The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

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(Short Story Criticism)

The Mysterious Stranger Twain, Mark

The following entry presents criticism on Twain's novella The Mysterious Stranger (1916). See also The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Criticism and The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

The short novel known as The Mysterious Stranger was first published six years after Twain's death by his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine. In 1923 Paine released a new edition of the book that included a previously unpublished final chapter, which Paine claimed was Twain's original ending for the novella. Scholars later established that neither of these editions represented an integral work by Twain, but were Paine's own editorial creations. Apparently, during the last two decades of his life, Twain had made several attempts to write a story about a young boy visited by a sinister supernatural being. At his death he left among his papers three unfinished manuscripts and a fourth fragment, each representing a different version of this story. Paine combined portions of these texts, substantially altering them so that they formed a continuous narrative. For this reason, critics distinguish between the literary artefact known as The Mysterious Stranger and the actual documents written by Twain that served as its source material.

Plot and Major Characters

In each of his original Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, Twain set his story in a different place and time, including eighteenth-century Europe and nineteenth-century America. The version that Paine used as the basis for his Mysterious Stranger takes place in a small Austrian village in 1590, where a young man named Philip Traum, who claims to be Satan's nephew, befriends three adolescent boys: Theodor, Seppi, and Nikolaus. He fascinates them with miraculous, disturbing visions, and endeavors to convert the innocent Theodor to a nihilistic, anti-Christian world view. Theodor is horrified, both by the pious inhumanity of his fellow villagers as revealed to him by Traum and by Traum's own amoral cruelty. Finally, Traum declares that reality is an illusion, and leaves Theodor with an ambiguous command to "dream other dreams, and better!"

Major Themes

The main narrative thrust of The Mysterious Stranger is Traum's repeated attempts to convince Theodor that life is meaningless, that God is either nonexistent or indifferent to human suffering, and that people are doomed by their own ignorance and self-serving hypocrisy to lead violent, squalid lives. The story, as edited by Paine, ends with a suggestion that humanity's redemption lies in imagining a better way of life for itself, but critics question whether or not this ending is congruent with thematic values expressed in other parts of the text.

Critical Reception

From its first publication, The Mysterious Stranger earned attention as a work of significant literary merit. However, even before John S. Tuckey published his 1963 study revealing Paine's radical editorial interference, many readers identified uneven elements in its narrative. Much...

(The entire section is 49,484 words.)