Edgar Lee Masters (essay date 1938)
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4103
SOURCE: Mark Twain, A Portrait, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938, pp. 221-38.
[In the following essay, Masters discusses The Mysterious Stranger as a product of Twain's final disillusionment with life.]
I feel that so much of Twain's mind and nature, his inner conflicts and troubled speculations and broodings, his judgment of men and life, are in The Mysterious Stranger that I want to pay particular attention to it. A writer will work at an idea for years, he will write about it and write around it over and over, he will approach it from many angles, then at last he will get hold of the theme in its entirety; and much practice in writing about it, much reflection upon it will produce the work. I feel all this to be so about The Mysterious Stranger, and further that it is Twain's supreme tale, a work of marvellous imagination, and wrought out in language full of energy and eloquence. I should call it a prose poem, and analogous to Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came." In the early eighties Twain wrote by way of memoranda, "I believe in God the Almighty. . . . I think the goodness, the justice and the mercy of God are manifested in His works; I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one."
In these memoranda he scouted eternal punishment, he said that no God was needed to tell men that murder and theft were wrong, and that breaches of these moral laws could not possibly injure God. Later than the eighties Twain set down in his notebook various cynical and skeptical observations, such as "Truth is more of a stranger than a fiction." "Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it ain't so." "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to exercise either of them."
These later lucubrations became the framework of The Mysterious Stranger but he made them tenfold more bitter, and he added to them. Again he used boys as protagonists. His vision of life, destiny, the world and time is conveyed to us through the eyes of boys. One is Nikolaus Bauman, son of the principal judge, one Seppi Wohlmeyer, son of the principal innkeeper, and Theodor Fischer, who tells the tale. The place is a village in Austria in 1590.
These boys are accustomed to wandering and playing about the beautiful hills of the environing country, much as Tom Sawyer and his fellows resorted to Cardiff's Hill, and to the islands in the Mississippi. One day while they are talking and loitering on the summit of a beautiful hill a wonderful young man comes along. He is of transcendent loveliness, like an angel, and he proceeds to amuse and instruct these boys. He makes a whole village of little people for them, and sends them about their business of building houses and the like human activities. Then suddenly he kills all of them with one sweep of his hand. He burns their houses. It is much like the disaster that came to Philemon and Baucis in the Second Part of Faust. It turns out that the name of the angelic creature is Satan. All that he does is symbolical, as we see, of the evil that afflicts man and the world.
The kind of thinking that Twain did in writing this tale, the kind of thinking that he always did is shown by the episodes which he invents around which to weave his interpretation and his philosophy, such as it is. There are miracles performed by Satan, such as making birds of clay and making them fly, which is reminiscent of certain apocryphal miracles of Jesus. Satan also makes wine; and some of these miracles involve the villagers in prosecutions for witchcraft. There are whole pages about demoniac possession, for Twain was always indignant about the horrors of the Middle Ages. One episode is that of a poor woman who advocated bathing and washing people, instead of bleeding them for their maladies. She was hanged for this, and thus the ignorance of religion and the hard time that science had to make any headway are dramatized. Satan takes the boys on a flying trip to China, for he can transport himself and any one with him to any part of the earth, or the universe either, in a fraction of a second. Indeed, with him there is no time. "We buzzed around over that empire for more than half an hour, and saw the whole of it. . . . We sat upon a mountain commanding a vast landscape of mountain-range and gorge and valley, with cities and villages slumbering in the sunlight, and a glimpse of blue sea on the farther verge."
Then came the death of Nikolaus. His appointed years were sixty-two, but Satan changed his destiny. Twain wrote much on the fatality of consequences, one thing leading to another. He had experienced that in his own life with that fifty-dollar bill, and in other ways. The god of consequences Heimarmenê fascinated his speculations almost to bewitchment. So now Satan broke the causal sequence in the life of Nikolaus. Nikolaus was destined to wake on a given morning to find the rain blowing in the window, and merely turn over and go to sleep again. Satan changed that. He caused Nikolaus to get up and close the window. That trifle altered his entire career, and so he went on for a few days and was drowned. The other two boys knew what was going to happen, that Nikolaus was walking toward death, and they counted the days tragically that their beloved chum had yet to live. He was drowned just as Satan predicted, and the two remaining companions were torn by sorrow.
