Describe the use of images of smell in "The Invalid's Story." Explain why the images of smell are humorous and how Thompson's reactions to the smells add to the story's humor.

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The use of olfactory images in “An Invalid’s Story” by Mark Twain is precisely what makes this work of literature so hilarious. The olfactory images begin with the limburger cheese and continue with efforts to mask the odor of the limburger cheese.

First, let us review the plot. The narrator is taking the dead body of his friend, Hackett, back to his father in Wisconsin by train. Unbeknownst to the narrator, the pine box being transported doesn’t contain a dead body at all. Instead, it contains a bunch of guns. Unfortunately for both the train expressman and the narrator, someone puts a package of limburger cheese on top of the pine box during transport. As the two men try to warm the express car on the journey, the cheese begins to smell and the two think the smell is the rotting dead body of Hackett. The two desperately try to mask the odor by producing other odors. They eventually decide to brave the cold instead of smelling the rank cheese. The expressman dies and the narrator becomes an invalid as a result.

The most important olfactory image here is odor of the limburger cheese. The reactions of the two men are those of disgust. If you combine this disgust with the knowledge that we have (as readers) that the smell is not from a rotting corpse, but from cheese, then you can see the humor in the situation that results from the dramatic irony. Dramatic irony, of course, is when the reader knows something that one or more of the characters don’t know. In this case, the readers know that the pine box contains guns and that the smell is from the cheese. The characters do not know this at the time. The result? Humor.

A secondary set of olfactory images that should be discussed are the odors that Thompson and the narrator use to try and mask the odor of the cheese. The first olfactory image of this sort is the smell image of cigar smoke. Thompson and the narrator try to smoke cigars in order to mask the odor of the cheese. Next, Thompson gets a hold of some poisonous disinfectant at one of the stops. Throwing this substance over the pine box and the cheese simply creates a new smell. Of course, these odors don’t cover up the cheese odor. Third, we should mention the one fresh smell indicated in the story: fresh air from the broken window. It is the only smell that gives Thompson and the narrator any respite. Finally, the two characters try to light chicken feathers and apple waste on fire in order to mask the smell. This doesn’t work either; a new smell is created.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that Mark Twain’s story is a smorgasbord of olfactory images and reactions to those images. Every single smell creates new exclamations of disgust from the new characters and, again due to the dramatic irony, makes us laugh. Instead, the two characters simply augment the olfactory experience, driving the two outside in the freezing cold weather.