‘Cannibalism in the Cars’ by Mark Twain: Short Story Analysis
‘Cannibalism in the Cars’ is a realistic, humorous parody penned in 1868 by the father of American literature Mark Twain. Twain was one of the greatest humorists of his country. In this story, he satirizes the American elections over a grotesque topic of cannibalism. In 1853 twenty-four men were trapped in a railway car in the snowy prairie desert of America near St. Louis. Their train was trapped in a terrible snowdrift, and the driving wheel of the train was broken. They were far away from any help, and to venture out meant certain death because they were fifty miles from any house. These twenty-four men starved and hungry were trapped in the railway car for seven days. On the seventh day, they decided that one would be sacrificed as food for the others to survive for another day. The twenty-four men humorously chose to have an election akin to the American elections to decide which of them would end up as their breakfast or supper. The whole process of the candidate’s election fit to be eaten is a parody of how Americans like to conduct everything they do vis-à-vis an election. The story is humorous. Simultaneously, it makes us ponder several other factors that make ‘Cannibalism in the Cars’ a significant example of Mark Twain’s satire of American society and the workings of their minds.
The story starts with the narrator sitting in a railway car on his way West from St. Louis. He meets with a very intelligent, amicable, and knowledgeable man. The narrator even felt from the engaging one-hour conversation he was having with the man that the man knew a lot about American politics and was familiar with the way Congressmen behaved in nineteenth-century America. He deduced that the man probably was a Congressman himself. Little did the narrator realize that the man was a cannibal or portrayed himself as a cannibal while narrating the story in a railway car many years ago when the man’s train was stuck in a snowstorm. The conductor overhearing their conversation pacifies the narrator saying that the gentleman was once a Congressman but:
- Was once alone in a railway compartment and stuck in a snowstorm.
- Since then, he had lost his mind.
- He kept traveling in trains around St. Louis telling passengers the same story about how he ate up all the railway car passengers.
- Therefore, the conductor and all who knew the gentleman believed he was nothing more than a monomaniac who exhibited an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing.
- Everyone, including the conductor, was sure that the story was not true at all.
The narrator was probably comforted because he had shared a seat with only a deranged man and not with a blood-thirsty cannibal who was made a cannibal by dire circumstances. However, this story recalls the workings of the dark side of man’s behavior even though he is employing socially sanctioned rules to survive in a difficult circumstance. Twain makes us ponder over this situation because, in the end, the thought remains that in all probability, the man was telling the truth and must have eaten everyone in his railway car and ultimately went berserk.
The story also makes us ponder how even the best people will do anything to survive in dire circumstances. This includes not only people who are trapped in snowstorms but also during times when one wants to win at any cost regardless of societal rules, sentiments, and feelings of others. Twain used to witness, particularly during the American elections, that used to happen in his country. He used to see the desperation in the behavior of the elected members, the chairman, the Congressmen, the representatives, et al., who though following societal rules through the medium of an election, still had very dark sides to their personality. The story is a parody of the American elections and an indictment of people who do diabolic acts using society’s acceptable practices, such as elections. Here the twenty-four men were starved, but they could not directly pounce on each other and eat each other. So, to cover their sin of cannibalism, they use the cover of an election to select the person they had to eat for breakfast and supper. However, the fact remains that the twenty-four people showed through their election process that even wrong decisions are whitewashed to appear to be righteous by using socially sanctioned business methods. Cannibalism is a sin, that is a given, and to kill a person in cold blood even for food is not the way human beings behave. But cannibalism was whitewashed to appear acceptable and beneficial. We see this and more happening in our times as well. I have read about a similar situation in a book titled A Warning by Anonymous. This book is about the 2020 American elections, and I have reviewed and analyzed the book on my blog. You can check it out for reference.
The monomaniac was in this group of cannibals. Most probably, he was the originator of the idea to take to cannibalism to survive the storm. Probably he was Richard H. Gaston himself, the chairman of the election committee of cannibalism or John Murphy, who survived the ordeal because rescue had duly arrived. It was this same Murphy who then married the first victim, Harris’s widow. Dark humor is the basis of this short story showing how each county and state in America of the nineteenth century were against one another. Mark Twain uses the political climate of his time to show how each state was against the other. This would make the short story into a political satire if it were not for the overriding theme of cannibalism and the human mind’s darker side. Many names are mentioned in the short story, which at first will confuse a reader. But to a discerning reader who is slightly aware of the political climate in Twain’s time, you realize that it was a parody of the political environment in the nineteenth century. Twain tries to jumble the whole story with a chaos of names and random dialogues. In this, he wants to show the chaos of an American Election.