To go on with the episodes: Satan shows the boys what might be termed a film: he re-enacted for them the death of Abel. That vision vanished and Satan showed them a series of unknown wars, murders, and assassinations. He showed them the Flood, and the ark tossing about in the waters, and later Noah overcome by wine; next Sodom and Gomorrah. One perceives the Bible preoccupation. He might have dramatized the destruction of the Athenian civilization, the obliteration of Greek literature, and the renaissance which came to pass when Aristotle was recovered to the world by Thomas Aquinas. That was not in Twain's thinking. Next Satan showed the boys the Garden of Eden, the fall of man, and the Egyptian wars, the Greek wars, the "hideous drenching of the earth with blood." "Next Christianity was born. Then ages of Europe passed in review before us, and we saw Christianity and Civilization march hand in hand through those ages 'leaving famine and death and desolation in their wake, and other signs of the progress of the human race,'" as Satan observed. "It is a remarkable progress," Satan observed. "In five or six thousand years five or six high civilizations have risen, flourished, commanded the wonder of the world, then faded out and disappeared; and not one of them, except the latest, ever invented any sweeping and adequate way, to kill people. They all did their best—to kill being the chiefest ambition of the human race and the earliest incident in its history—but only the Christian civilization has scored a triumph to be proud of. Two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians; then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian—not to acquire his religion, but his guns. The Turk and the Chinaman will buy those to kill missionaries and converts with."
In passing it might be said that the Christian Era, having entwined the economic matter with religion, as it was never done before in the world, made the wars such as the Thirty Years' War of the sanguinary brutality that it was. The new methods of killing came in the Christian Era without being invented by it. But perhaps no matter for that, beyond just this word, and the observation that in the days when soldiers fought face to face with swords and at a distance with arrows the casualties were sufficiently horrible.
But Satan tells the boys that man has no intellect, only the Moral Sense, and that the Moral Sense has tainted all his works. He tells them that "'the first man was a hypocrite and a coward, qualities which have not failed in his line; it is the foundations upon which all civilizations have been built. Drink to their perpetuation! Drink to their augmentation. Drink to—' then he saw by our faces how much we were hurt, and he cut his sentence short and stopped chuckling, and his manner changed. He said gently, 'No, we will drink one another's health and let civilization go.'" Twain was not of a mind to see that the past is trodden under by the present, that the horse has left the eohippus behind, that the skull and the brain of modern man are more capacious and more finely organized than those of the cave man. But if he had taken these facts into account he would not have written this Dantesque vision. And so he had Satan say: "Monarchies, aristocracies, and religions are all based upon that large defect in your race—the individual's distrust of his neighbor, and his desire for safety's or comfort's sake to stand well in his neighbor's eye. These institutions will always remain, and always flourish and always oppress you, affront you, degrade you because you will always remain slaves of minorities"—not of majorities as Ibsen contended.
Next Satan told about the genesis of wars, and it should be known to every one that here is the true story of human slaughter on a large scale. "There has never been a just one, never an honorable one—on the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful—as usual—will shout for the war. The pulpit will—warily and cautiously—object—at first; the great, big, dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be war, and will say, earnestly and indignantly, 'It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it.' Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing and be applauded; but it will not last long; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out and lose popularity. Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers—as earlier—but do not dare to say so. And now the whole nation—pulpit and all—will take up the warcry, and shout itself hoarse, and mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth; and presently such mouths will cease to open. Next the statesman will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception."
Thus Twain's vision concerned itself with episodes which illustrated his habitual thinking, his lifelong rebellion against a religion that had enforced itself with the wrack and the screw and the stake. He at this last had to take a final fling at the littleness of man, at the incompetence of his mind, at the failure of man's civilization, at a race of beings with nothing but a moral sense, as he expressed it, who were nothing but automatons acting entirely through outside influences. There is much in this tale concerning burnings for witchcraft and hangings for scientists seeking to alleviate the sufferings of human beings. Many tortures are cursed here, the tortures of religious hierarchies, but nothing is said about the torture of religion itself, the torture of the soul that wonders, doubts, and seeks. God and love have caused more tragedy and more agony to man than anything else. Twain neither casts his malisons against these instinctive and ineradicable compositions of the soul, the spiritual microscopy of the very genius of man's mind and nature, nor does he lift his eyes to a Paradiso reached by love and by contemplation of a cosmic Mind. There are no Paolo and Francesca in The Mysterious Stranger, there is no realm of eternal ideas where dwells
All that is mortal of Great Plato there
Expiates the joy and woe his master knew not;
The star that ruled his doom was far too fair,
And life, where long that flower of Heaven grew not,
Conquered that heart by love, which gold or pain,
Or age, or sloth, or slavery could subdue not.
