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In “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain reveals that the differences between the humorous story and the comic or witty story lie primarily in the techniques used by their narrators. The narrator of Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn uses several of these techniques, thereby telling, by Twain’s definition, a classically humorous story.
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Insert Humor Wisely
First, the narrator of the humorous story must allow the story to flow along, adding amusing bits of narration without seeming to have the least idea that the bits are amusing. Huck Finn does this throughout his narration.
For example, when he discusses life with the widow in Chapter I, he says that before dinner “you had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them.”
The reader, knowing the widow is saying grace before eating, is amused by Huck’s description, but Huck himself is not: He’s simply telling the story like he remembers it.
Another example is Huck’s tendency to mix up history and fiction, as in his description of King Henry VIII, where he confuses mistresses of various other English kings with Henry VIII’s wives, and includes a great deal more beheading before breakfast than historically occurred.
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Another technique used in narrating the humorous story is the wandering narrative, a sort of vocalized train of thought in which the narrator takes a great deal of time, often repeating himself, to come to the point.
One illustration of Huck using this method, with much repetition, appears in Chapter XIX, where Huck considers the fraudulence of the king and the duke, whom he and Jim have just picked up: “But I never said anything; never let on; kept it to myself; it’s the best way; then you don’t have no quarrels, and don’t get into no trouble.”
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Comic or Witty Story
Along with Huck’s narrative techniques in telling the humorous story, there is also an example of a comic or witty story being told in the book. Twain describes the comic or witty story being one that the narrator finds as amusing as does the audience. The narrator dwells on the punch line, often repeating it two or three times, and gains much merriment from it.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, this comic story appears in Chapter VII, where Huck talks about how he could hear men talking on the ferry landings on the river. He hears one man make a joke about how this night wasn’t a short night, and he and his friend laugh; he says it again and they laugh again; and the first man even wakes up a third one to tell him the joke, but the third one is not as amused by the quip as the first two.
This is a comic story, which can be told in a few lines and has no real merit—it’s simply an inconsequential event in the midst of the humorous story, which is a tale with a much larger and more engaging plot.
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Final Result: A Humorous Masterpiece
Thus, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain uses several of the techniques in his essay “How to Tell a Story” to turn the book into a truly humorous piece. These techniques include the narrator’s oblivion to the amusing nature of his tale and the use of rambling and repetition to add humor and suspense to the narration.
Twain also includes an example of a comic story within the humorous one, showing the difference between the two. His point is made by the juxtaposition of these stories: the humorous story is an art, and preferable to the comic.