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Last Updated on September 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498

This short story by Twain presents his primarily American readership with a sense of what virtues should define them as American. It also challenges them to think of what they might do in the protagonist’s situation. This work begins with the protagonist, Henry Adams (deliberately representative of any "average" American...

(The entire section contains 1395 words.)

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This short story by Twain presents his primarily American readership with a sense of what virtues should define them as American. It also challenges them to think of what they might do in the protagonist’s situation. This work begins with the protagonist, Henry Adams (deliberately representative of any "average" American man) being washed out to sea while on a leisurely boat trip. Rescued by a passing British ship, he ends up in London with nothing; the few possessions he had were washed away by the sea. While searching for food, the stranger is spotted by two English brothers of wealthy means, who decide to make a wager on his character. The brothers hand him a million-pound bank note: one of only two ever minted. One brother, Brother A, believes he will do the foolish thing and try and cash it at a bank. This action would lead to investigation and prosecution, given the note’s rarity and the fact that Henry would have no proof of having obtained it honestly. Brother B, on the other hand, believes that Henry will make better use of the note and offers him a job with good pay as a reward for his doing this.

Henry had not been aware of how much money he had actually been given, since the note was concealed in an envelope. However, after being given credit at a restaurant and a clothing store simply for the prestige of possessing such a vast sum of money, he realizes the power it affords him and relishes his new freedom. London society responds with much excitement to the mysterious newcomer, and Henry soon finds himself invited to a dinner party hosted by the American ambassador, where he meets two more important characters.

Portia is a young woman of the British aristocracy, with whom Henry is immediately enchanted. He even tells her the reason for his great wealth, at which she inexplicably begins laughing. Henry also meets Lloyd Hastings, an old friend and associate from his days as a miner in California, who has come to London to sell off his mining shares. Though at first Henry finds it hard to turn his mind from thinking about Portia, he responds positively to Lloyd’s request for help, discussing Lloyd’s shares with as many people as he can, and thus allowing his prestige to gild the shares that Hastings is selling. Soon, Henry, with whom Lloyd had agreed to split any earnings from the shares, has a million dollars all his own, and at the end of the month, he returns with Portia to the brother’s house. There, she reveals that Brother B is in fact her stepfather and that he told her about his wager. Henry asks for Brother B’s blessing in marrying Portia, and he has his request granted. The pair lives happily ever after, with the (now cashed) bank note hanging in a frame on their wall as a memento of how they met.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

The first-person narrator of the story, Henry Adams, age twenty-seven, is a mining-broker’s clerk in San Francisco. He says at the outset that he intends to make a fortune, although he has nothing but his “wits and a clean reputation.” While sailing one afternoon, he is carried out to sea and eventually rescued by a small brig bound for London. When he arrives in London, he has only a dollar to his name and is soon without shelter and food. Walking around Portland Place, Henry yearns for a pear that a child has tossed into the gutter. He walks back and forth by the pear, waiting for other people to be out of sight.

Suddenly, a window of a nearby house opens and Henry is summoned into the presence of two wealthy old brothers, who have made a bet. Henry does not learn about the bet or its details until later. The bet centers on a one-million-pound bank note that one of the brothers acquires. The other brother, Abel, bets twenty thousand pounds that “a perfectly honest and intelligent stranger, turned adrift in London without a friend and with no money except the note and no way to account for his being in possession of it,” could not live on it. The second brother maintains that “the man would live thirty days, anyway, on that million, and keep out of jail, too.”

The brothers select Henry because he has an honest, intelligent face and because he is obviously a stranger to England. Giving him an envelope with instructions and telling him to open it in his lodgings, they dismiss him. Henry, who is hungry, hurries outside and peers quickly inside the envelope. Seeing that it contains money, he rushes to the nearest restaurant, owned by Harris, a place Henry is to make famous. After eating, Henry tries to pay with the money but discovers that he has a million-pound note that no one could possibly cash. Harris extends credit to Henry, who quickly returns to the house of the brothers. They have left the area for one month, leaving behind an explanatory note saying that they are lending Henry the money for one month without interest and that if the second brother wins his bet, Henry “shall have any situation that is in my gift.”

Henry quickly considers his situation. He knows that he cannot turn the note over to a bank or to the authorities because he cannot prove that he came into possession of it legally, and he reasons that he may well land in jail. Therefore he will do the best he can with what he thinks is a useless note. Because he is wearing rags, Henry decides to enter a nearby tailor’s establishment to purchase a cheap suit. After he flashes his bank note, he is instantly given credit and as many clothes as he could possibly want. Realizing that he has discovered a wonderful situation, he buys everything he needs at all sorts of shops, and he finds himself an expensive private hotel for lodging. Henry soon becomes celebrated as the “vest-pocket million-pounder” and is even written about in Punch magazine.

After about ten days, Henry visits the American minister in London. Invited to a dinner party by the minister, Henry meets and falls in love with a twenty-two-year-old English woman named Portia Langham. When he tells Portia about his situation, she breaks into uncontrollable laughter, which surprises Henry. Readers later learn that Portia is the stepdaughter of one of the wealthy gentlemen and knows about the bet.

At the same dinner party, Henry encounters his former colleague from San Francisco, Lloyd Hastings, who has run into a dead end trying to sell Gould and Curry Extension, a California mining stock. Having an option to sell the stock, Hastings can keep anything he earns over a million dollars. However, Hastings has sold nothing whatsoever. After some discussion, Henry agrees to serve as a reference for Hastings and to vouch for the reliability and profitability of the stock. In turn, Hastings is to split his profit with Henry. Within two weeks, Henry himself has cleared one million dollars, which he deposits in a London bank.

At this time, the month required by the bet has expired, and Henry takes Portia to the house in Portland Place to report to the two gentleman. Henry, having looked them up in a directory, calls them by name, which is not given to the readers. Abel has lost his bet, much to the delight of the other brother, Portia’s stepfather, who tells Henry that he may have any situation within his gift. Henry surprises everyone by revealing that he now has a million dollars in the bank, but Portia surprises Henry even more by stating her relationship with the bet’s winner. Henry immediately applies for a situation with the gentleman: son-in-law.

Henry and Portia wed. Portia’s stepfather cashes the million-pound note at the Bank of England, has the bank cancel the note, and gives it to the newlyweds at their wedding. It now hangs in a frame in their home. Realizing that were it not for the note he never would have met Portia, Henry says of the note: “It never made but one purchase in its life, and then got the article for only about a tenth part of its value.”

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