Twain who had made puppets of Tom and Becky, who had drawn the character of Laura Hawkins in The Gilded Age, a figure merely externally realized in terms of everyday incidents, not dramatically conceived deeply and at the core, was not capable of having a vision of love. The uxorious husband of Olivia, who sacrificed his genius for money to make and keep her happy, had dimmed any tragic eye that he had ever had to look into such profound and perilous depths as those of love. That imagination was not Twain's which reminds one of human heroism and reassures one concerning it; which leads hope as it led Browning to the unbelievable, and there sublimates the emotion; which sustained Whitman to the last in superb confidence in the cosmic scheme, as it did Spinoza. This is imagination, a greatness of mind which creates a life beyond life, and then lives what is thus created by itself for itself. This was not Mark Twain, who had the typical American hunger for worldly success, who attained it only to call down the cry of vanity upon man, and to find no peace, no happiness for himself.
Yet The Mysterious Stranger proves him great in a way that Carlyle described in "The Hero as Divinity." "Meditation," said Carlyle, "has taught all men in all ages that this world is after all but a show—a phenomenon or appearance, no real thing. All deep souls see into that—the Hindoo mythologist, the German philosopher, the Shakespeare, the earnest thinker, wherever he may be." And here, after saying that only laughter can at a blow blast any humbug to atoms, Satan tells these wondering boys that there is no other life beyond this world, and that "Life itself is only a vision, a dream." The conclusion of The Mysterious Stranger is one of the most superb pieces of writing in American literature. That the boys do not see that life is a dream, that they still believed it real, as Twain always had so believed it, especially when he walked in white suits to be observed, when he craved rich food and fine houses, excited the wonder of Satan, and he said finally: "Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago—centuries, ages, eons ago!—for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities. Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single one happy; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave His angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required His other children to earn it; who gave His angels painless lives, yet cursed His other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell—mouths mercy and invented hell—mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none Himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon Himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship Him."
How plain it is now that Twain judges man's life and destiny upon earth by really accepting the Bible tales, by viewing them not through the eyes of Confucius, Lao-tze, or Socrates, not through the philosophy of Athens and Plato, but through the eyes of Israel and Jesus and Paul. He might have had Satan take the boys to some far sphere where they would look upon worlds, upon this earth. There he could have told them that on that speck of sand swarmed a breed that believed in a Bible that preached these absurd things about the Cosmic Mind, and enforced their acceptance by filling their little breasts with fear, and with incantations and witchcraft. Thus told, the idiocies of the Bible would not be impliedly accepted. Their absurdity would be made emphatic, and the plight of a breed believing in such absurdity made somehow ridiculous.
Well, but Twain puts final words into the mouth of Satan. They are serious words in refutation of the myth of a God that mouths justice and invents hell. "You perceive now," said Satan, "that these things are all impossible, except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier. 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—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities."
And then Satan vanished and left the boy Theodor Fischer appalled. He left Twain with a deep pain in his breast, one that became physical as well not long after this time. Money, degrees, fame did not allay that pain, and could not do so in the nature of things. Twain was not Huxley, he was not Darwin, he was not Emerson. He was a clown, and more than that he was a clown with a broken heart. Howells called Twain the Lincoln of American literature. In raciness and originality of utterance he was that; he was also that in ways not complimentary to him or to Lincoln. Howells worshipped Lincoln, and he not only admired Twain as a relaxed bow, but he helped him to relax it.
There were the last days, days of trips to Bermuda, of playing billiards at Stormfield, of sitting on the porch of that lovely house looking at the Connecticut country about him, altogether so different from the shore of the Mississippi, or the mountains of Nevada. The mining days were a far and nebulous dream, the Civil War and Reconstruction days were a fading nightmare in which the remnants of the Grand Army of the Republic marched and voted for the tariff. There was new filth by now, and another war which would send America upon the dangerous path of empire. A great war was just a few years off with no satirists, no great men to prevent it. What were riches and fame after all? Were they not the merest nothing, as God is nothing, as the Moral Sense is nothing, as life is nothing? He could see that America was blundering and muddling along as it had done all his life, devoid of poets of heroic vision, satirists of ineluctable laughter, honest and wise statesmen and leaders. What did Twain think of his career in his heart of hearts, what of Olivia and of those days when his path turned from freedom, from the pure air of Nevada to the carbon dioxide of Elmira and Buffalo and Hartford? At the last he permitted himself to refer to Olivia half in criticism, half in pardon. Did he think of Bret Harte now, dead eight years, dying an expatriate long defeated in his career? He must have thought of his boyhood friends there in Hannibal, of the men he loved in those free days at Carson City and San Francisco. How far away all this now! Back and forth now to Bermuda, for the pain in the breast had become increasingly bad. He knew at last that it was his heart. April 14, 1910, he returned from Bermuda where he had been with Mr. Paine, who was constantly at his side now. On the voyage the pain had lessened. When he reached New York it returned. The reporters were at the dock to meet him, as well as relatives and physicians. An invalid chair had to be called for him and a compartment in the express to Redding that afternoon was secured. As he was driven to Stormfield from the station he noted that the spring was backward. When the carriage turned into the grounds of Stormfield, he asked, "Can we see where you have built your billiard room?" When Mr. Paine pointed it out to him where the gable showed above the trees, Twain observed quietly, "It looks quite imposing." According to Mr. Paine this is the last word Twain spoke that manifested any interest in any external thing.
