Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Twain’s use of two stories is what makes “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” more than merely a joke. Mary and Edward Richards are real, sympathetic people—childish, occasionally, but no more so than are most people. Their destruction shows why vanity, lies, and selfish revenge are not funny. In real life, real people are hurt.
Twain uses two other favorite devices, a mysterious stranger and ironic humor, to force the story’s characters to face reality. His stranger in “The Chronicle of Young Satan” says, “For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. . . . Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.” Hadleyburg’s stranger forces the townspeople to admit to, laugh at, and then change their egotistical illusions. Humor also keeps the audience reading and, one hopes, thinking.
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‘‘The Gilded Age’’
In Twain's lifetime, the America experienced astounding industrial progress and unprecedented social ills. Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and other so-called ‘‘robber barons’’ made fortunes developing the American steel, railroad, and oil industries. While they strengthened America's industrial power and ushered the nation into the modern world, they grew their monopolies at the expense of smaller companies and the interests of ordinary workers by successfully influencing the President and Congress.
Although a few prospered enormously, average Americans paid a price for progress. America's agricultural economy gradually shifted toward industry, as unemployed farmers began migrating to the cities. The modern city emerged in this era, along with a host of urban ills: overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions that bred disease, and poverty. Most laborers worked at factories for low wages and usually in dangerous conditions. Unable to live on their parents' meager incomes, children also went to work at factories.
Twain coined the phrase "The Gilded Age'' to describe the period of American history from the...
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Hadleyburg is a small town with a big ego. Over three generations its citizens have cultivated and protected the notion that their community is the most moral, most honest, most incorruptible one in the world, certainly in the country. The principals of honesty so precious to the town are taught to infants and to children all through their formative years. The children are also shielded from temptations of any sort, so that their honesty and integrity can mature and become a permanent part of their being.
Neighboring towns are jealous of Hadleyburg's spotless reputation and put off by their arrogance, but they are also forced to admit the truth in Hadleyburg's claim to be an incorruptible town. Though Twain gives few clues as to the geographic location of this fictitious village, he does mention that one of its jealous neighbors is a town called Brixton.
Hadleyburg has a post office, a bank, a newspaper named the Missionary Herald, a town hall with 412 permanent seats, a public square, a telegraph office, a Baptist church and a Presbyterian church. Hadleyburg is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else's business. It is the kind of small town where people do not lock their doors unless they have something to hide. It is the kind of small town where houses and lawns and lives are neat and tidy, and people sit on their porches in the evening, sipping tea and humming hymns. It is the kind of town where everyone knows who...
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Commonly and simply referred to as "irony," verbal or rhetorical irony hinges on discrepancies between reality and the words a writer or speaker uses to represent reality. A fictional character may or may not be aware of the contradictions, but the meaning of the text often depends on the reader recognizing them. According to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, ‘‘Irony is commonly employed as a 'wink' that the listener or reader is expected to notice so that he or she may be 'in on the secret.'’’ If such effects are consistent throughout the text, ironic tone characterizes the narrator or speaker's voice. Satire frequently uses irony, which produces, but is not limited to, comic effect.
In "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,'' the exaggerated descriptions of the town as ‘‘most honest," "upright," and "unsmirched" identify the ironic tone of the narrator's voice, especially as the reader recognizes that this model of virtue has deeply offended a stranger and makes Mary feel threatened by burglars. The story contains numerous contradictions between the reality of Hadleyburg and its reputation for virtue. Early examples include Edward's quiet history of lying, Mary's generally disdainful opinion of the neighbors, and their conjecture that only Goodson, born and raised outside of Hadleyburg, could have been generous enough to give a stranger twenty dollars.
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Like all of Twain's stories, the characters in "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," are unique, the plot is intricate and carefully crafted, and the dialogue is brisk and believable. However, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" represents at least two departures from Twain's previous short stories. First, instead of the more typical first person narration chosen for most of his stories, Twain elected to use a third person omniscient teller, lending the tale more objectivity and allowing the reader to consider the thoughts and feelings of several key characters. Also, "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is very long for a short story. At over 17,000 words, it is almost three times as long as Twain's typical short narrative. Some publishers would consider it a novella.
The story's exceptional length allows Twain to develop the characters with a depth and fullness beyond what is seen in most short stories. Notable are the main characters of Edward and Mary Richards. They are long-suffering people whose social position in the community has been earned by a lifetime of deeds and hard work. They are old and poor and devoted to each other. They have been married so long that they seem to think as one. Twain's masterful use of dialogue and the omniscient point of view opens their minds and makes readers aware of the Richardses' secret desires, their struggles with temptation, and their depth of disillusionment. When Edward and Mary are doing the right things,...
