Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mark Twain worked on this story during the last years of the nineteenth century in the midst of writing other unfinished stories on closely related themes. One version, later published as “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger,” is set more than a century earlier than “The Chronicle of Young Satan” but opens with a nearly identical first chapter. A third version, later published as “Schoolhouse Hill,” is placed in the nineteenth century Missouri setting of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and uses several characters from that novel. The widely different chronological and geographical settings of these stories are strong indications of the relative unimportance of the early eighteenth century Austrian setting of “The Chronicle of Young Satan.” What mattered to Twain were the story’s universal themes.

One idea pervading “The Chronicle of Young Satan” is the difficulty of differentiating between reality and dreams—a theme that can be found in many unfinished stories that Twain wrote toward the end of his life. These include “The Great Dark” (first published in its entirety in 1962), which he wrote while working on “The Chronicle of Young Satan,” “The Refuge of the Derelicts” (1972), and “Which Was the Dream?” (1967). In all these stories, successful middle-aged men find themselves in the midst of nightmares that seem so real that they begin to wonder if it is their normal lives that are the dreams.

“The Chronicle of Young Satan” opens with a description that sets a dreamlike mood for what follows:

Yes, Austria was far from the world, and asleep, and our village was in the middle of that sleep, being in the middle of Austria. It drowsed in peace in the deep privacy of a hilly and woodsy solitude where news from the world hardly ever came...

(The entire section is 744 words.)