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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1551

‘‘The Mysterious Stranger’’ is narrated by August Feldner, a sixteen-year-old printer’s apprentice. The events of the story take place in 1490, in the small village of Eseldorf, Austria.

August lives and works in a run-down old castle where the print shop is located. Heinrich Stein, a man in his mid-50s and the master of the print shop, is referred to throughout the story as ‘‘the master.’’ The master lives in the castle with his wife, Frau Stein, and her seventeen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Marie Vogel. The master’s sister, Frau Regen, and her seventeenyear- old daughter Marget Regen also live there. In addition to August, there are six other men who work in the print shop and live in the castle: Adam Binks, Gustav Fischer, Moses Haas, Hans Katzenyammer, Barty Langbein, and Ernest Wasserman. A magician by the name of Balthasar Hoffman lives in the castle as well.

One day, a boy of about sixteen or seventeen shows up at the castle, dressed in rags and begging for food. When he is asked his name, he tells them it is ‘‘Number 44, New Series 864,962.’’ On hearing this unusual name, most of the members of the household protest that he should be turned out. However, Katrina, the old cook, comes to his defense, and insists that he be taken in. The master agrees to allow Number 44 to work in the castle doing chores.

Soon, the master offers Number 44 a position as apprentice in the print shop. Most of the men working in the shop take an immediate disliking to Number 44, and do everything they can to overwork and humiliate him. August feels sympathy for Number 44, but knows that if he says anything in Number 44’s defense, he will be ostracized by the others. The inhabitants of the castle begin to believe that Number 44 has magical powers, and they assume that the magician, Balthasar, has given him these powers.

Eventually, August secretly befriends Number 44. Number 44 explains that, although Balthasar did give him some magic power, he already had magical powers before he arrived. Number 44 states that he wishes to promote the idea that his powers come from Balthasar, so as to bolster the magician’s reputation. Number 44 teaches August to make himself invisible. August also learns that Number 44 can read his thoughts.

The men who work in the print shop demand that Number 44 be turned out, but the master refuses to do so. Finally, they decide to go on strike until Number 44 is gotten rid of. The print shop is supposed to complete the publication of an order of Bibles, but the work cannot get done as long as the men are on strike. Upset by these events, the master becomes ill and takes to his bed.

In the midst of this crisis, the itinerant printer Doangivadam arrives at the castle. Upon learning of the situation, Doangivadam immediately takes sides with Number 44 against the other print shop workers. One night, they all go up to the shop and find that invisible workers are magically printing the Bibles. By morning, the Bible order is complete and the crisis is over, though the men are still on strike.

The men of the shop determine that Balthasar has given Number 44 the magical powers to complete the Bible printing without them. They threaten to have Balthasar burned as a heretic unless he promises to prevent Number 44 from performing any more magic. Balthasar states that, if Number 44 performs any more magic, he will cast a spell that will reduce the young man to ashes.

One night, the men are all eating together, and suddenly each man finds that his Duplicate has appeared in the room. The Duplicates, who look exactly like their Originals, explain that they are Mark Twain willing to work in the print shop, and give their wages over to their Originals, who will be able to get paid without working. Once this is agreed to, the Duplicates and the Originals live together in the castle, the Duplicates doing all the work and the Originals lounging around.

Seeing that Number 44 has performed magic in causing the Duplicates to appear, Balthasar turns him to ashes right before everyone’s eyes. They hold a funeral and bury Number 44’s remains—but when August returns to his room that night, Number 44 is sitting in a chair, alive and well. No one but August knows that Number 44 is not really dead.

Meanwhile, word has gotten out that Balthasar magically killed Number 44. The local priest, Father Adolf, determines that Balthasar is possessed by the Devil, and orders that he be burned at the stake. However, Balthasar cannot be found anywhere. Father Adolf then determines that the Duplicates are evil spirits, and condemns them to be burned at the stake. But each time he captures one of them, the Duplicate disappears before he is burned, and reappears in the print shop. One day, Number 44 magically disguises himself as Balthasar, and is seen in the town. Father Adolf, believing that he is Balthasar, arranges to have him burned at the stake, but he magically escapes before he is burned.

August realizes that he is in love with Marget, the master’s niece. He discovers, however, that she is only in love with him in her dreams, when she is sleeping. August is able to make himself invisible and come to Marget in her dreams, during which her Dream-Self believes that her name is Elisabeth von Arnim and his name is Martin von Giesbach. But when she wakes up, she has no memory of this, and simply ignores August. During her waking hours, when she is her Day-Self or Waking-Self, she is in love with August’s Duplicate, who calls himself Emil Schwarz.

One night, August sneaks into Marget’s bedroom. When Marget, her maid, and her mother, Frau Regen, see him there, they scream and tell him to leave. The women believe it was his Duplicate, Emil, and not August, who snuck into the room. When the master learns of this, he orders that Emil must now marry Marget. Meanwhile, Marget’s maid is about to tell one of the other maids about this incident, and thus spread a rumor that will ruin Marget’s reputation.

August tries to come up with a scheme to prevent Marget’s marriage to Emil, and calls on Number 44 to help him. They decide to magically transform the maid into a cat, so that she cannot spread any rumors about Marget. Once the maid is turned into a cat, Number 44 gives August the power to understand cat language. The cat then explains to them that she much prefers being a cat to being a maid, because as a maid she was constantly having to work and wait on other people. August and the cat agree that she will be his pet, and he names her Mary Florence Fortescue Baker G. Nightingale.

Emil comes to August’s room and, much to August’s surprise, says that he doesn’t care if he marries Marget or not. He explains that he is a Dream-Being from the Empire of Dreams. He explains further that he is August’s Dream-Self, the part of him that travels throughout space and time while August is sleeping. Emil hates being trapped in a physical body, in the form of August’s Duplicate, and begs to be released from imprisonment in this body. Number 44 arrives, disguised as Balthasar, and grants Emil’s wish, causing his physical form to dissolve into thin air so that he may return to the Dream-World.

Meanwhile, Father Adolf, Katrina, and a small army of men from the village have congregated in the castle, threatening to capture Balthasar and have him burned at the stake. Number 44, still disguised as Balthasar, steps into their midst, then suddenly makes himself disappear in a flash of blinding light, while simultaneously causing an eclipse to occur, which darkens the sky outside.

Back in August’s room, Number 44 comes to visit August, and congratulates himself on the trick he played on the others. Number 44 decides to make time go backwards twenty-three hours. Then he arranges an Assembly of the Dead who form a Procession of thousands and thousands of skeletons of deceased people from throughout history, including such famous figures as King Arthur, Cleopatra, and Noah.

Number 44 then tries to explain to August who and what he is. He asserts that time and space, as well as life and death, mean nothing to him, and that he is capable of traveling throughout the universe and throughout history at his whim. Number 44 states that his existence is beyond the bounds of what any human being could conceive of. He explains that ‘‘Life itself is only a vision, a dream,’’ and that his existence is ‘‘pure Thought,’’ without physical matter. Number 44’s parting words to August are:

It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but You. And you are but a Thought . . . wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!

In the closing line of the story, August states, ‘‘He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true."

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