His daughter Clara was on the way to be by his side. She arrived April 17. He was being given opiates, and as his mind was drenched in dreams, and his inner vision brightened by the spirit of the poppy flower, he talked of dual personality. Did he feel as dying persons sometimes do that they are two beings, not one? Or was he thinking of his career in which a dual personality had influenced his actions so greatly? Nothingness was coming on him. He said in his drowsiness, "It is singular, very singular, the laws of mentality—vacuity. I put out my hand to reach a book or newspaper which I have been reading most glibly, and it isn't there, not a suggestion of it." He was realizing again that human beings are always at the edge of mysteries, that they are forever catching glimpses of another world, another reality; that streets flash with strange lights in the most matter-of-fact moments of our existence, that appearances glide behind trees and rocks, that we are conscious in almost fearful moments of eyes staring upon us, of hands that try to touch us, of lips that are unable to speak.
And indeed there was a prodigy now, though of natural character. Halley's comet had returned to the sky, the perihelion of which was in November, 1835, when Twain was born. On April 21 his mind seemed clear, but he was fading away. At noon he took the hand of his daughter Clara and said "good-by." To the doctor he said, "If we meet—" then sank into the doze of death.
It mattered nothing that the politicians like Blaine took mortal disease from the days that followed the Civil War. One does not think of Grant with any poignant regret for the fact that he fell away from the character of the simple captain of a great war to the career of a President who could not recognize the reptilian influences that surrounded his administration as President, down to the shabby days of a stock broker. It is reserved to the children of light to suffer the most condign punishments for neglecting the gifts of genius. It was reserved to Mark Twain to be the most tragic victim of the Gilded Age.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603
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!"
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.
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 critical discussion was devoted to making sense of its thematic inconsistencies, for instance, the incongruity between Traum's grueling demonstrations of life's harsh realities, which make up the body of the novella, and his final assertion that life is just a dream. These discussions became necessarily more complex after the discovery of the original Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, when critics began to base their textual analyses on these documents as well as the Paine versions. Scholars have inferred that the dark tone of The Mysterious Stranger reflects Twain's despair at the death of loved ones, financial losses, and his own failing health during the last few years of his life, and have pointed out that these ideas match sentiments expressed by Twain at this time in other writings, as exhibited in the essay "What Is Man?" and the short story "3,000 Years among the Microbes."
Carroll D. Laverty (essay date 1947)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2792
SOURCE: "The Genesis of The Mysterious Stranger" in Mark Twain Quarterly 7, Nos. 3 and 4, Spring/Summer, 1947, pp. 15-19.
[In the following essay, Laverty traces the beginnings of The Mysterious Stranger to, among other things, a short tale by Jane Taylor.]
A scholar may consider a piece of writing as an organic entity—an entity that is conceived when the fertilizing idea strikes the nourishing mind of the author. The embryonic work thereafter is fed from the vast storehouse of mental and emotional experiences of the author. Thus the brainchild grows and is born. If Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger be considered as such an organic creation, the fertilizing idea may well have been a short "moral" tale written by Jane Taylor, an English writer of religious and didactic pieces, and reprinted in more than one edition of the famed McGuffey Readers under the title "The Mysterious Stranger"—Mark Twain's own title.
Before considering more fully Mark Twain's probable debt to Jane Taylor, however, one can profitably examine the mind of the American writer to see what richness of experience was there from which his embryonic work could draw nourishment and thus come into being.
Important among such material are memories of his own boyhood. The boys in The Mysterious Stranger, like those in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, come straight from Mark Twain's own childhood. They are real boys, although The Mysterious Stranger itself is not entirely realistic. Eseldorf, the village in the story, is a fíctionized Hannibal, Missouri. A note in Mark Twain's notebook, for example, mentions "Story of a little Satan, Jr., who came to Hannibal." Eseldorf has Hannibal's smugness, human weaknesses, and various kinds of people. Some of the incidents of his story, for example the drowning of Nikolaus Bauman, may well be based on happenings observed by Mark Twain in his youth. And the treatment accorded the citizens in disgrace is such as the boy Mark Twain could have noticed in the town of his boyhood. The excursions of the boys into the woods where they had their boys' secrets and experiences came from life as Mark Twain saw it.
