(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)
The Mysterious Stranger cover image

In sleepy Eseldorf, in the Middle Ages, three boys—Theodor, Nikolaus, and Seppi—meet a mysterious stranger who is young, handsome, beautifully dressed, and so charming that everything is more exciting in his presence— yet unknown to them, the dashing newcomer is Satan incarnate. With his breath he lights the pipes the boys are not supposed to be smoking and provides them each with the fruit of his choice. He entrances them by making a crowd of finger-sized men and women and a most cunning castle, but because the living figures are noisy, he crushes two of them heartlessly and then mashes the more than five hundred little people like flies.

Much as they plead with him to stay, they are troubled because everything is only entertainment to him; he has no feelings, and he constantly insults the human race. He says that man “begins as dirt and departs as stench.” He, by contrast, is an angel, immortal and totally without a moral sense. For example: He hides a wallet with 1,107 ducats for Father Peter to find; the priest pays off his debts with the gold, but since one townsman, the Astrologer, has lost exactly the same amount, the poor priest (suspected of stealing) is put in jail. Then Satan provides a housekeeper, Ursula, with a stray kitten whose owner will find four silver groschen in his or her pocket every morning. This “Lucky Cat” indeed brings prosperity, making it possible for Marget, Ursula’s mistress, to entertain the townspeople lavishly and to hire Gottfried Narr as a servant.

This is a time when witchcraft i$ much in evidence in the land; eleven schoolgirls have recently been burned at the stake. Gottfried’s own grandmother was burned as a witch. Thus, when Marget gives a great party for forty guests, suspicion of witchcraft is aroused against both Marget and Ursula. When Father Peter’s trial opens, however, Satan enters into the body of Wilhelm Meidling, the attorney for the defense, and proves that all the gold pieces but four were minted that very year, although the Astrologer claims to have lost the coins two years before. Father Peter is exonerated, but Satan hastens to tell him that he has been found guilty, thus...

(The entire section is 890 words.)

The Mysterious Stranger Extended Summary

‘‘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...

(The entire section is 1551 words.)