Study Guide

The Prince and the Pauper

by Mark Twain

The Prince and the Pauper Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Tom Canty and Prince Edward are born in London on the same day. Tom, however, is unwanted, and Edward has been long awaited. While the prince lies robed in silks, Tom grows up in the filth of Offal Court. As a small child, Tom is forced by his father to beg during the day and is beaten by him at night. Gathering a ragtag court of street urchins around him, Tom often pretends that he is a prince. Father Andrew, a priest who lives in Tom’s house, teaches Tom to read.

One day, hoping to see Prince Edward of England, Tom visits the royal precincts, but when he approaches too near, he is cuffed by a guard and ordered away. Edward, who has witnessed the incident, protects Tom and takes the young beggar into the palace. There, in the privacy of Edward’s chamber, Tom confesses his longing to be a prince. When the two boys exchange garments, they discover that they are identical in appearance. Before they can switch clothes again, Edward is mistaken for the beggar boy and thrown out of the palace. He wanders helplessly in the streets, mocked by people whom he approaches with pleas that they pay homage to him as their rightful prince.

In the palace, it is thought that the prince has gone mad because he can recall none of the royal matters that he is supposed to know. King Henry VIII issues an edict that no one should discuss the royal lapse of memory, and Edward’s half-sister, Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I); his cousin Lady Jane Grey; and his whipping boy, Sir Humphrey Marlowe, kindly try to aid the supposed prince, who by this time is too frightened to confess that he is Tom Canty, a beggar dressed in the prince’s clothing.

While he had been ill, King Henry VIII had given the great seal of the kingdom to Prince Edward for safekeeping. Henry now demands the return of his seal, but Tom reports that he does not know where it is.

The Prince of Wales is still wandering the streets as a homeless waif when King Henry dies. Edward is found by John Canty, Tom’s father, and brought to Offal Court, but during the wild celebration of the ascension to the throne of the prince of Wales, Edward escapes from his supposed father. Again tormented by crowds who laugh at his protests that he is the king of England, Edward is rescued by Miles Hendon, a disinherited knight and the son of a baronet. Thinking Edward is mad, Miles pities the little boy and pretends to pay him the homage due to a monarch.

Miles had loved a girl named Edith, who was coveted by Miles’s brother, Hugh. Hugh had gained his father’s confidence by trickery, and Miles had been turned from home. Edward declares that Miles has suffered unjustly and promises the adventurer any boon he might ask. Recalling the story of De Courcy, who, given a similar opportunity by King John, had requested that he and all of his descendants might be permitted to wear hats in the presence of the king of England, Miles wisely asks that he be permitted to sit in Edward’s presence, for the young king has been ordering Miles about like a personal servant.

Meanwhile, having had the role of king of England thrust upon him, Tom is slowly learning to conduct himself royally. Because his attendants thought him mad, he is able to be honest about his lack of training and his failure to recall events that would have been familiar to Edward. At the same time, his gradual improvement offers hope that his derangement is only temporary.

John Canty lures Edward from Miles’s protection and takes the boy to Southwark to join a pack of thieves there. Still vainly declaring himself king, Edward again becomes the center of ridicule. One of the thieves, Hugo, undertakes to teach Edward the tricks of his trade. Making his escape, Edward wanders to a farmhouse, where a kind woman, pitying the poor, insane beggar boy who declares himself king of England, feeds him. Edward wanders on to the hut of a hermit who accepts Edward’s claim to royalty. In turn, the hermit, who indeed is mad, reveals to Edward that he is an archangel. While Edward sleeps, the hermit broods over the wrongs done him by King Henry. Believing Edward to be the king, as he has claimed, the hermit plans to murder him. He manages to tie up the boy while he sleeps. John and Hugo, following the trail of the escaped waif, rescue him and force him to rejoin the band of rogues. Again he is compelled to aid Hugo in his dishonest trade. At last, Miles finds the boy and saves him.