And the philosophy that constitutes a large part of the substance of The Mysterious Stranger is made up of thoughts that had been running through his mind for years. He wanted to give them form, to let them grow into a finished piece of writing. In May of 1899 he wrote to William Dean Howells on the subject:
For years I have been intending to stop writing for print as soon as I could afford it. At last I can afford it, and have put the pot-boiler pen away. What I have been wanting is a chance to write a book without reserves—a book which would take account of no one's feelings, and no one's prejudices, opinions, beliefs, hopes, illusions, delusions; a book which should say my say, right out of my heart, in the plainest language and without a limitation of any sort. I judged that that would be an unimaginable luxury, heaven on earth.
It is under way, now, and it is a luxury! an intellectual drunk. Twice I didn't start it right; and got pretty far in, both times, before I found it out. But I am sure it is started right this time. It is in tale-form. I believe I can make it tell what I think of Man, and how he is constructed, and what a shabby poor ridiculous thing he is, and how mistaken he is in his estimate of his character and powers and qualities and his place among the animals.
What Mark Twain's philosophy was, the suffering that went into it, has best been told, perhaps, by Bernard DeVoto in "The Symbols of Despair" and elsewhere. But that is another story.
Mark Twain's comparison of men with animals, especially with horses, is comparable to that of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels. When Mark Twain writes, "He would interfere if he found a horse acting in such a way (brutally,) and we must inform him when we come across that kind of horse doing that kind of a human thing . . . of course there wasn't any such horse," he is undoubtedly expressing an idea congenial to his own philosophy, but he may also be echoing unconsciously an idea from Swift. Mark Twain also asserts that men should not insult brutes by implying when they use the word brutal that brutes are as cruel as human beings—an idea also found in Swift. Such an idea, however, might have originated elsewhere, as no doubt many a man has observed certain brutal qualities of men and certain human qualities of animals. For example, the Scotchman named Macfarlane. He told Mark Twain in the winter of 1856-1857 his thoughts about man. "Man's heart was the only bad one in the animal kingdom;" man's intellect was degrading, putting him well below other animals. The young writer, having heard a dour old Scotchman voice such thoughts, must have remembered them, stored them away until through the magic of creative genius they became a part of his own philosophy. Such ideas—some from Swift, some from Macfarlane, some from his own observation of life—went into The Mysterious Stranger. Mark Twain may have got another thought from Swift. One of the criticisms that the Houyhnhnms made of mankind in Gulliver's Travels is that mankind is illogical. In The Mysterious Stranger Mark Twain expresses the same idea when he has the main character say: "Ah, you are such an illogical, unreasoning race! And paltry—oh, unspeakably."
Another element in the growth of the work was probably a German play "The Master of Palmyra," which appeared in 1889 and was written by Adolph Wilbrandt, manager of the Burg Theater in Vienna from 1881 to 1887. The Mysterious Stranger and "The Master of Palmyra" have in common the thought that death is not always undesirable and that life is sometimes nothing but misery to the person who must live it out. Mark Twain writes: "By this prompt death she gets twenty-nine years more of heaven than she is entitled to, and escapes twenty-nine years of misery here." He repeats the essence of this idea many times in The Mysterious Stranger. In his essay, "About Play Acting," written in Vienna in 1898 while he was working on The Mysterious Stranger, he speaks well of and shows a detailed knowledge of "The Master of Palmyra." Of it he states:
Without putting into words any ungracious or discourteous things about life, the episodes in the piece seem to be saying all the time inarticulately: 'Note what a silly, poor thing human life is; how childish its ambitions, how ridiculous its pomps, how trivial its dignities, how cheap its heroisms, how capricious its course, how brief its flight, how stingy its happiness, how opulent its miseries, how few its prides, how multitudinous its humiliations, how comic its tragedies, how tragic its comedies, how wearisome and monotonous its repetition of its stupid history through the ages, with never the introduction of a new detail, how hard it has tried, from the Creation down, to play upon its possessor as a boon, and has never proved its case in a single instance.'
When he wrote those lines, sometime in 1898, he was probably thinking of his own work expressing the same ideas, which was much in his mind at the time. Such words characterize The Mysterious Stranger exactly. Certainly what he found in "The Master of Palmyra" struck a sympathetic chord in his own being.
One character of The Mysterious Stranger, Father Peter, who finds his happiness only in insanity, is very much like a well-known San Francisco character that Mark Twain almost certainly knew when he was on the Pacific Coast early in his career. In 1863 Emperor Norton was the subject of much talk and writing in San Francisco, and Mark Twain was there. By imagining himself a monarch and by receiving the condescending indulgence of the citizens who understood his madness, Emperor Norton enjoyed in San Francisco a happiness like that that Father Peter enjoyed in Eseldorf in his triumphal journey from the jail after his acquittal. Father Peter reminds one of Emperor Norton parading in San Francisco. An author often transmutes a person from real life into a character of fiction without changing his essential distinctiveness. So Mark Twain may have done here.
