Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper is the tale of two innocent young boys trapped in their individual worlds. Each boy dreams about what it would be like to live the lifestyle of the other. The author uses their adventures to satirize social injustices.
As the story unfolds, two boys are born on the same day in London. Tom Canty is born into poverty and Edward Tudor is born into royalty as the Prince of Wales:
In the ancient city of London, on a certain autumn day in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, a boy was born to a poor family of the name of Canty, who did not want him. On the same day another English child was born to a rich family of the name of Tudor, who did want him.
Tom grows up in “a foul little pocket called Offal Court, out of Pudding Lane.” His father is an abusive alcoholic living in a wretched house that is “small, decayed, and rickety.” One day, when Tom is fifteen years old, he wanders through the city of London where he happens upon Edward Tudor standing by a fence near his palace. As soldiers move to turn Tom away, Edward intervenes and invites Tom into the royal quarters:
Edward took Tom to a rich apartment in the palace, which he called his cabinet. By his command a repast was brought such as Tom had never encountered before except in books. The prince, with princely delicacy and breeding, sent away the servants, so that his humble guest might not be embarrassed by their critical presence; then he sat near by, and asked questions while Tom ate.
As the boys talk, both realize how they feel trapped in their lifestyles. The Prince is always confined to his royal chambers, and Tom feels imprisoned by his father in his poverty-stricken world with no hope of escape. They exchange clothes to experience what it would be like to change roles in life. They look in a mirror and discover they have “the same hair, the same eyes, the same voice and manner, the same form and stature, the same face . . .” Realizing their likenesses, the Prince decides to punish the soldier that had mistreated Tom before his invitation to the palace. As the Prince leaves the room, the soldier casts him from the palace since he thinks the Prince is nothing but a poor beggar.
Outside of the palace, the Prince is forced to travel with thieves and vagabonds, beg for food, and witness the abuses inflicted upon the common people, all while proclaiming to no avail that he is the Prince of Wales. At the same time, Tom is looked upon as being mad since he has no idea about royal protocol and princely obligations. When the king dies, Tom is prepped for his coronation as the new King of England.
As the people of London gather for the coronation, Edward is able to interrupt the ceremony and claim his title. Since he alone knows the location of the “Great Seal of England,” his identity is finally established and he is crowned. Tom is honored as the “King’s Ward.” All the loose ends are tied and Edward becomes a merciful king because of his experiences living among the poor.