The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain
The Mysterious Stranger Twain, Mark
The following entry presents criticism on Twain's novella The Mysterious Stranger (1916). See also The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Criticism and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
The short novel known as The Mysterious Stranger was first published six years after Twain's death by his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine. In 1923 Paine released a new edition of the book that included a previously unpublished final chapter, which Paine claimed was Twain's original ending for the novella. Scholars later established that neither of these editions represented an integral work by Twain, but were Paine's own editorial creations. Apparently, during the last two decades of his life, Twain had made several attempts to write a story about a young boy visited by a sinister supernatural being. At his death he left among his papers three unfinished manuscripts and a fourth fragment, each representing a different version of this story. Paine combined portions of these texts, substantially altering them so that they formed a continuous narrative. For this reason, critics distinguish between the literary artefact known as The Mysterious Stranger and the actual documents written by Twain that served as its source material.
Plot and Major Characters
In each of his original Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, Twain set his story in a different place and time, including eighteenth-century Europe and nineteenth-century America. The version that Paine used as the basis for his Mysterious Stranger takes place in a small Austrian village in 1590, where a young man named Philip Traum, who claims to be Satan's nephew, befriends three adolescent boys: Theodor, Seppi, and Nikolaus. He fascinates them with miraculous, disturbing visions, and endeavors to convert the innocent Theodor to a nihilistic, anti-Christian world view. Theodor is horrified, both by the pious inhumanity of his fellow villagers as revealed to him by Traum and by Traum's own amoral cruelty. Finally, Traum declares that reality is an illusion, and leaves Theodor with an ambiguous command to "dream other dreams, and better!"
The main narrative thrust of The Mysterious Stranger is Traum's repeated attempts to convince Theodor that life is meaningless, that God is either nonexistent or indifferent to human suffering, and that people are doomed by their own ignorance and self-serving hypocrisy to lead violent, squalid lives. The story, as edited by Paine, ends with a suggestion that humanity's redemption lies in imagining a better way of life for itself, but critics question whether or not this ending is congruent with thematic values expressed in other parts of the text.
From its first publication, The Mysterious Stranger earned attention as a work of significant literary merit. However, even before John S. Tuckey published his 1963 study revealing Paine's radical editorial interference, many readers identified uneven elements in its narrative. Much critical discussion was devoted to making sense of its thematic inconsistencies, for instance, the incongruity between Traum's grueling demonstrations of life's harsh realities, which make up the body of the novella, and his final assertion that life is just a dream. These discussions became necessarily more complex after the discovery of the original Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, when critics began to base their textual analyses on these documents as well as the Paine versions. Scholars have inferred that the dark tone of The Mysterious Stranger reflects Twain's despair at the death of loved ones, financial losses, and his own failing health during the last few years of his life, and have pointed out that these ideas match sentiments expressed by Twain at this time in other writings, as exhibited in the essay "What Is Man?" and the short story "3,000 Years among the Microbes."
SOURCE: Mark Twain, A Portrait, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938, pp. 221-38.
[In the following essay, Masters discusses The Mysterious Stranger as a product of Twain's final disillusionment with life.]
I feel that so much of Twain's mind and nature, his inner conflicts and troubled speculations and broodings, his judgment of men and life, are in The Mysterious Stranger that I want to pay particular attention to it. A writer will work at an idea for years, he will write about it and write around it over and over, he will approach it from many angles, then at last he will get hold of the theme in its entirety; and much practice in writing about it, much reflection upon it will produce the work. I feel all this to be so about The Mysterious Stranger, and further that it is Twain's supreme tale, a work of marvellous imagination, and wrought out in language full of energy and eloquence. I should call it a prose poem, and analogous to Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." In the early eighties Twain wrote by way of memoranda, "I believe in God the Almighty. . . . I think the goodness, the justice and the mercy of God are manifested in His works; I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one."
In these memoranda he scouted eternal...
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SOURCE: "The Genesis of The Mysterious Stranger" in Mark Twain Quarterly 7, Nos. 3 and 4, Spring/Summer, 1947, pp. 15-19.
[In the following essay, Laverty traces the beginnings of The Mysterious Stranger to, among other things, a short tale by Jane Taylor.]
A scholar may consider a piece of writing as an organic entity—an entity that is conceived when the fertilizing idea strikes the nourishing mind of the author. The embryonic work thereafter is fed from the vast storehouse of mental and emotional experiences of the author. Thus the brainchild grows and is born. If Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger be considered as such an organic creation, the fertilizing idea may well have been a short "moral" tale written by Jane Taylor, an English writer of religious and didactic pieces, and reprinted in more than one edition of the famed McGuffey Readers under the title "The Mysterious Stranger"—Mark Twain's own title.