The story, within The Mysterious Stranger, of Father Peter's niece, Marget, and how the magic cat supplied her with food and drink is like Hawthorne's "The Miraculous Pitcher" in some respects. The general motif so far as it concerns the miraculous supplying of food and drink to kindly, humble people is the same. In function the magic cat is very much like the unusual cane that Quicksilver carries in the Hawthorne story. Quicksilver himself is somewhat like Philip Traum. The doubts of Baucis are like those of Marget's cook, the vain Ursula. And most striking of all is the likeness between the miraculous pitcher and the wine bottle at Marget's table. Mark Twain would have enjoyed turning the milk pitcher into a wine bottle. Whether Mark Twain got the story from Hawthorne, from Swift's poem "Baucis and Philemon," or straight from Greek mythology, it becomes a very part of The Mysterious Stranger.
These are some of the elements, probably, stored away somewhere in Mark Twain's brain, that were to give blood and flesh and bone to The Mysterious Stranger as it was growing in his mind.
The germinal idea that electrified all these elements into growth may well have been a "moral" tale written by Jane Taylor and published in America in both McGuffey's Rhetorical Guide and Fifth Reader, and McGuffey's New Sixth Eclectic Reader, under the title "The Mysterious Stranger"—the title Mark Twain gave to his own work. The tale had appeared earlier in England under the title "How It Strikes A Stranger," in 1824, in The Contributions of Q., a book of selections by Miss Taylor. She was a fairly well known writer of poems for children and stories with a moral—stories of a kind that Mark Twain satirized elsewhere. His "The Story of the Bad Little Boy" is typical of the story satirizing a Sunday School tale. He had long enjoyed such writing, for The Californian published a series of sketches by Inigo, Bret Harte and Twain ridiculing "the moral lessons found therein in Sunday School stories . . . " These sketches come early in Mark Twain's career as a writer, but the puckishness that prompted him to write them never left him.
In addition to the fact that Mark Twain uses the title The Mysterious Stranger, which was given to Jane Taylor's tale, there are three other reasons for thinking that her work influenced him. First, although his work is much longer than the other, the two have certain basic similarities. Second, in all probability, Mark Twain had read the very editions of the McGuffey Readers that contained Jane Taylor's "The Mysterious Stranger" And, third, her little piece was just such a moral tale as it would give Mark Twain much satisfaction to metamorphose, twisting the burden as he did so to express his own ideas about human beings.
First, the basic similarities. Jane Taylor's work is set "In a remote period of antiquity, when the supernatural and the marvelous obtained a readier credence than now" in one of "the magnificent cities of the east." Mark Twain's work is set in Austria in the Middle Ages in a village where superstition was rife. Perhaps one reason that he placed the scene of his tale in Austria is that he was there when he was working on the story, but the similarity of its time and setting to those of the other story is striking. The mysterious stranger of Jane Taylor's piece is "of extraordinary appearance" with "dignity and intelligence of his air and demeanor . . . " The mysterious stranger of Mark Twain's work was beautiful—"stunning in fact"—and he too, had dignity and intelligence of air and demeanor, as Mark Twain reminds the reader again and again throughout the tale. Jane Taylor's mysterious stranger came from "yon silvery star." Mark Twain's was an angel. Both know what it is, not to be subject to human conditions. Both men, being strangers here on earth, are misunderstood by human beings. People find it almost impossible even to recognize their point of view toward life.
But the most significant similarity between the two works is that of story and basic idea. In both, a mysterious stranger comes from a supernatural realm, is accepted by some of the people of the town, and then makes known what he thinks of human nature. Each thinks that man is much too worldly and materialistic, that man seeks after money or other material wealth instead of after his own happiness, that man is trivial, that his days are numbered even though he foolishly is not often aware of the fact, and that death is a blessing often, even though men avoid it as long as possible. Underlying all these as basic is the idea in both that, as Mark Twain's mysterious stranger says, "Your race never knows good from ill. They are always mistaking the one for the other. It is because they cannot see into the future."
The whole point of Jane Taylor's tale is that men think that material wealth and pleasure are to be sought after and do not, as they should, see the real good—a future life. Although the two works are alike in basic idea, the two authors, characteristically, give the ideas different interpretations. Jane Taylor points a moral: that men should lead religious lives to gain the real good. Mark Twain ironically uses the tale as a vessel into which to pour the bitterness of his soul.