Miles and Edward then proceed to Hendon Hall to claim his heritage and to claim Edith for a wife. When they arrive at their destination, they find that Miles’s father is dead and that Hugh, married to Edith, is now master of Hendon Hall. Only five of the old servants are still living, and all of them, in addition to Hugh and Edith, pretend not to recognize Miles. Denounced as a pretender, Miles is sentenced to the stocks, where the abuse showered upon him by the mob so enrages Edward that he protests loudly. When the guards decide to whip the boy, Miles offers to bear the flogging instead. Grateful to his friend, Edward dubs Miles an earl, which only makes the imprisoned man sorrow for the boy’s relapse into insanity. Upon Miles’s release from the stocks, the two set out for London, where they arrive on the day before the coronation of Tom Canty as King Edward VI.

In regal splendor, enjoying the adulation of his subjects, but recognized for who he really is by his mother, Tom rides through the streets of London toward Westminster Abbey. There, just as the crown is about to be set on his head, a voice rings out demanding that the ceremony cease, and the real king, clothed in rags, steps forth. As the guards move to seize the troublemaker, Tom, recognizing Edward, orders them to halt. The Lord Protector cuts through the confusion by asking the ragged king to locate the great seal that had been lost since King Henry’s death. Edward, after an initial mistake, manages to remember where he had placed the seal before leaving Tom the day he was expelled from the palace. Tom admits that he had innocently used the seal to crack nuts.

Miles, when brought before the rightful King Edward, exercises his privilege of sitting in the king’s presence. At first, he had doubted that the waif was really the king, but when Edward orders his outraged guards to permit that disrespectful act, Miles knows that his young friend had not been insane after all. Edward confirms Miles’s title of earl and strips Hugh of his titles and land. After Hugh dies, Miles marries Edith, who had refused to acknowledge Miles’s identity because Hugh had threatened to kill Miles.

Made Edward’s royal ward, Tom has Edward’s promise that he and his family would be honored for the rest of their lives. Edward rights many of the wrongs he had encountered during his adventures. John Canty, whom he had wanted to hang, is never heard from again.

The Prince and the Pauper Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In The Prince and the Pauper, Twain brought together several of his literary interests. His interest in old European civilization, which had been so successfully employed in his travel book The Innocents Abroad and had been essayed again in A Tramp Abroad (1880), is here focused on England, with emphasis upon life in London. (He will come back again to the theme in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which also returns to the idea of taking the novel back into the past.) The novel does not forget the part of Twain’s literary gift that is most celebrated: his interest in boys and how they cope in situations that are not without serious consequences. Twain also had wider ambitions for the novel, and he makes use of it to comment upon politics, social problems, and the relations between children and parents or, as often is the case in his books, surrogate parents.

The book is directly related to the fairy tale genre, and it starts simply enough with the unusual, but not impossible, idea that a London street urchin, who looks surprisingly like Prince Edward, is taken into the palace by the prince. They innocently change clothes, and the prince goes off to chide the guard who mistreated his new friend, only to be thrown out on to the street despite his claim that he is the prince. Then the real trouble starts, both for him and for Tom Canty, the beggar boy, for whom the danger is less physically obvious but potentially serious if he is discovered to be an imposter.

Twain then begins an interleaved narrative of the adventures of the two boys, both determined to get back their identities. However much they protest, they fail to impress and are considered mad. Tom, sensing how precarious his situation is in the palace, goes about accumulating as much knowledge as he can about how he ought to act, hoping to wait out the absence of the prince. His task is complicated by the death of the king and the subsequent need for the prince to take a serious role in governing the country even before he is crowned. Pleased in part by the comforts of his position, he brings his native intelligence and his guile to bear on the problem, but he is determined eventually to clear up the matter.

The prince’s situation is much more difficult. Tom’s brutal father catches up with him and, mistaking him for Tom, proceeds to give him his daily beating. The prince is always less flexible than Tom, and he never admits to anyone that he is not the royal child; indeed, he is determined to play the ruler even in rags. Only the chance help of Miles Hendon, a gentleman-soldier home from the wars, protects him, and even Hendon has difficulty keeping the prince out of trouble. Hendon thinks he is mad, but he likes the boy and is prepared to be patient with him, hoping that in time, he will be drawn out of his madness by kindness.

