Mark Twain's subtle satire is at work in this poignant, but humorous at times, tale of two boys who exchange places. With Twain's characteristic cynicism, The Prince and the Pauper exposes many of the ills of man's society as a pampered and ingenuous prince finds himself submerged in the underworld of his country.
After the prince is cast out as a begger from the royal palace, Prince Edward and Tom Canty exchange places for longer than they have intended. Edward has experienced what life is like for his poor subjects. He finds that children are often beaten by cruel fathers and made to beg, an act that is against the law. He experiences exposure to the elements, cruelty, starvation, and exploitation by the thieves who capture him.
Further, Edward learns how innocent people such as his rescuer Miles Hendon can be imprisoned because a relative writes treacherous falsehoods against him. While he is in prison with Miles, Edward witnesses the degradation of men and the violence that criminals inflict upon one another. Later, he witnesses two women tied to the stake before being burned and their girls crying, begging to die with their mothers. He also witnesses his friend and protector Miles being put into the stocks and beaten. Finally, as he returns to London for the coronation of the new king, a severed head falls off a stake on the bridge and lands on Miles.
This last incident is perceived by Edward as symbolic, signaling a change is to come in England. Therefore, when he is restored to the throne as the new king, his father King Henry VIII having died while he was gone, King Edward effects some social reforms in his country:
- He tries to have Tom Canty captured and tried, but he is never found.
- He has the farmer who was branded and sold as a slave found. Edward rescues him from the ruffler's gang, and "put him in the way of a comfortable livelihood."
- He removes "that old lawyer out of prison and remitted his fine."
- He provides homes for the poor daughters of the women who were burned at the stake.
- He punishes the official who ordered Miles to be whipped.
- He bestows some favors upon the justice who pitied him when he had stolen the pig.
- As long as he lives, the king keeps in his memory and heart the sufferings which he endured and witnessed.
- "Miles Hendon and Tom Canty were favorites of the king, all through his brief reign, and his sincere mourners when he died."