Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Three of Twain’s favorite themes are central to “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”: appearance versus reality, the importance of training or habit, and—overlying those two—the evils caused by human vanity. Twain and the stranger both enjoy exposing the town’s lies: Mary and Edward Richards read the Missionary Herald but are too weak to practice charity at home and save Burgess. Hadleyburg prides itself on its honesty, but everyone, including the Richardses, is willing to lie for the gold. There is no real virtue in Hadleyburg, only show.
Real virtue, as the stranger says, requires testing: People must train to resist temptation. Training can be either bad or good: In Hadleyburg, training is for cowardice, rationalization, and vanity. Edward tries to stand against that norm at the end of the story, but by then it is too late, and he only hurts Burgess again.
The reason that it is so difficult to act well is because doing so requires admitting to faults. In his essay “What Is Man?” Twain says that there is no real altruism—man is motivated only by self-interest. That hurts people’s vanity, however, so most people lie to themselves about their motives and morals. It takes a shock such as the Richardses’ guilt or Hadleyburg’s disgrace to break that pattern. After that, people can perhaps learn to enjoy overcoming their weaknesses rather than ignoring them: “Lead us into temptation.”
(The entire section is 238 words.)
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Several narrative elements render the honest reputation of Hadleyburg suspect from the beginning. The narrator describes a town that ‘‘care[s] not a rap for strangers or their opinions,’’ while a couple of its residents so severely offend a stranger that he feels compelled to wreck revenge against the whole town. After the stranger delivers the sack of gold to the Richardses, Mary becomes anxious about theft, exclaiming,"Mercy on us, and the door not locked!’’ She regains composure only after she ‘‘listens awhile for burglars.’’ The suspicion, fear, and malice evinced by these events belie the town's "unsmirched'' honesty and suggest that an imperfect reality lurks beneath the surface. The real nature of Hadleyburg becomes apparent as the story progresses. In the privacy of their homes the townsfolk slander each other, revealing the mutual hatred that exists in the community. For instance, Goodson ranks as the ‘‘best- hated,’’ followed by Burgess. Edward's silence not only causes an undeserved scandal for Burgess, but his deception also leads the townsfolk to blame Goodson for Burgess's rapid departure from the town. In addition, Edward hides his involvement in the scandal from Mary, because he fears that she would expose him. He even admits that he only warned Burgess after he was sure that his actions were undetectable. Edward says, ‘‘[A]fter a few days I saw that no one was going to suspect me [of...
(The entire section is 982 words.)