Both boys, caught in radically different situations quite beyond their former experience, respond admirably, if the prince is always somewhat less agile in dealing with problems than Tom. All the obvious problems of rags and riches are displayed, sometimes with comic intent but often with serious concern. Twain uses the switched identities for purposes beyond the study of character or comic confusion. Tom, champing at the boring nature of political duties (in a way that reminds one of Huck Finn’s dislike of civilized life), is, nevertheless, aroused sufficiently to go beyond the pleasures of his position, and he begins to intrude upon the laws slowly, tempering their harshness but doing so with a care which does not alarm his courtiers.

Edward, out in the country, confronted by the harshness and violence of common life, can do little to help the unfortunate, but his reactions to a world he did not know existed are as civilized in their own way as Tom’s, and he is determined to do something about the lot of the common people, particularly the cruel penal laws, if he gets out of the mess alive—which is quite often shown as unlikely.

The parallels between the two, then, go beyond their physical resemblance. They are lively, strong-willed, imaginative boys who at the beginning of the novel are captives. Tom is terrorized by his criminal father. Edward, if in an obviously comfortable position, lives a sequestered life in the palace, dominated by the dying Henry VIII.

Tom dreams of a life of royal power and plays that game with his mates in the slums, then he is given his chance. Edward is also given his chance to meet his subjects, sunk in the squalor of poverty, class privilege, and legal savagery. Both are freed of their fathers, one dying, the other disappearing into the criminal world forever, possibly also dead. What they do with their chances is central to the most serious themes in the book. What could have been simply a charming fairy tale becomes, as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to become later, a study of boys becoming men.

The Prince and the Pauper Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-2 Summary

In London, two boys are born. Edward Tudor, the Prince of Wales, is born to great celebration, having been long hoped for by the people of England as well as by his family. There is rejoicing throughout London at the arrival of a male heir to the throne. Tom is born to the Canty family in the poor district near London Bridge. He is seen as just another burden and mouth to feed.

The years pass, and Tom is revealed to be living in third-floor, single-room lodgings in Offal Court with his family: his drunken father and grandmother, his subdued mother, and his twin sisters Bet and Nan. The girls are good hearted but ignorant. Tom’s father, John Canty, is a thief and regularly comes home to beat his wife and children,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapters 3-4 Summary

As Tom Canty wanders around London, he makes his way to the royal palace at Westminster. He looks through the gates and at last sees a prince dressed in his glorious array. The guard smacks Tom away, but the prince, Edward Tutor, sees this and berates the guard for his cruelty.

The prince invites Tom into the palace, seeing that he is weak and hungry. He asks the poor boy about his family. He is outraged to learn that Tom’s father and grandmother beat him and vows that he will make sure that they are properly punished, even if the Tower of London is reserved for more noble criminals. Tom tells about his mother and sisters, who are kind although poor.

Prince Edward describes his equally kind sister...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapters 5-6 Summary

Tom continues to admire his appearance in the mirror and wanders around the room, examining the rich articles displayed there. After some time, he begins to worry since Edward has not returned.

Soon Lady Jane Grey arrives and sees that the boy she believes is her cousin is not as he usually is. Tom tells her that he is Tom Canty and wants to go back to his humble home. Lady Jane thinks that he is truly ill and rushes out of the room.

The rumor quickly spreads throughout the palace that the Prince of Wales has gone mad. Tom leaves the room and walks through the palace, eventually coming to a room filled with courtiers and a large man sitting on a chair. He soon discovers that this is King Henry the Eighth,...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Chapters 7-8 Summary

Tom must submit to having his clothes changed for the noonday meal. He is not allowed to dress himself but has a team of servants to perform the ceremony.

He is escorted to a banquet hall, where a sumptuous table is spread for him alone, although the room is filled with servants, each with his own duty. One fastens a napkin around Tom’s neck and another tastes Tom’s food, lest it be poisoned. The chaplain stands to say grace before and after the meal. The Lord Chief Butler, the Lord Great Steward, and the Lord Head Cook all stand in attendance. Amazed at the number of servants, Tom is not aware that he personally has hundreds more, all of them dedicated to meeting his every need and whim.

