Twain wrote "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" during a period of hardship and disillusionment. Loss and disillusionment in his own life had caused him to become increasingly cynical about the world and society in general. "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," often thought to be Twain's finest short story, reflects this disillusionment. The central characters in the story, though they are the pillars of their community and attend church every Sunday, turn out to be greedy, deceitful, and easily tempted. Even so, through all of this, Twain still manages to allow readers a muffled, somewhat guilty chuckle here and there.
"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" has several dominant themes. Among them are weakness in the face of temptation, rationalization of guilt, vanity, and revenge. Twain develops these themes with a compelling and artistic construct of interesting characters, revealing dialogue and an intricate plot.
It is difficult to designate a protagonist or an antagonist in this story. Though readers may sympathize with the stranger, they are not given any specifics about him or the injury done to him by the citizens of Hadleyburg. It is not clear how many of the town's good citizens were involved, or even if their actions warranted such retribution. What is clear is the stranger's depth of resolve and the lengths to which he will go in order to have his revenge on Hadleyburg. Though readers may marvel at the stranger's cleverness and identify with his disdain for vain, self-righteous people, it would be difficult to consider such a shadowy and cynical character, whom the narrator labels "bitter and revengeful," a protagonist.
The reader might even consider the late Barclay Goodson a protagonistic figure. Though a long-time resident of the village, Goodson was an outsider, neither born nor raised in Hadleyburg, and therefore immune to its pious pride. The citizens of Hadleyburg hated him for this and for his regular public criticism of the town's excessive self-righteousness, but they also grudgingly admit that he was the only one in their community capable of the kind of selfless generosity and humanity described in the stranger's letter. Additionally, he was known for the quality and readiness of his advice, something his neighbors granted but did not always properly appreciate. The character of Goodson is in contrast to the typical Hadleyburg citizen. Unfortunately, Barclay Goodson is dead at the beginning of the story and is not involved at all in the action of the plot.
If there is a protagonist, it would have to be Edward Richards, the old bank cashier with whom the stranger leaves the sack of gold coins, setting the plot into motion. He is at the center of the action throughout the story, and readers find themselves constantly identifying, second-guessing, and criticizing his behavior. Like most of the citizens of Hadleyburg, Richards seems to be an essentially good and honest person, but not a perfect one. Whatever the stranger's motives, his plot to embarrass Hadleyburg simply brought to light human weaknesses that were always there, buried just below the surface. He merely demonstrated to the world that Richards and the other good citizens of Hadleyburg were susceptible to the same lures of temptation and greed that afflict the rest of the world.
Richards's wife, Mary, is at home alone when the stranger knocks on her front door, delivering what appears to be a large, very heavy bag of money and a letter. According to the accompanying letter, the bag contains a fortune. The bag is sealed, discouraging inspection or tampering. The letter goes on to relate an incredible story about a down and out gambler who, as the result of an act of kindness and generosity, has become rich and now wants to settle matters by rewarding the man who had committed that act of kindness before returning to his home in Europe. Unfortunately, the drifter never knew the name of his benefactor, and so has designed a clever plan to assure that the money goes to the right person. The generous citizen of Hadleyburg had, in addition to a gift of twenty dollars, offered the gambler a bit of parting advice. The remark was so memorable that the gambler was certain the man would remember uttering it. The letter also explains that a sealed envelope containing that remark is inside the money sack. That remark would be the proof needed to claim the reward.
The Richardses are very poor, and Mary is at once sorely tempted by the money, believing she is the only one who knows about the money and thus could simply claim it for herself and her husband. However, even before her husband returns from a trip to a nearby town, she rejects the idea, rationalizing that it is tainted, the result of gambling, "the wages of sin." Mary's ethics survive their first test.
Edward Richards returns home exhausted, complaining about the dismal quality of his life as a salaried laborer. Edward has worked hard all his life and has been a trusted and loyal employee. Even so, he resents working while Mr. Pinkerton, the owner of Hadleyburg's bank and Edward's boss, just sits "at home in his slippers, rich and comfortable." Edward's first response is the same as his wife's. He imagines he and Mary keeping the bag of money for themselves, rationalizing that they could simply deny any knowledge of the stranger or his money if he ever returns. However, before his reverie could crystallize into action, Mary breaks his trance by reminding him the danger of...
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