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 

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