What is the theme of Mark Twain's "The Californian's Tale"?

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mrs-campbell eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several possible themes to Mark Twain's "The Californian's Tale."  It is a sweet and touching story of a man who lost his beloved wife years before, and each year expectantly awaits her return.  The narrator, a traveller in the parts that eventually settles in the area discussed in the story, comes across this man and slowly discovers his sad delusion throughout the course of the story.

A major theme that is presented is that of grief.  Nineteen years before the narrator met Henry, the man in the house, his wife had been captured by Indians on her way home from a trip.  After that incident,

"Henry lost his mind. He thinks she is still alive. When June comes, he thinks she has gone on her trip to see her parents. Then he begins to wait for her to come back. He gets out that old letter. And we come around to visit so he can read it to us.  On the Saturday night she is supposed to come home, we come here to be with him. We put a sleeping drug in his drink so he will sleep through the night."

So, Henry deals with his grief in an unusual way, through a denial of her death that surfaces once a year.  His kind neighbors are aware of his tendency, and come to keep him company and help him out.  Grief runs as a theme throughout the story.

Another theme is that of settling the west through gold mines.  The narrator opens by describing a gold town that had been deserted after the gold ran out.  That is how many towns and cities in the west were settled, through gold rushes and the people and trade they brought with them.  One last theme present in the tale is the roughness of the frontier west.  The narrator is amazed and awed at the little house that looks so clean and civilized, because he had

"been living for weeks in rough mining camps with other gold miners. We slept on the hard ground, ate canned beans from cold metal plates and spent our days in the difficult search for gold."

Very little civilization, niceties, or comforts were to be found in the frontier west.  Women were rare too, and the dangers were extreme, as was evidenced in Henry's wife's kidnapping by Indians.  It was an interesting time period, and Twain relates many aspects of it in his short story.  I hope that helped; good luck!

physics223 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two central themes in Mark Twain's "The Californian's Tale": grief and empathy. 

The persona of the short story was a prospector, most probably during the California Gold Rush. Stanislaus River is one of the rivers in California, and Tuttletown is one of the towns near a gold-rush community. As the gold petered out, so did the people: most of them moved to more profitable places, and a ghost town was created. 

The aftermath of people's egress from those gold-rush communities was accurately described by Twain: 

They went away when the surface diggings gave out. In one place, where a busy little city with banks and newspapers and fire companies and a mayor and had been, was nothing but a wide expanse of emerald turf, with not even the faintest sign that human life had ever been present there.

The protagonist encounters scenes of desolation until he stumbled upon a beautifully maintained cottage full of flowers and life. It is in this vein that the first major theme, grief, is manifested: when people lose something or someone important to them, they often cling to the remnants of that person or thing. It may be a lock of hair, a piece of jewelry, or a beautiful picture. Sometimes the thing or person one loses is so important that one's sanity is threatened by the loss: this is the case with Henry in the story. 

Another major theme in the story is empathy. This is where the more touching aspects of the story come to the fore, because it is the very same people that the speaker described: 

...he had once had his opportunity to go home rich and had not done it; had rather lost his wealth, and had then in his humiliation resolved to sever all communication with his home relatives and friends, and be to them thenceforth as one dead.

This was not the case, however. The veterans stayed because they found the responsibility within themselves to care for a person who had tragically lost a loved one. They understood the pain that Henry must have felt, and that is part of the reason why they remained and kept taking care of Henry—and they did it, silently and nobly, for the better part of two decades. Even when everyone else left, they remained.