We can gather the following notes from the proceedings of that meeting:
- Mr. Gaston was the chairman of the election committee.
- Mr. Blake was the secretary.
- Mr. Holcomb, Mr. Dyer, and Mr. Baldwin were the committee to analyze the nominated contestant’s suitability to be eaten.
- Mr. Howland was the purveyor to assist the committee in making selections.
- The first contestants to be elected to be eaten were Ferguson, Herman, and Messick.
- Herman was withdrawn for Harris because Herman had lost too much weight due to starvation.
- Messick was withdrawn for Harvey as Harvey was bulkier and had more meat on him than Messick, which was opposed since Harvey was only big-boned and too old.
- Fergusson was then voted out, which caused his team some consternation against this voting system because their candidate was not chosen.
- Harris was eaten first for supper, and according to the monomaniac, he was full of genuine nutrition and delicacy of fiber.
- John Murphy survived the ordeal and was probably the monomaniac himself.
- Murphy had married Harris’s wife, which seemed like a sadistic love story to the monomaniac, something of the essence that Harris lived in him and he in Harris!
- Almost the entire railway car of people was eaten.
It is evident that everyone didn’t need to be eaten in this manner, but that is what a social sanction can make you do. It can make even a demon into a saint and a demonic action into a saintly action because of the skewed way we look at society.
In a hilarious telling of the circumstances of everyone turning into gentleman cannibals, Mark Twain is at the height of his humorous best. The narrator is shocked and appalled beyond measure by the entire story until the monomaniac’s station arrives. The monomaniac then gets down from the train to leave. According to the railway conductor, the monomaniac always told this story to everyone he met with all the people’s names concerned in the correct order. That makes us wonder whether there was any truth in his description. The uncertainty and the unappetizing (sorry for the pun) idea makes this story titled ‘Cannibalism in the Cars’ an incredibly dark humorous short story of nineteenth-century America. Terms used like juicy, overcooked, overdone, rare, scraggy, etc. for the dead victims make the story disturbing yet funny. Notice a particular racist leaning in the story as three other people were also eaten. They fall in American Elections into the ‘other’ category. These were last to be eaten:
- An Indian boy.
- An organ-grinder, that is, a street musician who plays the barrel organ.
- A nondescript gentleman by the name of Buckminster, who was nothing but a vagabond and was on the thinner side.
Notice that the monomaniac vividly describes at the beginning of his sordid tale about how eerily they were stuck in the snowy wilderness of the prairies where the railway car entered a snowdrift. Till the snowdrift arrived, the twenty-four men on the train were good companions of each other. However, when they became desperate to survive, they were ready to do the unspeakable. But only after all other measures proved unsuccessful. This portion highlights America’s true spirit to help each other unitedly to get out of a problematic situation. I have personally experienced this and read about it in another American book that I reviewed on my blog. The book’s title is To Obama: With Love, Joy, Hate, and Despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas. You can check out my book review for reference. So, the twenty-four passengers as united Americans tried to save each other until their own demons, as well as their unfortunate circumstances, forced them to come to a very startling conclusion: that they had to eat each other to survive. Usually, in dire circumstances such as these, if a person dies of starvation or other natural means, then his dead body is eaten by the others who remain. One only kills and eats animals like this in such a situation and context, not human beings! Therefore, this proves that the twenty-four passengers on board were wicked souls who had the outward show of propriety but were savages within.
I enjoy reading and reviewing American writer Mark Twain’s works. He is one of my favorite classic writers. I always recommend his books to my students. If you are an educator and are trying to instill the love of classics in your student or child, then you can check out my multiple award-winning book Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can buy this book on the products page of my blog.
I will be reading and analyzing more American books, short stories, and essays in the coming days. This is because the 2020 Election Season is still ongoing in America. So, if you are interested in more American bookish content, keep on watching this site. I hope to re-read and analyze more of Mark Twain’s books in the coming days.
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