‘Hunting the Deceitful Turkey’ by Mark Twain: Short Story Analysis
‘Hunting the Deceitful Turkey’ is a humorous piece in Edwardian style penned in 1906 by the father of American literature Mark Twain. Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and he was a prolific American writer of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century. He wrote many humorous pieces, which he either published or read out at his lecture tours in different parts of America and the world. These lectures made him famous, securing for him the title of the greatest humorist of the USA. The short piece is about turkey hunting, where Twain satirizes the whole process of hunting a turkey, which was a very tricky business for him when he was a young boy. It narrates how the young Twain spent nearly ten hours trying to hunt a very conniving turkey whom he ultimately could not catch more for moral reasons than his aptitude as a hunter. The way Twain comically satirizes his stalking of the smart turkey is unbeatably funny although, there are certain discrepancies at the beginning of the piece.
‘Hunting the Deceitful Turkey’ starts with a gambol of words where Twain details that he only went hunting with his uncle, his uncle’s elder sons, and a boy of his age called Fred. We see the humor in this piece immediately when Twain describes that only his uncle and the older boys would use rifles while hunting. Fred and Twain had to use a shotgun, and that they were so tiny as children that they had to carry the gun between themselves alternately. There is a bit of discrepancy here right at the beginning of the story. Mark Twain first mentions that only he and Fred used to hunt for the feathered game that means the birds, whereas the elder boys and his uncle used to hunt for deer, squirrels, and wild turkeys. However, in the very next sentence, he changes track and says that the big boys used to kill hawks and wild geese, but they would not shoot squirrels but just stunned the squirrels for what seems to be a bit of fun on their part. Probably, Mark Twain hurriedly wrote this piece for one of his lectures. We are aware that Twain used to speak impromptu on several humorous topics and never have the whole text of his speech written down on a page. Instead, he used pictorial mnemonics to remember the entire lecture he had to present to the audience. To learn more about Mark Twain and his famous lecture tours, you can check out my book review of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature by Ben Tarnoff.
So, Twain used to hunt with his uncle, his uncle’s elder sons, and Fred. He used to try and catch a turkey by imitating the turkey’s call by blowing through the leg bone. The humor in the piece is that the turkey whose body the bone belonged had also answered once to this call and lived long enough to regret it when it was hunted down and killed. Squirrels were never hunted; they were not thought fit game. However, Twain had mentioned that the big boys hunted squirrels but then changes his stance, writing a full-length paragraph of how a squirrel was only stunned and never hunted down. This is a contradiction in the text. Coming back to the turkey, Twain shows that he would try to use the turkey’s leg bone for hunting other turkeys. He shows that the sucking of air from the leg bone of a turkey was one of nature’s ways to do both:
- To protect her children when a real turkey made the call to summon her mate, her children, or other turkeys.
- To betray her children when human beings like Twain imitated the turkey’s call and the bird getting fooled to think it was a real turkey calling out to him or her.
This analysis of the turkey’s wooing makes us laugh and chuckle, mainly because Mark Twain has written this piece at the height of his lecture career in a trendy late Edwardian realistic style of prose narrative. The text goes on to demonstrate how the turkey seems smarter than young Mark Twain. He mentions in the text how a mother turkey realized that the call was a trick and:
- Pretended to be lame and limped so that the hunter would pity her and not shoot her.
- She would make a sound to alert her hidden children or chicks, telling them in a crude Yankee accent that they should conceal till she drove this swindler of turkeys out of the country. That ‘swindler’ is Mark Twain, the hunter himself.
Then comes the bulk of the short story titled ‘Hunting the Deceitful Turkey’. The short story’s title is taken from this portion of the short story where Mark Twain, now alone, tries to hunt a single turkey, a female one, and a big cheat of a bird for more than ten hours with few moments of rest. These restful moments came when he unsuccessfully tried to grab hold of her, and then both waited till he attempted to capture her again. Mark Twain makes the exaggerated statement that he felt that he had been stalking her over a considerable part of the United States of America when hunting this special turkey. He says this in the very beginning giving the audience a good laugh and making them ready for a full-scale laugh moment when Twain, in five different attempts, tries to capture the deceitful turkey.