Before considering more fully Mark Twain's probable debt to Jane Taylor, however, one can profitably examine the mind of the American writer to see what richness of experience was there from which his embryonic work could draw nourishment and thus come into being.
Important among such material are memories of his own boyhood. The boys in The Mysterious Stranger, like those in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, come...
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SOURCE: "The Microscope and the Dream," in Mark Twain as a Literary Artist, University of Oklahoma Press, 1950, pp. 352-76.
[In the following essay, Bellamy examines The Mysterious Stranger in the light of Twain's biography and writing notebooks.]
The book called The Mysterious Stranger presents Mark Twain's final expression of the village and its inhabitants. Bernard DeVoto believes that this book resulted from the personal disasters which engulfed Mark Twain in the late eighteen nineties. His publishing firm failed; the Paige typesetting machine wrecked his fortune in its debacle; his youngest daughter, Jean, was discovered to be afflicted with epilepsy; his eldest daughter, Susy, closest to him in talent and spirit, died of meningitis; and Livy, after Susy's death, was an invalid the last eight years of her life. "The gods had turned against their darling," says Mr. DeVoto in Mark Twain at Work; and he believes that the tragic writings which include "The Great Dark" and The Mysterious Stranger constituted an attempt by Mark Twain to reintegrate his writing talent, almost destroyed by these disasters, and to still the accusing voice of his conscience by proving to himself that he was not to be blamed.
Mark Twain was always among the most autobiographical of writers. Yet, studying the record, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that The...
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SOURCE: "The Epistemological Theme of The Mysterious Stranger," in Themes and Directions in American Literature, edited by Ray B. Browne and Donald Pizer, Purdue University Press, 1969, pp. 130-47.
[In the following essay, Glick analyzes various lines of philosophical argument in The Mysterious Stranger.]
Among the scores of literary fragments which accumulated around Mark Twain in the terminal years of his life—most of them vilifications of democratic man and democratic society—stands The Mysterious Stranger, bitter like the rest, but bitter with a difference. For while most of these fragments impress the reader as little more than the vituperative tirades of the idealist turned sour as a consequence of the demise in his old age of his youthful hopes and expectations, or perhaps of his belated recognition of the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, The Mysterious Stranger, though it contains a measure of such raillery, does not end with it. The bitterness is provided with a rationale. It devolves, not so much from Twain's conviction that man is irrational, as from Twain's impatience with man's presumption that he is not. Exposed to the evidence of past and present that his absolutes are feigned, his vaunted moral faculty a compensatory delusion, his life a meaningless and ignorant journey to no end across a darkling plain, man compounds the tragedy of his fate by taking...
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SOURCE: "Mark Twain's Dream Self in the Nightmare of History," in Mark Twain Journal 15, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 6-12.
[In the following essay, Johnson situates Twain 's philosophical stance within the duality of idealism and pragmatism.]
There is, as F. O. Matthiesen and Stephen Whicher have remarked, in Emerson's developing metaphysics a double consciousness, an awareness that there are two ways of seeing the world, an ideal and a real, in terms of freedom and fate, or from the points of view of Reason and the understanding. Because nature is an extension of thought, because the act is manifest thought, man is as free as thought. But at the same time nature and man himself are fated by their own biology and chemistry. There is, then, existent at the same time, causationism that Emerson defines in his essay, "Power," as a determined and necessary relationship between event and thought, events as extensions of the self, and a determinism, or fate, which is a necessary cause-and-effect relationship in nature and between events which carries man along helplessly within it.
The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other; never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and...
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SOURCE: "The Gospel According to Philip Traum: Structural Unity in The Mysterious Stranger,'" in Studies in Short Fiction 8, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 411-22.
[In the following essay, May examines the connections between the central narrative of The Mysterious Stranger and its final chapter .]
The major problem with the criticism of The Mysterious Stranger to date is that it has been too narrowly concerned with a thematic justification of the last chapter in relation to the rest of the work. The story was unfinished at the time of Twain's death; and it was not until his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, "discovered" the final chapter that the story was eventually published in 1916. Without a final chapter the story undoubtedly lacks a sense of direction, yet critics have had trouble justifying the relationship between the unambiguous solipsism of the last chapter and the earlier development of the story. Is there any preparation in the story for the utter negation of external reality that Philip Traum's revelation in the last chapter represents?
