The Mysterious Stranger (1916)

Mark Twain’s last novella The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously, addresses a lot of themes, especially focusing on the meaning of human life. In the novel, Satan, who claims to be only related to the Devil, chooses to interact with people in the small village of Esledorf. Oddly enough, this angel also chooses to visit three young teenage boys and performs magic for them including transporting them to distant countries. This presence of travel in the novel serves two purposes: the first to set Satan apart as different from humans since he is not restricted by space and time, but also to reveal to the boys that humans are the same everywhere.

After first meeting Satan, Theodor admits that he and the boys feel “secretly ashamsed” about the way that Satan “was talking about men and women here on earth… his manner showed that to him they and their doings were of paltry poor consequence…. they were dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited” (159). Satan, though he is spending spends a lot of time with humans, feels little sympathy for them, comparing angels to elephants and humans to ants (199), and is adamant about how angels are far superior. Of course, one of the ways Satan is superior is his “mastery... over time and distance” which allows him to take the boys to the “most distant parts of the globe with him, and stayed weeks and months, and yet were gone only a fraction of a second” (223).

The people in Esledorf do not travel, so Satan transporting the boys instantly to another country far surpasses the notoriety of “Bartel Sperling, who had such a great opinion of his travels” to Vienna (197). Early in the story, the narrator Theodor relates that Satan not only came to visit the boys, but also to whisk them away to places outside of their home village. Sometimes Theodor does not elaborate on the events that occur while they are traveling; when Satan takes Theodor to China, little is revealed about their trip or “why Satan chose China for this excursion instead of another place” since “it would interrupt [Theodor’s] tale” (198). Even without the knowledge of what happened while they were in China, Theodor does reveal that Satan chose this country for a reason.

During a later trip with Satan to India, however, Theodor does elaborate on the events that happen there. Satan and the boys “stopped at a little city in India and looked on while a juggler did his tricks” (236). The boys beg Satan to compete with the juggler by growing a tree. Satan grows a fantastic tree that bears “fruits of many kinds and colors” (237) that is enjoyed by the natives who carry the plentiful fruit away in baskets. However, the foreigner who owns that land becomes greedy and claims that the tree is his since it is on his land and that no one can take the fruit. This story about the tree in India is very similar to a story about greed back in Esledorf. Back home, Father Peter who has been falsely accused of stealing money from the greedy astrologer. In both cases, false claim of ownership is punished. The foreigner must treat the tree as if it is his own life or he will die and the astrologer is sent to the moon.

The first time Satan transports the boys outside of their village they visit France so that they can see how “Moral Sense” can be perverted and used against people. While in the French village the boys see factory workers of all ages who are paid “just enough to keep them from dropping dead from hunger” (181). Satan tells them that these people have done nothing to deserve such treatment “except getting themselves born into such a foolish race” (181). This trip to France creates another parallel to the scene that the boys just saw inside the jail in Esledorf where a man is being tortured because he was suspected of being a heretic. Satan blames both of these occurrences on “Moral Sense” which is supposed to help human’s choose between right and wrong, but “nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong” (180). In both cases, the people in control think they are doing the right thing but in fact are punishing people who had done nothing wrong except being born a human.

Satan’s intentions in the novel are to clearly demonstrate to humans that their race is “always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn’t got” (180). He does this by showing the three boys including the narrator examples of greed, violence, and mistreatment that occur, not only in their village, but all over the world. Unrestricted by time and space, the angel impresses his three admirers with his abilities to transport them to distant places, but he also uses this time to lecture them on their race’s shortcomings.

Very weird clay-animation version of The Mysterious Stranger 


Connecticutt Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)

Though there are other cases of extreme violence in Mark Twain’s novels, two instances of graphic violence in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Violent episodes such as Huck Finn and Jim stumbling upon a body in house that is later revealed to be Pap and the Grangerford episode from Adventures in Huckleberry Finn stick out in my mind the most, but they still do not register against the violence that Hank Morgan sees during his time in King Arthur’s Court.

The first of these episodes that I found the most violent or disturbing was when Queen Morgan le Fay effortlessly “slipped a dirk into [her page] in as-matter-of-course a way as another person would have harpooned a rat” (102) after he accidentally bumps into her. Nobody dares to do or say anything and the Queen, as if killing a boy is like spilling a little milk, instructs her servants exactly how to clean up the mess. Later in the chapter when the boy’s grandmother arrives cursing the queen, again her only reaction is to get rid of the nuisance, presumably by tying her to a stake.

The second scene that felt very violent and almost like it does not fit in with the rest of the novel are the “smileless” pilgrims, who are in fact slaves in chains being marched along the same road towards the Valley of Holiness. Hank’s description of their “sores which were ulcerated and wormy” (139) and situation that he witnesses where a young mother is first hit and then held down by other slaves while she is beaten, only to later be separated from her husband after being sold to a blacksmith. Hank “wanted to stop the whole thing and set the slaves free, but that would not do” (141), so instead he just watches the entire episode along with the other pilgrims, even though he obviously affected by the scene and says “I knew I should never get [this] picture out of my mind again, and there it is to this day, to wring my heartstrings whenever I think of it” (141).

Part of the reason these two episodes are powerful is the narrator’s response to the situations. In previous novels, frequently characters seem coolly unconcerned by violence, in Puddn’head Wilson dueling is an acceptable sport for men and women to watch and in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, many violent scenes that young Huck encounters are only briefly mentioned in passing. Even in A Connecticut Yankee, other characters in the novel are not as affected by these violent events as Hank Morgan is. Hank notes that after the slave girl is beaten and the other pilgrims on the road just watch, “this is what slavery will do, in the way of ossifying what one may call the superior lobe of human feeling” (141). These scenes I think are powerful and dramatic not only because they illustrate inhumane conditions, desolation, and pain, but also because Twain reworks themes like cruelty and brutality and sets them in a new time period making the situations more objective. Mark Twain is setting events such as a slave beating in a more exotic setting for dramatic effect in order to outline some of his personal beliefs.

After reading this section of the book I found an article by Henry Nash Smith that was helpful in pulling a lot of these ideas together for me. In his article “Pudd’nhead Wilson and After,”* Nash takes a look at Twain’s work and chronological order and highlights a pattern that appears beginning with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Nash also focuses on the scene where Queen Morgan le Fay stabs the young page who “fell lightly against her knee” (Twain 102) as well as the story of the husband being tortured on the rack. Nash claims that after these episodes there is “a paragraph curiously out of tone with the immediate context and with the book as a whole” (234). The reason for this is because “it contains the gist of Mark Twain’s ‘gospel’ the philosophical treatise called What Is Man?” (235) and focuses on Twain’s theme of training in this novel, and in others. Both scenes that I mentioned earlier fall into this category of training, what Nash defines as “the shaping of the personality by society,” which makes the institutions of the feudal system and slavery acceptable. I agree with Nash that some of Hank Morgan’s statements and opinions in the book are a little out of place but I think, like “Puddn’head Wilson’s Calendar” quotations, I see it as Mark Twain folding in some of his own views on the world with a work of fiction.

*Smith, Henry Nash. “Puddn’head Wilson and After.” The Massachusetts Review 3.2 (1962): 233-253.