illustration of a coffin sitting on tracks next to a fire and a wedge of cheese

The Invalid's Story

by Mark Twain

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What is a good summary of The Invalid's Story?

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“An Invalid’s Story” by Mark Twain is absolutely hilarious and a testament to how olfactory images can truly color a piece of literature. The narrator begins by telling us that he is the invalid due to his resulting sickness, and proceeds to tell his story.

We learn that the narrator’s friend Hackett has died, and the narrator vows to bring the body back to Hackett’s father in Wisconsin (a long train ride away). The narrator finds the pine box near the train, assumes it is Hackett’s body, attaches a note to it, and loads it into the express car. The narrator also tells us that he later spies someone else attaching a note to an identical pine box. What the narrator doesn’t know at the time is that the pine box in the express car does not contain Hackett’s body. Instead, it contains a bunch of guns. Likewise, the identical pine box loaded elsewhere does not contain a bunch of guns. Instead, it contains Hackett’s body. Before the train leaves the station, someone puts a package of limburger cheese on top of the pine box located in the express car.

The rest of the story involves the horrible smell produced by the limburger cheese that the two men (the narrator and the expressman named Thompson) think is emanating from Hackett’s dead body, but is, in fact, just the cheese. There is a series of episodes where the two men either try to mask the odor (by lighting fires, obtaining disinfectant, smoking cigars, etc.) or try to escape from the odor (by breaking a window and taking turns sniffing the fresh air). Eventually, the two decide to risk the cold instead of dealing with the horrible smell. Thompson dies from the cold, and the narrator gets Typhoid Fever and becomes the invalid of the title.

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