That he would have had opportunity to read it in one of the McGuffey Readers is almost certain. McGuffey's Rhetorical Guide; or Fifth Reader was first published in 1841 and revised in 1844.
Thus he might have read it while he was still in school. The McGuffey Readers were widely used in Missouri as many an oldtimer will testify. Throughout the nineteenth century the McGuffey Readers were reprinted in various editions. For example, McGuffey's New Sixth Eclectic Reader, copyrighted in 1867, also contains Jane Taylor's "The Mysterious Stranger" It is a fair assumption that he read the McGuffey Readers. Minnie M. Brashear, in her book, Mark Twain Son of Missouri, says as much. "These 'exciting tales' were apparently his first course in reading—a supplement, that is, to the classics in his McGuffey's readers." And Mr. DeVoto states the possibility in speaking of a group of writers including Mark Twain: . . . "the set pieces of description in the travel books are as trying as the McGuffey selections which may have influenced them . . . "
A final reason for thinking that Mark Twain, knowing Jane Taylor's work, would have used it is that it was so perfectly fitted to become the vehicle for carrying his bitter philosophy. He had already written satires of Sunday School stories, and his own The Mysterious Stranger might be considered a satirical expansion of Jane Taylor's moral little tale. One who considers it so, however, must remember that Mark Twain made the new work an original creation presenting some of his most serious and characteristic thoughts. Mark Twain would have found congenial the idea of taking a serious religious piece and using it to express his scorn of the conventional "moral sense." It would have given him a sort of diabolical pleasure to scoff at mankind and ridicule a Sunday School story at the same time. Perhaps he did so only unconsciously. Perhaps he did not consciously set out to remake the earlier work; but it may well have been in his subconscious mind during the gestation period of his own The Mysterious Stranger.
Jane Taylor's "The Mysterious Stranger" and Mark Twain's, then, are so much alike in some basic qualities as to suggest that the one may have played a part in the genesis of the other. In all probability, Mark Twain saw an American printing of her work. And finally the supposition is strengthened by the fact that Mark Twain would have found it satisfying to express, through a satire of a Sunday School story, many of the ideas congenial to him in his later years—the years when he was thinking of and working on his own The Mysterious Stranger. For these reasons it is suggested that "The Mysterious Stranger" of Jane Taylor, when it entered into the mind of Mark Twain, set into action the complex process of creation which resulted in Mark Twain's work and drew nourishment from some of the sources already mentioned.
Gladys Carmen Bellamy (essay date 1950)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9722
SOURCE: "The Microscope and the Dream," in Mark Twain as a Literary Artist, University of Oklahoma Press, 1950, pp. 352-76.
[In the following essay, Bellamy examines The Mysterious Stranger in the light of Twain's biography and writing notebooks.]
The book called The Mysterious Stranger presents Mark Twain's final expression of the village and its inhabitants. Bernard DeVoto believes that this book resulted from the personal disasters which engulfed Mark Twain in the late eighteen nineties. His publishing firm failed; the Paige typesetting machine wrecked his fortune in its debacle; his youngest daughter, Jean, was discovered to be afflicted with epilepsy; his eldest daughter, Susy, closest to him in talent and spirit, died of meningitis; and Livy, after Susy's death, was an invalid the last eight years of her life. "The gods had turned against their darling," says Mr. DeVoto in Mark Twain at Work; and he believes that the tragic writings which include "The Great Dark" and The Mysterious Stranger constituted an attempt by Mark Twain to reintegrate his writing talent, almost destroyed by these disasters, and to still the accusing voice of his conscience by proving to himself that he was not to be blamed.
Mark Twain was always among the most autobiographical of writers. Yet, studying the record, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that The Mysterious Stranger must some day have been written, substantially as he wrote it, with or without his personal calamities. As a matter of fact, the earliest hint of the story appears in a "Mr. Brown" letter of June 2, 1867. There Mark Twain reports an Apocryphal New Testament, seen in a New York library. In Chapter 15, according to Mark Twain, the boy Jesus plays with other boys; he makes clay animals that come to life and "clay birds which he causes to fly." Believing Jesus to be a sorcerer, the parents of the other boys forbid them to play with him. In Chapter 16, Joseph is seen to be unskillful at his carpenter's trade; young Jesus assists him by touching the ill-shapen articles, thus giving them the proper dimensions. In Chapter 19, Jesus is charged with causing the death of various boys who have displeased him. Mark Twain summed up the activities of this apocryphal lad:
The young Savior's resentments were so frequent . . . that Joseph finally grew concerned about the matter and gave it his personal attention:
"16. Then said Joseph unto Mary, henceforth we will not allow him to go out of the house, for every one who displeases him is killed."
