The Mysterious Stranger Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Critical Essay on No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

August Feldner, the narrator of Mark Twain’s ‘‘No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger,’’ works as an apprentice in a print shop. August often describes events, situations, and characters in terms familiar to the printing trade. Thus, throughout the story, he expresses himself through metaphors drawn from printing terminology.

In comparing the personality of Marie Vogel, the step-daughter of the print master, to that of Marget Regen, the niece of the print master, August makes extensive use of metaphors drawn from the printer’s trade. He describes Marie Vogel in the following terms:

She was a second edition of her mother—just plain galley-proof, neither revised nor corrected, full of turned letters, wrong fonts, outs and doubles, as we say in the printing-shop—in a word pi.

In stating that Marie was ‘‘a second edition of her mother,’’ August indicates that, just as the second edition of a published book is almost exactly the same as the first edition, so Marie resembles her mother almost exactly. In describing her as ‘‘just plain galley-proof, neither revised nor corrected,’’ August is referring to a preliminary stage in the printing of a book before it has been edited, revised, and corrected. He then lists a variety of errors that can occur in a print text at this stage in the process: ‘‘turned letters’’ are letters that are upside down; ‘‘wrong fonts’’ are letters in the wrong size or design; ‘‘outs’’ are letters that have been accidentally left out of a text; and ‘‘doubles’’ are words that have been accidentally repeated. August sums up his description of Marie in describing her as ‘‘pi,’’ which is a printer’s term referring to a hodge-podge of mixed-up type, such as may result from dropping a form filled with individual letters of movable type. In other words, Marie has an extremely flawed personality, similar to the flawed text of a galleyproof, which contains many errors, or a jumble of individual letters of print type, without order or significance.

In contrast to his description of Marie Vogel, whom he doesn’t like, August uses print terminology to express his admiration for Marget Regen, whom he is in love with. He states, ‘‘She was a second edition of what her mother had been at her age; but struck from the standing forms and needing no revising, as one says in the printing-shop.’’

Like Marie, Marget is described as a ‘‘second edition’’ of her mother. However, while Marie is compared to a text...

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Terrible Dreams of Creative Power: The Question of No. 44

In his later fiction Twain most fully explores the dynamics of authority and its relationship to the culture of his time. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Pudd’nhead Wilson, and the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, he wrestles with larger troubling issues in ways that he had not, or could not, in his earlier works, and invests these ongoing dialogues in three of the most dominating characters in his canon. Whereas most of their predecessors were either two-dimensional or exceedingly forthright representations, Hank Morgan, David Wilson, and No. 44 are all problematic and highly enigmatic figures of authority who resist any sense of critical closure. This Twainian power figure is given full, and often disturbing, expression in his completed works, A Connecticut Yankee and Pudd’nhead Wilson. Control lies at the heart of Hank Morgan’s sojourn at Camelot. He plans from the very beginning to ‘‘boss the whole country inside of three months,’’ and fulfills his desire by erecting a technological nightmare of death and destruction. Pudd’nhead Wilson, although less obviously powerhungry than Hank, nevertheless falls into the same mold. His power is of a more subtle and clandestine nature. Through his hobby of fingerprinting, he holds in his hand the identity of Dawson’s Landing, and reveals this information to great effect in the dramatic courtroom scene. Much like Tom Sawyer and Hank Morgan, Wilson manipulates the dissemination of knowledge in order to give him the edgeand the reputation-in the community. All of these later characters live by the adage ‘‘knowledge is power.’’ However, with Pudd’nhead Wilson there arises an interesting question: what exactly is his game? Although we know his parentage, his birthplace, and his desired trade, he nonetheless remains an enigmatic character aloof from both the town and the reader. There is a dearth of information on the psychology of Wilson. What is to be made of this freethinking young lawyer with a taste for irony, fingerprinting, and palm reading? Just as Hank Morgan is to Camelot, David Wilson is, in his own way, a mysterious stranger to Dawson’s Landing.

