What themes are explored in Twain's The Prince and the Pauper?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A main theme, as relevant to our time as to Twain's, is the importance to leadership of knowing the lives of the people you lead. Prince Edward is not a bad soul, but he is isolated and out of touch in his palace—pampered, surrounded by courtiers, and with no real...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

A main theme, as relevant to our time as to Twain's, is the importance to leadership of knowing the lives of the people you lead. Prince Edward is not a bad soul, but he is isolated and out of touch in his palace—pampered, surrounded by courtiers, and with no real idea of the struggles that the ordinary people of London (and England) endure even less than a mile from his home.

Being mistaken for the poor Tom Canty and cast from court radically changes Edward's life and viewpoint. He suddenly has a very real understanding of what it is to be powerless, poor, and voiceless. No matter how many times he states his truth that he is the heir to the throne, almost nobody—especially most adults—will listen or believe him. He gains an enormously powerful insight into what it means to be a nobody. This raises his compassion and empathy, and ensures he will be a better ruler than if he had not ever been exposed to life's reality. In many ways, despite all his power and privilege, he was a deprived person—deprived of knowing what real life is like. As he states,

When I am come to mine own again, I will always honor little children, remembering how that these trusted me and believed me in my time of trouble; whilst they that were older, and thought themselves wiser, mocked at me and held me for a liar.

Second, like other writers of the period, Twain attacks the idea that people born to royal or aristocratic titles are genetically superior to those born to poverty. This is not a surprising point of view coming from an American writer, but nevertheless, it is clear in the novel. Tom Canty is in no way inherently inferior to Prince Edward—his problem has been poverty and lack of opportunity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A prominent theme on display at various points in the story is the perennial one of nurture vs. nature. For centuries there has been a fierce debate between those who regard how one is brought up—nurture—as the key determinant of character and those who think that environment—nature—is the determining factor. In The Prince and the Pauper, it's abundantly clear that Twain is very much on the "nature" side of the debate.

When humble Tom, a young pauper, and Prince Edward, the privileged son of a king, change places, it's noticeable that they change their behavior accordingly. It isn't just a matter of putting on a different set of clothes but of putting on a whole new identity.

To be sure, this doesn't happen all at once; it's a gradual process. But there's no denying that environmental factors are crucial when it comes to molding the respective attitudes and behavior of Tom and Edward. Through their change of place and social status, both young boys are able to gain a greater sense of empathy, which allows them to develop morally.

Twain was strongly of the opinion that societies become less barbaric over time due to changes in each individual's experience and education. And he puts this idea into practice in writing The Prince and the Pauper, where the eponymous characters are able to break free from the molds into which they were born through a simple change of environment.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the critical themes that Twain explores is the role of wealth in modern society. When stripped of their external conditions, nothing really differentiates Tom and Edward.  For all practical purposes, they are the same.  However, when it comes to external reality, they are fundamentally different. Born on the same day, and looking exactly alike, there is no difference between them. However, when viewed by society, they are perceived as fundamentally different. Tom is a street urchin, unwanted and deemed without value and Edward is the coveted and protected prince.  Their role reversal is indicative of how wealth and external conditions determine individual worth in the modern setting.  In switching roles, Twain is making a statement about how human beings are defined by wealth and external reality in the modern setting.  

Another theme that is evident in the novel is how human beings can take action.  When Edward is placed in Offal Court and struggles in the "foul little pocket," he never quits insisting on his royal heritage.  Edward never capitulates and never stops believing that he will be able to reclaim his rightful royal place.  When he does regain his throne, he uses his power to right the wrongs that he saw in his time outside of the palace. Once aware of injustice in the world, Edward acts.  Edward demonstrates Twain's theme of how individuals have the capacity to take action.  Even in a world where there is institutional unfairness and a sense of injustice, individuals can take action. However, small it is and however it might be received, the capacity for individuals to exercise their autonomy is present in Edward's actions. This becomes a critical theme that is evident in the novel.  The will to act and the ability for action to be taken are defining elements to Edward's characterization which help to feed the theme of human action in the novel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team