The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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 destroying the old man’s mind so that he goes crazy and to the end of his days happily believes himself to be an emperor. When Theodor, the young narrator, protests, Satan simply explains that he only promised to make the old man live happily, and only the mad can be happy in such a world. By the example of a row of bricks on end a few inches apart, a single push at one end bringing all the bricks prostrate, Satan explains that man’s life is inexorably conditioned by circumstance and environment from the moment of his birth. Applying that principle to Theodor’s friends, he says that Nikolaus’ ordained life span is sixty-two years and pretty little Elsa’s is only thirty-six. For Eheodor’s sake, though, he will sever life’s linkage and give them a better prognostication: Nikolaus rushes to save Elsa from drowning, and immediately both drown. When Theodor is aghast at the so-called improvement, Satan explains that in the original version, by strict cause and effect, Nikolaus would have saved Elsa, caught cold and fever from his exertions, and for forty-sx years would have been a paralyzed log in his bed praying for the relief of death. Nevertheless, Theodor is haunted by his guilt over the mean boyish pranks he played on Nikolaus and the recognition that he was a coward in seeming to accede to the public ostracism of Marget and Ursula.

Despite growing uneasiness, Theodor and Seppi long for each Satanic visit. Seppi acts as if “he were a lover who had found his sweetheart” in Satan, but it is chiefly to Theodor that Satan increasingly makes his great revelations. He teaches the avid boy that brutes are innocent, and that, thus, to call a man a brute is a grievous slander to animals. He shows him man’s cruelty in a torture chamber; he reveals the hypocrisy of French...

(The entire section is 2,441 words.)