What further confounds an unambiguous reading of Hank Morgan and David Wilson is an almost equal amount of benevolence that stands alongside their less attractive sides. If, in their more problematic moments—their desire for control, their need for attention, and their propensity (either intentionally or not) for mischievousness—Hank and Wilson embody the spirit of Tom Sawyer, then their compassionate and selfless side would tend to suggest strains of Huck Finn. Although not necessarily diametrically opposed, Tom and Huck are nonetheless two distinct types whose traits intermingle uncomfortably in many of Twain’s later protagonists. While Hank Morgan does set out to ‘‘boss’’ Camelot through a highly staged and condescending series of manipulations, at the same time he voices his desire for a democratic inclusiveness that will uphold the dignity of even the most disenfranchised individual. Even though David Wilson uses courtroom dramatics to establish his reputation and popularity (and in the process relegitimizes racial delineations), he nonmaliciously does so in the name of justice. Depending on where you are in A Connecticut Yakee and Pudd’nhead Wilson, Hank and Wilson will read as either a devil or an angel, as either a selfish manipulating showman or an innocent pensive ethicist.

The enigmatic stranger returns with full dramatic force in the guise of Young Satan or No. 44. This character is the literary descendent of Twain’s collection of manipulative pranksters and outsiders, embodied previously in the guise of Hank Morgan and David Wilson. All three—Hank, Wilson, and 44—are mysterious outsiders who come into a foreign world and, through a series of manipulative games, profoundly alter the course of events. All are performers—much in the mold of Tom Sawyer— whose feats are a mystery to their audience, but whose secrets are merely commonplace to their authors. All manipulate their audiences by controlling knowledge and information. All are revealers of truths that expose societal shams, individual hypocrisy, and illegitimate sources of power. All three are able to make life-and-death decisions with relatively little moral effort. All possess a fatal and even apocalyptic power that seems to have fascinated their creator. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, all three embody a series of oppositions that constantly vie for dominance, yet none of whose possibilities ever attain a privileged position within the text.

Yet, the question remains, what is No. 44? Much more than was the case with Hank Morgan and David Wilson, 44’s identity seems purposefully clouded in a dreamlike ambiguity. Indeed, it is Twain’s own intentional and grand ambiguity, this mystery that rests at the very heart of 44, that dogged him throughout his project and ultimately rendered it unfinished. From 1897 to 1908, Twain worked on four different versions of his mysterious stranger narrative, each one revealing a different angle, and in some cases a profound twist, on the nature of No. 44. An obvious, but nonetheless highly pertinent, example of this is 44’s metaphysical origin. Is he an angel or is he a devil? And if he is an uncertain mixture of the two, is he more devil than angel, or is it the other way around? The answers vacillate both between and within the various texts. In ‘‘The Chronicle of Young Satan,’’ he seems to be an amalgamation of both possibilities. As Young Satan reveals relatively early in the narrative, any investigations into the motives behind his actions will offer no answers, for his actions are beyond the human scope of the terms ‘‘good’’ and ‘‘evil.’’ Those designations, he tells Theodor, are the result of man’s degrading ‘‘Moral Sense’’ and are therefore alien to the young stranger. ‘‘We cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is.’’ In one significant passage, the creation of his clay people, Young Satan reveals characteristics that suggest both the devil and Christ. Immediately after telling the boys his name, ‘‘Satan’’ (Twain italicizes the name for emphasis) then ‘‘held out a chip and caught a little woman on it who was falling from the scaffolding and put her back where she belonged.’’ Although he possesses his uncle’s name, he nonetheless plays the savior figure by snatching the woman from her death. But the possible significance of this action is undermined in Satan’s next statement, when he says ‘‘she is an idiot to step backward like that and not notice what she is about,’’ and later when he crushes with his fingers two men for fighting. Reproachment and condemnation have taken the place of forgiveness. Certainly, in a Judeo-Christian sense, Young Satan is an unambiguous expression of neither supreme deity.

