Adam-clam or grasshopper or monkey from whom our race has been so tediously and ostentatiously and unprofitably developed.
The newest prisoner’s crime was a mere remark which he had made. He said he believed that men were about all alike, and one man as good as another, barring clothes. He said he believed that if you were to strip the nation naked and send a stranger through the crowd, he couldn’t tell the king from a quack doctor, nor a duke from a hotel clerk. Apparently here was a man whose brains had not been reduced to an ineffectual mush by idiotic training. I set him loose and sent him off to the Factory.
Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth of gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great, now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition—I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted.
A man is a man, at bottom. Whole ages of abuse and oppression cannot crush the manhood clear out of him. Whoever thinks it a mistake, is himself mistaken. Yes, there is plenty good enough material for a republic in the most degraded people that ever existed—even the Russians; plenty of manhood in them—even in the Germans—if one could but force it out of its timid and suspicious privacy, to overthrow and trample in the mud any throne that was ever set up and any nobility that ever supported it. We should see certain things yet, let us hope and believe. First, a modified monarchy, till Arthur’s days were done, then the destruction of the throne, nobility abolished, every member of it bound out to some useful trade, universal suffrage instituted, and the whole government placed in the hands of the men and women of the nation there to remain.
Well, I was smarting under a sense of defeat. Undeserved defeat, but what of that? That didn’t soften the smart any. And to think of the circumstances! The first statesman of the age, the capablest man, the best-informed man in the entire world, the loftiest uncrowned head that had moved through the clouds of any political firmament for centuries, sitting here apparently defeated in argument by an ignorant country blacksmith! And I could see that those others were sorry for me—which made me blush till I could smell my whiskers scorching. Put yourself in my place; feel as mean as I did, as ashamed as I felt—wouldn’t you have struck below the belt to get even? Yes, you would; it is simply human nature. Well, that is what I did. I am not trying to justify it; I’m only saying that I was mad, and anybody would have done it.
This same infernal law had existed in our own south in my own time, more than thirteen hundred years later, and under it hundreds of freemen who could not prove that they were freemen had been sold into lifelong slavery without the circumstance making any particular impression upon me; but the minute law and the auction block came into my own personal experience, a think which had been merely improper became suddenly hellish. Well that’s the way we are made.
“From our various works I selected all the men—boys I mean—whose faithfulness under whatsoever pressure I could swear to, and I called them together secretly and gave them their instructions. There are fifty-two of them; none younger than fourteen, and none above seventeen years old.”
“Why did you select boys?”
“Because all the others were born in an atmosphere of superstition and reared in it. It is in their blood and bones. We imagined we had educated it out of them; they thought so, too; the Interdict woke them up like a thunderclap! It revealed them to themselves, and it revealed them to me, too. With boys it was different. Such as have been under our training from seven to ten years have had no acquaintance with the Church’s terrors, and it was amongst these that I found my fifty-two.”
The sun rose presently and sent its unobstructed splendors over the land, and we saw a prodigious host moving slowly toward us, with the steady drift and aligned front of a wave of the sea. Nearer and nearer it came, and more and more sublimely imposing became its aspect; yes, all England were there, apparently. Soon we could see the innumerable banners fluttering, and then the sun struck the sea of armor and set it all aflash. Yes, it was a fine sight; I hadn’t ever seen anything to beat it.