In Mark Twain and Little Satan, published in 1963, John S. Tuckey establishes conclusively the order of Twain's composition of the three distinct versions of the Satan story, that Bernard DeVoto had previously named—the Eseldorf Version, the edited text that was actually published; the Hannibal Version, describing...
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SOURCE: "The Mysterious Stranger: Mark Twain's New Myth of the Fall," in Mark Twain Journal 17, No. 4, Summer, 1975, pp. 20-1.
[In the following essay, Scrivner presents The Mysterious Stranger as Twain's attempt to rewrite the Biblical myth of the fall of humanity .]
To understand the pattern of organization and thematic concern which operate together to make a unified work of Twain's Mysterious Stranger, one must see the events of the story in relation to a Christian world view according to which temporal history begins with the fall from innocence. The Mysterious Stranger is the working out of a kind of restoration, or anti-fall, which reverses the baneful consequences of the fall of man by negating altogether the Christian world view which established and sustains such a belief.
It was the proffered knowledge of good and evil with which the serpent tempted Eve, the disobedience necessary to obtain that knowledge supposedly being the cause of man's subsequent depravity. From the beginning, Satan, whose name strongly suggests a parallel in function with the original tempter, represents a knowledge that is simultaneously and paradoxically also in ignorance. Like prelapsarian man, he lacks the "Moral Sense" and destroys the tiny beings he creates for the boys with a casualness which horrifies them. Even as he wipes the blood from his fingers, the amoral Satan...
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SOURCE: "The Growth of a Misanthrope," in Mark Twain, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983, pp. 161-95.
[In the following essay, Miller suggests that The My sterious Stranger draws together concepts expressed in Twain's earlier work, but does not truly represent his own sentiments.]
The most important of Twain's shorter works, it [The Mysterious Stranger] is also the most contemptuous. In various manuscripts, it engaged Twain's attention from 1897 to 1908 and was "published" only after his death. His last work, in a manner of speaking, and one of his most problematic, it must be considered in detail.
Twain had a lifelong fascination with Satan that can be traced to his childhood. In his Autobiography, he recorded how his mother was once moved to defend the devil:
She was the natural ally and friend of the friendless. It was believed that, Presbyterian as she was, she could be beguiled into saying a soft word for the devil himself, and so the experiment was tried. The abuse of Satan began; one conspirator after another added his bitter word, his malign reproach, his pitiless censure, till at last, sure enough, the unsuspecting subject of the trick walked into the trap. She admitted that the indictment was sound, that Satan was utterly wicked and abandoned, just as these people had said; but would any claim that he had been...
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SOURCE: "The Mysterious Stranger and '3,000 Years Among the Microbes': Chimerical Realities and Nightmarish Transformations," in Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain's Fiction, McFarland, 1991, pp. 102-22.
[In the following essay, Mandia discusses pessimistic themes in The Mysterious Stranger and "3,000 Years among the Microbes. "]
"When I was a man, I would have turned a microbe from my door hungry. . . . The very littleness of a microbe should appeal to a person, let alone his friendlessness. Yet in America you see scientists torturing them, and exposing them naked on microscope slides, before ladies," Huck, a man who has been transformed into a cholera germ, points out in "3,000 Years Among the Microbes." In The Mysterious Stranger, Theodor Fischer fears that the beautiful image of Satan dissolving himself is only a dream. Theodor marvels, "You could see the bushes through him as clearly as you see things through a soap-bubble, and all over him played and flashed the delicate iridescent colors of the bubble" before Satan, lightly floating along, touches the grass and disappears. As works of black humor, these stories have much in common. Although the humor in "Microbes" is whimsical at times, both stories intermingle cruelty and death with humor, present a deterministic universe, and include satire that does not attempt to reform. Most significally, they make it difficult for the...
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Eby, E. H. "Mark Twain's Testament." Modern Language Quarterly 23, No. 3 (September 1962): 254-62.
Discusses the theme of creativity as a redeeming force in The Mysterious Stranger.
Parsons, Coleman O. "The Background of The Mysterious Stranger." American Literature 32, No. 1 (March 1960): 55-74.
Identifies various sources that may have inspired The Mysterious Stranger.
Van Dover, J. Kenneth. "Mark Twain's Final Phase: The Mysterious Stranger.'" In Samuel L. Clemens: A Mysterious Stranger, edited by Hans Borchers and Daniel E. Williams, pp. 187-201. New York: Verlag Peter Lang, 1986.
Compares the three manuscript versions of The Mysterious Stranger.
Additional coverage of Twain's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 11, 12, 23, 64, 74; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 6, 12, 19, 36, 48 59; and World Literature Criticism.
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