When presented...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Chapters 9-10 Summary

That evening, a river pageant is held in honor of the Prince of Wales’s investiture. Lighted barges float along the Thames to the palace, each bearing soldiers, diplomats, or noblemen. Tom appears, dressed in bejeweled splendor. His life as a celebrated prince is in deep contrast to his lowly life as a pauper.

In the meantime, John Canty has captured Edward, the true Prince of Wales. Edward resists John’s grip, but Canty raises his cudgel to strike the boy. A figure intervenes and the stroke hits him instead, knocking him to the ground.

Canty hauls Edward into Offal Court to the one-room lodgings of the Canty family. Edward keeps insisting that he is a prince and must be returned to his father the king....

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Chapters 11-12 Summary

Tom, along with Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, is carried by barge to the Guildhall, where their arrival is celebrated with great ceremony. 

In the meantime, Edward is trying to enter the Guildhall but is held back, obviously being a pauper. He is trying to reach Tom, who he has decided has usurped his place as the Prince of Wales and must be arrested. As he berates the guards, a friend arrives, bearing the name of Miles Hendon. Miles himself looks to be a faded prince and is also the butt of the crowd's jokes.

As the crowd advances on Edward, a mounted messenger rides through the mob to proclaim that King Henry is dead. As the people inside the Guildhall react by kneeling before Tom, the poor boy...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Chapters 13-14 Summary

After eating, Edward lies down to sleep after ordering Miles to undress him for the night. Miles covers him again and lies down across the door, as Edward had told him to do.

In the morning, Miles measures Edward and tells him to go back to sleep, covering up even his head. Miles goes out to buy some second-hand clothes for Edward to replace his rags. He plans to take Edward to his father’s home at Hendon Hall, some distance from London.

He returns and mends the clothes as Edward sleeps. When he is finished, Miles tells Edward to wake up but finds that Edward is gone. The servant arrives, bringing breakfast. Miles learns that a youth came for Edward with the message that he was to meet Miles at Southwark....

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Chapters 15-16 Summary

The following day, Tom receives the foreign ambassadors. With the Earl of Hertford’s assistance, Tom speaks the words appropriate for a king in receiving diplomats. He manages to look and sound like a king, but he does not feel at ease. He sees most of his time as wasted with royal business, but he enjoys a few hours with his whipping boy, who instructs him in some useful information about palace life.

After a few days, Tom grows more easy in his role. Hertford is chosen as the Lord Protector, being most in touch with the king’s royal duties.

One day, Tom looks out the window and sees a mob. He sends someone to find out what is happening, surprised at the speed with which he has picked up the voice of...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Chapters 17-18 Summary

Miles Hendon hurries across London Bridge to Southwark but finds no sign of Edward, the youth, or the ruffian. He decides that Edward’s most likely course of action would be to try to find Miles, his only friend, perhaps even going toward Hendon Hall. Miles sets off in that direction.

In the meantime, Edward is taken by the youth and the ruffian into the countryside to a wood. They find shelter in a dilapidated barn. There the ruffian takes off his disguise of an eyepatch and bandage to reveal himself as John Canty. Edward demands to know where Miles is (to whom he refers as his servant), but Canty simply laughs at his pretensions.

He tells Edward that he has changed his name to John Hobbs and that Edward...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Chapters 19-20 Summary

Edward awakens the next morning to find that a rat has fallen asleep on his chest. He realizes that since he cannot sink any lower, his circumstances are about to change for the better.

Two young girls enter the barn and are surprised to see him there. When he announces that he is the king, the girls readily believe him. Their mother, however, believes him to be a deranged tramp. A widow, the woman gives him some food and tries to determine where he has come from. He shows no signs of knowing any of the places she names. She tries to find out his occupation, finally deciding from his interest that he used to be a servant in the palace kitchen.

She sets him to watching some cooking food while she does some...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Chapters 21-22 Summary

Edward awakens to find himself bound and gagged, the mad monk sitting nearby with a knife. He tries to cry out when the monk asks him if he has prayed the prayer for the dying.

