In the first half of The Innocents Abroad, as Mark Twain and his shipmates are “getting foreignized rapidly” (67), Twain praises the natural beauty of France, but criticizes the myths. Admittedly, Twain came to Europe, or specifically France, with quite a few preconceived, romanticized myths of how his adventures would be, almost all of which were ruined. Everything from his dream to be shaved “in a palatial barber-shop of Paris” (78) to his desire to catch a glimpse of a grisette leads ultimately to disappointment for Twain. Robinson writes in his essay “Innocents at Large” that Twain “is critical of other tourists for their blind surrender to romantic impressions, yet cannot conceal the fact that historical melodramas, not to mention popular travel books, have influenced his own expectations and responses” (30). But Twain doesn’t just complain about how his expectations or “idol[s] of infancy” were “topple[d] to earth” (107), he also gives his unsolicited personal opinion of long-cherished traditions and myths, such as laying love letters and flowers on the grave of Abelard and Heloise.
Twain pointedly takes time out of his travel log to relate his version of the “Story of Abelard and Heloise” (beginning on page 100) and takes a decidedly different approach to the traditional version. In his version, Twain begins by purposely confusing the Canon Fulbert, who was Heloise’s uncle, with a howitzer and continues by describing Abelard as a rake and Heloise as a poor, silly woman. Abelard and Heloise run off together after Heloise finds that she is pregnant and the two eventually marry secretly, but each join the church and devote themselves to religion. The reason the lovers have become famous is because of their love letters (which are still printed and sold in various forms today) and especially for Heloise’s undying love. Twain, during his satirical retelling of the story, feigns to be more interested in Fulbert, who he continues to refer to as “the mountain howitzer” and laments his “abused trust… broken heart… and troubled spirit” (104). Not only does Twain make fun of the French for crying over the graves of Abelard and Heloise, but he also makes a reference to the French writer and poet Lamartine who “ought to be dammed- or leveed” (104).
The issue that Mark Twain is really focusing on is the commercialization (and thus perversion) of culture, tradition, and myth that is ultimately disappointing to him. Twain does admire the beauty and greenery of Marseilles and the south of France, but then quickly finds other things to be annoyed by in the cities. Considering that Twain was visiting France during the 1867 Paris Exhibition, he should not have been so surprised and disgusted. The phenomenon that Twain is complaining about is referred to today as a tourist trap. It is also hypocritical that Twain takes this stance throughout the novel since the voyage on the Quaker City was billed as nothing more than a pleasure cruise for the middle class. It isn’t surprising that their guides take them to these tourist traps. Twain’s interpretation of the story of Abelard and Heloise and his own perspective on the grisettes being “like nearly all the Frenchwomen [he] ever saw- homely” (107), shows his disappointment with being “everywhere confronted with fraudulence” (Robinson 30) but also his cultural insensitivity.