Mr. Walters fell to “showing off,” with all sorts of official bustlings and activities. . . . The librarian “showed off”—running hither and thither with his arms full of books. . . . The young lady teachers “showed off”. . . . The young gentlemen teachers “showed off”. . . . The little girls “showed off” in various ways, and the little boys “showed off” with such diligence that the air was thick with paper wads and the murmur of scufflings. And above it all the great man sat and beamed a majestic judicial smile upon all the house, and warmed himself in the sun of his own grandeur—for he was “showing off,” too.
This Sunday school scene from Chapter 4 shows the height of Twain’s leveling satire. While Twain makes explicit jabs at the religious spirit and the structures of organized religion elsewhere in the novel, in this scene he directs his mockery toward human nature in a more generalized way. Much of the comic effect of this scene stems from the uniformity of the ridiculous behavior exhibited by teachers, students, boys, and girls. So strong is the human need to impress and to win approval that not even Judge Thatcher is exempt from the temptation to “show off.” Twain suggests that the desire to stand out is universal, which means that in their efforts to distinguish themselves, people wind up all looking alike.
For the adults, “showing off” means attempting to conceal the rough edges of their schoolroom establishment, prettifying the Sunday school so that the judge will get an enhanced sense of what is normal there. Such sugarcoating of reality is a particular object of Twain’s contempt, and it is exactly what he does not want his fiction to do. Twain is committed to realism, to depicting the everyday world with all its irregularities and imperfections. In fact, Twain’s penchant for roughness and variation makes his satire more tender and compassionate than it might otherwise be.