Soon he hears the sound of someone approaching. A knock on the door reveals Miles Hendon, who tells the monk that he is seeking a boy who has escaped from outlaws. The monk reveals to Miles that he is an archangel, which Miles plays along with. The monk says that he sent the boy out on an errand, but Miles knows that Edward would never leave on such a task.

As Miles and the monk speak, Edward tries to make sounds loud enough for Miles to hear. Miles does indeed hear, but the monk says that the sounds came from outside. He and Miles go...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapters 23-24 Summary

A constable approaches, but Edward resists any attempt to take him to the court for questioning. Miles warns him that he should submit himself to the law just as any of the king’s subjects would since the law of England is even more supreme than the monarch.

Edward sees the wisdom of this and allows himself to be brought before the justice of the peace. When the woman’s package is revealed, it is a dressed pig, which the woman claims is worth three shillings and eightpence.

At this, the justice orders the court cleared and the doors closed. He warns the woman that any one who thieves something above the value of thirteen pence ha’penny is subject to the death penalty. He pleads for her to change the...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapters 25-26 Summary

Edward discards his rags and dresses in the clothes Miles bought for him on London Bridge. They leave London and travel across country, staying at a village overnight.

Miles continues to act as the servant to Edward’s “act” as the king. He tells Edward that the mad monk returned to his hut and was upset that Edward had escaped. When Edward tells Miles that the monk planned to kill him, Miles regrets not killing the “archangel.”

Miles looks forward to arriving at his old home, Hendon Hall. When he reaches the village, it seems to him unchanged. At Hendon Hall, Miles’ brother Hugh is the first to see them. Hugh, however, claims not to recognize Miles as his brother. He says that the family received...

(The entire section is 424 words.)

Chapters 27-28 Summary

Miles and Edward are chained in an overcrowded cell, subjected to seeing the violence criminals inflict on one another. The jailor mocks him as an imposter and brings in an old man to see him. Miles recognizes him as Blake Andrews, who used to be a servant for the Hendon family. The old man looks at Miles and says that he does not know him.

The jailor leaves, but Andrews returns and tells Miles that he does indeed recognize him. He promises that he will proclaim the truth, even if he is strangled for it. Over the next few days, Andrews comes to “abuse” Miles, all the while bringing him some delicacies. Miles gives these to Edward, who is suffering badly in jail.

Andrews tells Miles that Arthur Hendon,...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapters 29-30 Summary

When Miles’ term in the stocks is completed, he and Edward are told to leave the village and not return. As they ride back to London, Miles ponders what his next course of action must be to regain his inheritance.

He thinks of Andrews’ comment about the kindness of the new king. He decides he will try to appeal to King Edward for his assistance, although he is not sure whether a man with such a poor appearance as he now has will be allowed into the royal presence. He remembers an old friend of his father, Sir Humphrey Marlow, who held a position in the royal palace and might be able to get him in to see King Edward.

Edward is also deep in thought, and Miles forgets his intention of treating the boy as...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Chapters 31-32 Summary

On Coronation Day, Tom Canty rides in the pageant to the cheers of the London citizens. He sees two of his friends from Offal Court and wonders what they would think if they knew who he really was.

He is stunned when he recognizes his mother among the crowd. His hand flies up, the habit that he acquired in his younger days when he was startled by an explosion of gunpowder. His mother recognizes the sign and cries out to him as her son. When he says, “I do not know you, woman,” a guard knocks her down into the street.

Tom is haunted by the expression on his mother’s face when he denied knowing her. The Earl of Hertford sees that his countenance fell after seeing the pauper woman and urges him to change...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Chapter 33 and Conclusion Summary

Before he can get across London Bridge, Miles Hendon is the victim of pickpockets and is left with nothing but his sword. Rather than pawn his only weapon, Miles tramps along with the coronation procession. Afterward he finds himself in the countryside, where he lies down to sleep.

The next morning, he decides to go to the palace and sue for aid. He encounters the former prince’s whipping boy and asks if Sir Humphrey Marlowe is within. Since Sir Humphrey is the whipping boy’s father, Miles is allowed in. He carries the letter Edward had written and is thus shown into the presence of the king.

Miles is shocked to see his former traveling companion sitting on the royal throne. To test the truth of what he...

(The entire section is 415 words.)