Other signs in the text are mixed. Young Satan has taken his uncle’s name, but he is nonetheless a self-professed angel. ‘‘It is a good family-ours,’’ Satan tells the boys, ‘‘there is not a better. [My uncle] is the only member of it that has ever sinned.’’ This last word is significant because it suggests some type of implied morality, an ethical dimension that Satan had previously strongly denied. Satan, in essence, begins to deconstruct himself. He possesses—in human terms—angelic qualities, such as a propensity for music and poetry, yet cryptically states that ‘‘it was from [his] uncle that he drew his support.’’ By the end of the fragment, the reader knows no more about Young Satan than he did at the beginning. He is as insubstantial as a blank screen or transparent film, seemingly nothing more than a collection of each reader’s projections. This characterization of Young Satan as transparent film is not just metaphorical, as Theodor describes it during one of Satan’s more memorable exits:

He thinned away and thinned away until he was a soap-bubble, except that he kept his shape. You could see the bushes through him as clearly as you see the delicate iridescent colors of the bubble . . . . He sprang—touched the grass—bounded—floated along—touched again—and so on, and presently exploded, —puff! and in his place was vacancy.

The reader, in a critical act of deciphering Young Satan, can indeed empathize with Theodor’s experience. Not only is the figure elusive, but his construction is precarious enough to where even the most careful of inquiries will—puff!—leave the critic empty-handed.

In ‘‘Schoolhouse Hill,’’ 44’s nature is less problematic. He seems, in the fullest sense, to be angelic. ‘‘I am not a devil,’’ he tells Oliver Hotchkiss. Yet, although his father is indeed Satan (a familial holdover from ‘‘Young Satan’’), he states emphatically, ‘‘I don’t admire him.’’ At his own admission, he was raised ‘‘partly in heaven, partly in hell,’’ but this seems nothing more than a playful trope employed to convey his fallen parentage, for, just a few pages later, 44 tells Hotchkiss ‘‘I was in heaven; I had always lived in heaven, of course.’’

In this, a lighter and more humorous version of Twain’s mysterious stranger, No. 44 is not so much an enigma as he is a metaphysical Tom Sawyer. He may be impish, but his heart is in the right place. Similarly, the servant devils that No. 44 summons from hell are not imposing demons, but cute ‘‘velvety little red fellows.’’ More important, the ‘‘Schoolhouse Hill’’ 44 is an angel with a mission: ‘‘The fundamental change wrought in man’s nature by my father’s conduct must remain—it is permanent; but a part of its burden of evil consequences can be lifted from your race, and I will undertake it. Will you help?’’ There is little difference in tone between 44 asking Hotchkiss to assist in this Promethean task and Tom Sawyer encouraging Jim and Huck to join in on one of his adventures. Furthermore, in ‘‘Schoolhouse Hill,’’ 44 takes on the obvious role of a savior figure—quite a departure from the amoral and shadowy figures of the other two manuscripts.

But if Twain casts a fog around the stranger in the ‘‘Young Satan’’ manuscript, he remains almost silent in the last version, ‘‘No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.’’ Indeed, silence thematically permeates the text. Every time August or his duplicate Emile attempts to raise the question of his origin, No. 44 holds his tongue with ‘‘that mysterious check which had so often shut off a question which I wanted to ask.’’ When August asks No. 44 the question that we all want to ask, ‘‘what are you?’’, he replies ‘‘Ah . . . now we have arrived at a point...

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Epilogue: The Dream of Mark Twain

What was it, after all, that Mark Twain succeeded in saying in ‘‘No. 44’’? We must accept the legitimacy of nuanced variety in interpretations, but we must insist also on the primacy of Mark Twain’s own text. Though chapter 34 has been much read and analyzed, this has usually been done in misleading contexts. We have noted most of the previous interpretations—nihilism, solipsism, ‘‘extreme Platonism,’’ the magic of art, hoax, escape from reality— and we have seen that there is some justification for all of them in words Mark Twain actually wrote. I should like, however, to suggest yet another framework, one basic to the history of modern thought and truer on the whole to the fundamental character of...

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