The five different strategies to catch the deceitful turkey are as follows:
- He tried to catch her first alive and so tried to make a rush at her and grab her by her tail but managed to only get a few feathers in his hands, which he had to dust off. Proudly he was more inclined to take this turkey alive because he, for some reason, presumed she was lame.
- He would trust the bird’s honor and try not to rush at her, especially when she looked weary or tired. He had a single-barreled shotgun with him but was still reluctant to shoot her because he maintained that she was a lame bird; and that it was against his principles to shoot a lame bird.
- By now, he was beginning to doubt the bird’s sincerity with regards to it being lame. Also, he realized by this time, they both were at a very high altitude. He felt it possible that the person with the longest staying power in the hunt would win the day. Also, as Twain humorously put it, he was still taking the turkey to be a bird of honor and that he had already had an advantage on her from the start because she was lame. We know by now that this cheeky bird was anything but lame, and she was wearing Mark Twain out.
- Then came the hot afternoon, and ten hours had by now passed. The turkey, however, who was pretending to be lame, had an advantage over Twain. Due to the heat of the afternoon, she would lay down on her side and fan herself with her feathered wing. Whenever an insect or critter like a grasshopper passed by, she would eat it as a snack. Poor distressed Mark Twain, the young hunter, on the other hand, had had nothing to eat since he set out to hunt, nor could he take a rest from the heat of the sun in any way.
- The finale came when now a much tired and weary Mark Twain gave up the idea of taking this deceitful bird alive though he felt that he had a right to do so and was getting ready to shoot the bird. However, she began to mock him by posing for a shot every time he raised the gun, making him feel that she knew that he was not a good shooter, especially not with a single barrel shotgun. We do remember that he mentioned that he and Fred had to share the burden of such a gun on their hunting expeditions.
Finally, the bird proved that she was the most deceitful bird in the country by flying up on the tallest tree’s highest branches. She then sat there crossed legged and stared down at Mark Twain, to prove that she was a liar all this while and was indeed certainly not in the least bit lame. The whole scenario of the turkey’s hunting would certainly send readers and the people attending the lecture tours of Mark Twain laughing away. The hunting expedition of the turkey is an excellent example of humorous satire on hunting, which is otherwise thought of as a very serious hobby of men. Later, Mark Twain wandered off, found a deserted log cabin, and ate all the tomatoes in the place.
He was so hungry that he was willing to even feast to surfeit on ripe tomatoes by the end of the hunt. Surfeit has two meanings:
- Having an excessive amount of something.
- Cause someone to desire no more of something due to having consumed or done it to excess.
Because Mark Twain, on that day in the log cabin, gorged on ripe tomatoes, he would never consume them ever again as a separate dish till he was in his midlife or middle-aged. He also mentions once that he had surfeited on a half barrel of sardines, which is quite a monstrous thing to do because one must never overeat fish. He then ends the short piece by saying he does not eat sardines anymore. It is a comic anti-climax to the otherwise humorous essay on a turkey deceiving Mark Twain throughout the hunt. However, it is to be remembered that Twain is not the only writer who has put wit into his animal characters. Another short story writer who uses animals with humor and a skewed intellect in his stories is the British writer Saki also known as Hector Huge Munro. I have analyzed his short stories, which you can check out here for reference.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short piece by American writer Mark Twain. I always recommend his writings and other classic books to my students to improve their language skills. If you are an educator and want to encourage your children to read the classics, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them on my blog’s products page. I hope to read, review, and analyze more American bookish content, fiction, and non-fiction, this winter season till January 2021. I wish to celebrate America’s rich bookish legacy as a critical Presidential Elections has just taken place in the USA. So, if you are interested in more American bookish content, this is the space you should keep watching. I hope to read, analyze, and review more works by Mark Twain soon.
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