Reading the River by Mark Twain

In Reading the River by Mark Twain, he uses his own experience as an apprentice steamboat pilot to suggest a pilot’s the loss of beauty in the river and the gain in awareness of its dangers. The analytical study of the river by the pilot shows it’s hidden dangers underneath the illusion of its beauty. It can be related to the hidden dangers of life that the inexperienced fail to see, until it’s too late.Twain’s intention with this piece is to warn people that overanalyzing can cause you to overlook the beauty in life.

Tone: When Twain begins his story, his tone is that of an inexperienced passenger, fascinated by the river, unaware of the signs of danger. Twain describes the enjoyment saying, “-there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing.” (Twain 718) However, as Twain continues, his tone changes to that of the pilot. It is full of doubt and dread while reading the language of the river. He no longer takes enjoyment in its visual pleasure. He describes the river now saying, “No, the romance and beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat.” (Twain 720) The change in tone helps the audience to get both points of view between the pilot and the passenger to better understand the meaning of loss and gain.

Metaphor: Throughout the story, Twain uses an extended metaphor. He compares the Mississippi River to books, poetry and art. In the title Reading the River, Twain is referring to the pilot’s analytical study of the river, like reading a book. In the second sentence of the first paragraph, he relates the water to a book, “The face of the water in time became a wonderful book- a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.” (Twain 718) The extended metaphor was used to further differentiate the sight of the pilot compared to the passenger’s. Twain compares it to “italicized passages”, “shouting exclamation points” and the “pretty pictures” (Twain 719). The features of the river became the language of water to the trained pilot’s eye. These metaphors compare the river to a book being read, because both can have very different meanings, dependent upon the experience of who is reading them.

Style: Twain uses his own experience to present the river from two different points of view. His experience as an apprentice was used as a resource to convey his message to the audience. He represented his point of view as a passenger and as a pilot to show development in his sight. Depending on the experience of the audience themselves, they may relate to the experienced sight of the pilot or the ignorance of a passenger. By showing the views of both in his writing, Twain is able to show the loss and gain of having experienced sight. It can be related to life; in order to survive, you must be able to see the consequences and dangers- even on the river. Twain’s style is significant because when we become experienced pilots, everything seen is taken to a different understanding or possibility. As a result, it is hard to appreciate visual pleasures without fearing what lies beneath-like the passenger. He describes the feeling, “I had lost something which could never be restored to me where I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry, had gone out of the majestic river!” (Twain 719)

–Chloe Klusman

Twain begins the essay by using imagery. He compares the face of the water to a wonderful book that, “has a new story to tell every day.” The idea of the river being like a book is reflected in the title of the essay. As a sailor, Twain must “read the river” every day, and the waves and tides are ever-changing, so the story is always new and interesting.

While Twain acknowledges the beauty of the river at the beginning of his essay, his tone quickly shifts. He explains how a regular passenger views the river by saying, “In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it, painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading material.” Here, Twain is describing how beauty can be diminished by overanalyzing. Simplicity is beautiful, and sometimes it’s better to view things simply than attempting to overthink them.

At the end of the essay, it was effective how Twain connected his experiences to those of a doctor. Since he stopped being able to see the beauty in the river, he said, “Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay?” I never thought about this idea before reading this, but it’s interesting and thought provoking. Twain wonders whether a doctor gains more or loses more from learning his trade, just as he wonders with his own profession as a sailor. Twain leaves his audience with a question that wraps up the point of the entire essay: Is beauty or knowledge more important, and which are you willing to sacrifice for the other?

–Kayla Gay

Twain closes the piece by asking a series of rhetorical questions. In the essay’s last paragraph, he asks his readers whether a doctor’s career is similar to that of a steamboat pilot. He asks, “What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease?” and “Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself?”. By ending with not only a question, but a connection to other jobs, Twain invites readers to consider aspects of their lives that resemble the essay. Therefore, ending the essay with a question made it more likely that Twain’s claim would stay in the mind of the reader even after he/she is finished reading it, because he/she would attempt to relate the topic to his/her own life. 

Mark Twain never blatantly states or suggests the essay’s audience, but I think he was speaking to anyone in particular with this essay. Because he closes the piece by connecting steamboat pilots to other professions, Twain alludes that people of any career can relate to his essay.

I think the quote “There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances, and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it every passing moment with new marvels of coloring” is a great example of an appeal to the senses. Twain focused the first portion of the essay on how piloting was similar to reading a book, or creating a painting. Therefore, this quote was very appropriate to the essay because it painted a visual image of the river within the readers’ minds.

–Lauren Wetsch


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