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"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" is Twain's Tartuffe. Like Moliere's 17th century French satire, it is an indictment of those who too loudly profess their piety and, in this case, their honesty. Twain recognizes that even the best among us is human, and thus has human weaknesses and is corruptible. In fact, this story would suggest that those who claim to be incorruptible are, in fact, the most easily corrupted. The story also demonstrates that people have the power to control their own destiny and are capable of making the right choices, even if they do not always do the right thing.
"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" indicts blinding self-righteousness that loses sight of compassion and true charity. Ironically, in a town priding itself for its goodness and piety, only one man, Barclay Goodman, was capable of such an act of selfless generosity.
Twain also examines the nature of honesty, and how outwardly righteous people like Mary and Edward Richards find ways to rationalize their deceit and hide it from their own conscience. He demonstrates that good never exists without its share of evil. The people of Hadleyburg tried to ignore the reality of evil and had sheltered their children from corruption. In changing the motto at the end of the story, Twain suggests that children would be better served by teaching them the fallible nature of man, rather than trying to protect them from it.
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Compare and Contrast
1844: Samuel Morse sends his first message over telegraph.
1876: Alexander Graham Bell invents the first ‘‘speaking telegraph’’ machine, or telephone. Advances in communications technology shrink the geographical distance between regions, which allows Americans to view themselves as a nation.
1990s: The Internet and the World Wide Web become household words. With the click of a "mouse," individuals connect with people all over the globe. The development of fiber optics in communications technology makes high quality, overseas calling inexpensive and convenient. The world is often described as a "global village.''
1860s-1880s: The American railroad industry standardizes and consolidates routes, which facilitates movement of freight and passengers between different regions. In 1886 railroads adopt a standard gauge. In 1883 the American Railway Association establishes four national times zones (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) to standardize train schedules.
1976: Regular commercial flights of the British-French supersonic transport plane, the Concorde begin. Breaking the sound barrier, the Concorde's maximum cruising speed is 1,354 miles per hour. Traveling west, time of arrival is hours earlier than time of departure. For example, a departure from London at 6 p.m. arrives in New York at 4 p.m. the same day.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Were the people of Hadleyburg as honest and incorruptible as they claimed? Why do you suppose they believe they were? What did they do to reinforce that image and to perpetuate it?
2. What do you suppose happened to the stranger in Hadleyburg that would cause him to go to such extreme ends to seek his revenge? Why do you suppose he chose to get his revenge on the entire town instead of the individual or individuals that injured him?
3. Why do you think that all of the nineteen fell into the stranger's trap? What do you think the stranger would have done if none had sent a note to Reverend Burgess?
4. Why do you think the town changed its name at the end of the story?
5. Mark Twain is known for his colorful diction. Locate an example of this and explain how you think diction influences the overall effect of the story?
6. Why do you think Twain kept the setting of the story so vague? Besides its name, what else do you know about Hadleyburg?
7. Explain how the gilt-covered lead coins in the stranger's sack might be a metaphor for the citizens of Hadleyburg.
8. Who are the leading citizens of Hadleyburg? Compare them to the leading citizens of your community. What are the similarities? Differences?
9. What caused Edward and Mary Richards to lose their health at the end of the story? Why do you think they never cashed the check given to them by the stranger?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The plot of "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" ends pretty much as the stranger had planned it. Rewrite the end of the story in such a way that the town is somehow saved from dishonor. Which ending do you think is more realistic? Why?
2. Twain often invents interesting characters such as Jack Halliday to spice up the plot and give the setting context. Invent another character that would fit into the story. Using a combination of action, dialogue, and description, write a new section of the story, integrating your new character into the plot.
3. Hadleyburg is not unique in the changing of its name. Discover the name of two real villages, towns, or cities that have changed their names. Write a report detailing the circumstances leading up to the change and how and why they chose new names for their communities.
4. Mark Twain is not the only writer who is critical of society. Historically, writers have long believed that they have a responsibility to critique human behavior and expose the ills of society. Write a report on contemporary poets, novelists, or short story writers that are known for taking political stands and for their social satire. Include short abstracts of their most satirical works, explaining their favorite issues and the nature of their social criticism.
5. Write a report comparing the town of Hadleyburg to a school or business with which you have personal and direct experience. Include parallels to...
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Topics for Further Study
As a critique of "community," "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg’’ demonstrates the dangerous consequence of a ‘‘herd mentality.’’ Do you agree or disagree with Twain's representation of American communities and the spirit of the nation as a whole, as oppressive and inhibitive to individualism? In your opinion, what is more important, individual expression or group cooperation? Use concrete examples from national or local history or current events to support your argument.
