In Mark Twain's The Invalid's Story, how is the narrator a static character and what does the reader learn from the static characterization of the narrator?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Mark Twain, of course, was something of a satirist, in addition to being a gifted teller of stories with keen insights into the environments in which he lived and in which his stories take place.  His opening passage in The Invalid’s Story, narrated in the first-person by a gentleman whose appearance belies his actual age, suggests a frail, tired individual whose fate was determined by the incident yet to be described, but which took an enormous toll on his physical and mental well-being:

“I seem sixty and married, but these effects are due to my condition and sufferings, for I am a bachelor, and only forty-one. It will be hard for you to believe that I, who am now but a shadow, was a hale, hearty man two short years ago, a man of iron, a very athlete!--yet such is the simple truth.” 

Whether Twain’s narrative style in this story can be considered “static” is open to discussion.  It is certainly straightforward, and definitely not lacking in details.  The narrator’s story is both comical and bizarre, but he relives this episode from his past with great attention to detail, such as in the following quote soon after he boards the train to Wisconsin:

 “Just then the conductor sung out ‘All aboard,’ and I jumped into the express car and got a comfortable seat on a bale of buckets. The expressman was there, hard at work,--a plain man of fifty, with a simple, honest, good- natured face, and a breezy, practical heartiness in his general style.”

The narrator’s straightforward style is particularly well represented in his description of his reaction to Thompson, the expressman’s, efforts at diluting the awful stench permeating the railcar they share along with the coffin presumed to contain the corpse of the narrator’s recently deceased friend, upon which sits a block of Limberger cheese, a notoriously pungent aroma.  The following passage, again, incorporates a narrative style that could be considered “static,” but is merely given to emotionless descriptions of that day’s events:

“This distressed me more than I can tell, for I could not but feel that it was a mistake. I was sure that the effect would be deleterious upon my poor departed friend.”

The key to understanding the narrative style Twain employed in The Invalid’s Story is the retrospective approach involving a narrator reflecting on the past.  Had Twain’s protagonist narrated events as they occurred, the writing style would have certainly been far different, and more given perhaps to incidences of hyperbole.  The story, though, is presented as a recollection, the emotions of which have long since lost their starkness through the passage of time.  No longer a crisis, it is now only a memory, and the use of exclamatory remarks or colorful phrases have been rendered moot.  The narrator is a simple, conscientious, responsible individual who was executing a task at the wish of his deceased friend.  That the events of that day shaved  years off his life has been accepted as a fait accompli, and the emotions that may once have existed have long since dissipated.