The Prince and the Pauper is Mark Twain’s first attempt at writing historical fiction. Stylistically, the novel is very different from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). It combines his fascination with Europe’s romantic past with his natural bent for satirizing the injustices and social conventions of his own age. He was to do the same later, to far better effect, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and, with less success, in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).
In The Prince and the Pauper, Twain begins by challenging authority, but in the end, he submits to it. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he also challenges authority. The earlier book is also more optimistic, because it reflects Twain’s belief in progress.
Although twenty-first century readers think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as children’s books, The Prince and the Pauper is the only novel Twain ever wrote specifically for children, especially his two young daughters. He aims the other two books at general audiences of all ages. Except for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), children’s literature was very didactic up to this time, and contemporary reviewers did not know what to make of it. Carroll and Twain introduced the then-radical concept that children’s literature should be entertaining, which is one reason why their books are still being read in the twenty-first century.
One recurring theme in the children’s literature of the nineteenth century was children’s obedience—or lack of—to authority; books in which children obey authority figures always have happy endings, and those books in which children disobey have unhappy ones (if these characters lived long enough). Twain mercilessly parodies these stories with “Story of the Bad Little Boy” (1865) and “The Story of the Good Little Boy” (1875), in which exactly the opposite happens: the good-boy story has an unhappy ending, and the bad-boy story has a happy ending.
In The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Canty is much better off if he stays away from his abusive, alcoholic, controlling father, who is both a thief and a murderer. Twain was one of the first authors of children’s literature to recognize the concept of parental abuse and to make the father the principal villain of the story. However, Twain had been quite naïve to think that Tom would not have been affected. By this time, Tom would have suffered significant psychological damage, even if he were able to avoid the cycle of the children of abuse becoming abusive parents themselves. In Twain’s defense, the psychology of abuse was not well understood during his lifetime.
Twain begins to contrast and compare Edward and Tom as early as the novel’s opening paragraph. They are born on the same day, but Tom is poor and not wanted by his parents; Edward is incredibly wealthy and is much desired by his parents and his country. Edward dreams about being free, and Tom wonders what it would be like to be a prince. After they inadvertently exchange places, Tom has an easier time of it, because from his reading and tutoring by the kindly Father Andrew he has a rough idea of what it means to be a prince and is willing to ask Humphrey Marlow, Prince Edward’s whipping boy, for help. Tom’s intelligence and sense of fairness lead him to make humane decisions. Edward is used to being protected and to having his commands obeyed instantly, so he has a rude awakening when he finds himself in danger and when no one pays attention to his orders. Except for Miles Hendon, all react with laughter.
In this novel, Twain employs many themes and devices, which he learned so expertly as a teller of tall tales. These themes and devices include tongue-in-cheek irony, ridiculous understatement, exaggeration, coincidence, and exchange of identities. He also uses the occasion to underscore some of the social follies, hypocrisies, and injustices of his own age without actually having to attack them directly, a technique he later uses in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He does this by treating the social and legal conventions of Tudor England satirically, trusting that his readers will recognize the parallels with their own respective times. In one chapter, “In Prison,” religious intolerance is the target. It is a chapter in which two women who have befriended Edward and Miles are burned at the stake because they are Anabaptists. Tom Canty, as king, labors to change laws that are unduly harsh or blatantly unjust, and Edward learns of the unnecessary cruelty of prisons at first hand, as well as the nature of poverty. By becoming a better person, he will become a better king. Both Tom and Edward are innocents who, like Joan of Arc in Twain’s later book, fight for justice.
Twain’s major criticism of society, both in Tudor times and in his own, is the mistake of gauging a person’s true worth based on that person’s outward appearance, that is, by judging them, for example, strictly by the clothes they wear. Edward and Tom are not identical twins, so it seems that the premise that no one, except for Tom’s mother, would recognize their true identities would be difficult for an adult reader to accept. In addition, the chain of coincidences that lead to Edward’s and Tom’s predicaments is quite implausible. However, Twain executes his premises so masterfully in this intricately plotted novel that even an adult reader is more than willing to suspend disbelief.
Another premise of the novel is that anyone can be a king, just as Tom, given the opportunity, quickly learns to be a good one. It is an easy assumption to accept, because it is prodemocratic. However, Twain does establish that Tom was able to read both English and Latin before he made the switch with Edward. Tom and Edward are equally intelligent and virtuous young boys, though born to different worlds. Chance and circumstances alone determine much of an individual’s outward behavior and appearance. In the context of the nature/nurture controversy, Twain’s belief is that a person’s environment, more so than their ancestry, or genes, determines their character. Twain does not let Tom keep the throne; he restores Edward, who is, by the end of the novel, much more qualified to be king. Edward’s adventure had been a kind of moral training, and he becomes a better king for it.
Miles Hendon, a minor noble, is the one character most like the traditional protagonist in heroic fiction; in a more conventional story, he would be the central character. When Edward meets him, Miles is on a quest to claim his inheritance and be united with his true love. He is warmhearted, sympathetic, kind, and loyal, and he interrupts his quest to help Edward, a purely selfless act given that he does not believe that Edward really is the Prince of Wales and that he will never be rewarded for his actions. Later in the novel, Miles accepts the lashes meant for Edward, and in prison, he makes sure the boy gets more food than himself, still believing Edward to be a commoner. Still, it is these actions that ultimately allow him to fulfill his quest.
In his novel, Twain provides footnotes and incorporates passages from major histories of England, including David Hume’s History of England (1754), Leigh Hunt’s The Town: Its Memorable Characters and Events (1848), John Timbs’s Curiosities of London (1855), and J. Hammond Trumbull’s The True-Blue Laws of Connecticut and New Haven (1876). This feature of The Prince and the Pauper helps to minimize its occasional anachronisms. For instance, a reference is made to a plumber, although there had been no such trade in the sixteenth century. Twain also had spent time checking the settings for his novel when he visited England in 1879.