Discuss how today's society is influenced by communal values. Does society today encourage and tolerate individual views and opinions, or is it as rigid and close-minded as Twain's Hadleyburg? Perhaps it is a combination of these characteristics. Use quotes from newspaper and magazines where possible. You can also choose an excerpt from literature and analyze the community it describes. Use textual evidence.
Great detail is given about the opinions of the Hadleyburgians, what they believe and whom they hate. What are omitted are the viewpoints of the victims of this powerful public judgment. What are the so-called outcasts, Goodson and Burgess, thinking? Write a version of events from either or both of their points of view. You may choose to name the "sin" these men supposedly committed.
Hadleyburg can be understood as a microcosm of America and the story has been interpreted as warning adhering too closely to "nationalism." Using historical,...
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In Twain's later works, his natural sarcasm gradually grows into a general bitterness, disillusionment, and pessimism toward the basic nature of God and the human race. This growing cynicism influenced much of his later writing, emerging in his writing as increasingly sharp and biting social criticism.
In addition to "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg," many of Twain's most famous works can also be characterized as social criticism. Often considered his greatest novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), tells the adventures of a young boy and a runaway Negro slave as together they search for truth and freedom on the Mississippi River. The novel does more than tell a compelling story of action and adventure. It lays bare the blatant and pervasive social and racial prejudice of nineteenth century America. It also questions the individual's responsibility to society and the extent to which people must shape themselves to fit the mold of social expectation.
Twain's growing bitterness can also be seen in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which was published in 1889. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a novel about a young man who, after a blow to his head, is magically transported across time and space from his home in nineteenthcentury America to medieval England and the mythical kingdom of King Arthur. Though the book certainly offers the clever narrative and special brand of homespun humor...
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What Do I Read Next?
Genesis 1-3, The Old Testament contains the story of Adam and Eve, the Original Sin, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. "Hadleyburg'' is often interpreted as an allegory of this story.
The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin published the same year as "Hadleyburg,'' provides a woman's point of view on the oppressions of community. The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, struggles with traditional expectations of a wife and mother. In her rigid society her attempts to break boundaries results in tragedy.
The Yellow Wallpaper (1899) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores in eye-opening detail the alarming consequences of societal oppression of women whose desires transgress patriarchal norms.
The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne relates the story of Hester Prynne, a Puritan woman who bears a minister's child out of wedlock. Refusing to reveal the father's name, she is forced to wear a red letter "A'' as punishment. This novel is a deep exploration of the often-malicious motives of collective identity and community.
A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) by William Dean Howells explores the...
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For Further Reference
"Mark Twain." In Short Story Writers, vol. 3. Pasadena: Salem Press, Inc., 1997: pp. 907-908. Provides helpful insights into many Twain's short works, including useful criticism and analysis.
"Mark Twain." In Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984: pp. 423-424. Limited biographical sketch with some publishing details and brief comments on selected works.
Rasmussen, R. Kent, editor. Mark Twain A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Writings. New York: Facts on File, 1995: p. 188. Just as the title suggests, a complete Twain reference.
Waisman, Scott. "Sam Clemens—A Life." About Mark Twain http://www.geocities. com/swaisman (December 2001). Provides a thorough discussion of the author's life, including a time line and publications.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition, New York: Verso, 1991.
Archer, William. ‘‘The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg-New Parable,’’ in The Critic, Vol. 37, November, 1900, pp. 413-415.
Briden, Earl F. ‘‘Twainian Pedagogy and the No-Account Lessons of 'Hadleyburg,'’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, 1991, pp. 125-134.
Briden, Earl F. and Prescott, Mary. ‘‘The Lie that I Am I: Paradoxes of Identity in Mark Twain's 'Hadleyburg,'’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1984, pp. 383-391.
Emerson, Everett. The Authentic Mark Twain: A Literary Biography of Samuel L. Clemens, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts, Duke University Press, 1996.
Quirk, Tom. Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne, 1997.
Murfin, Ross, and M. Ray Supryia. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, New York: Bedford, 1997.
Review of The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and Other Stories, in Living Age, Vol. 227, December 15, 1900, pp. 695.
Briden, Earl F. ‘‘Twainian Pedagogy and the No-Account...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Burns, Ken, Dayton Duncan, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, ed. A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain: A Descriptive Guide to Biographical Sources. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999.
Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.
LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993.
Ober, K. Patrick. Mark Twain...
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