His society was pleasant, but attended by serious drawbacks.
Remembering Mark Twain's view of life, even in his happiest years, remembering too the fascination which the figure of Satan had always held for him, it seems inevitable that he would write The Mysterious Stranger. In the writing of Huckleberry Finn, he had already experimented with beauty tinged with strangeness and horror. A passage in A Tramp Abroad, which he wrote while Huckleberry Finn lay unfinished, anticipates an important bit in the presentation of young Satan as the Stranger. The passage describes the "prismatic colors" of clouds over the Alps, clouds resembling "gossamer webs" of a "lovely phantom fabric,. . . a fabric dainty enough to clothe an angel with." Soon he realized that the continuous movement of those delicate opaline colors reminded him of "what one sees in a soap-bubble that is drifting along." Both the Apocryphal account of the boy Jesus and the description of a soapbubble as fit clothing for an angel were to furnish details for the earthly visits of Satan in The Mysterious Stranger.
The essence of tragedy in this book lies not in any malevolence against mankind exhibited by the Superior Powers in the person of young Satan, for there is little, although it appears. The chief tragedy lies in the utter indifference towards mankind which Satan exhibits. And this idea appears in Mark Twain's writings dating from his halcyon days. On August 12, 1883, a time of great personal happiness, he wrote in his Notebook: "I think we are only the microscopic trichina concealed in the blood of some vast creature's veins, and it is that vast creature God concerns himself about and not us." In the notes of 1885-86, just before the time of A Connecticut Yankee, he wrote:
Special Providence! That phrase nauseates me—with its implied importance of mankind and triviality of God. In my opinion these myriads of globes are merely the blood corpuscles ebbing and flowing through the arteries of God and we but the animalculae that infest them . . . and God does not know we are there and would not care if He did.
Later, he recorded in Following the Equator a "large dream" in which he dreamed "that the visible universe is the physical person of God," with vast worlds as the blood corpuscles of His veins, and all living creatures are the microbes that infest the corpuscles. These passages are curiously reminiscent of the theories of Robert Fludd, as well as those of eighteenth-century Deists whom Mark Twain probably never read. The notes seem more closely connected with "3,000 Years Among the Microbes" than with any of his other fiction; yet they are linked, too, with The Mysterious Stranger. A note of August, 1897, labeled by Paine as probably for The Mysterious Stranger, reads:
He had but one term for that large body which has such a fine opinion of itself—"the little stinking human race, with its little stinking kings and popes and bishops and prostitutes and peddlers,"
He said: "The globe is a living creature, and the little stinking human race and the other animals are the vermin that infest it—the microbes."
A definite forecast of the Stranger appears in a Notebook entry of September, 1898:
Story of little Satan Jr., who came to Hannibal, went to school, was popular and greatly liked by those who knew his secret. The others were jealous and the girls didn't like him because he smelled of brimstone.
He was always doing miracles . . .
The note suggests that his first idea was to use Tom and Huck as Satan's associates; later he changed Hannibal to Eseldorf, in the Austria of 1590, and made the scene far off and forgot in both time and space, thus lending perspective to the story. He prepared the reader for the Stranger through Felix Brandt's ghostly tales; but the strangest thing was that Felix himself had seen angels: "They had no wings, and wore clothes, and talked . . . and acted just like any natural person, and you would never know them for angels except for the wonderful things they did."
One fine May morning when the boy Theodor, the narrator, was on a hilltop with his friends Nikolaus and Seppi, a handsome youth came strolling along, "easy and graceful and unembarrassed, not slouchy and awkward and different like other boys." He sat down and talked to the boys in a simple, gentle way, winning their friendship at once. As he talked, he made a tiny squirrel out of clay, and it ran up a tree; he made a mouse-sized dog that barked at the squirrel, and birds that flew away singing. At last Theodor asked who he was. "'An angel,' he said, quite simply, and set another bird free and clapped his hands and made it fly away." Then he formed tiny men and women from clay; they went to work, cleared a small space, and began to build a little castle. The three boys made horses and cannon and halberdiers, but dropped the figures and broke them in the astonishment of learning that their visitor's name was "Satan." Young Satan mended them with a touch, as the boy Jesus had mended Joseph's ill-formed work in the passage copied in Mark Twain's Notebook in 1867. Satan explained that only his uncle, for whom he was named, had been affected by the Fall; the rest of the family were still untouched by sin. At that moment two of the tiny workmen began to quarrel "in buzzing bumblebee voices" and fell to fighting. Momentarily annoyed,
Satan reached out his hand and crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief, and went on talking . . . : "We cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is."
The boys were shocked and grieved at "the wanton murder he had committed," but he talked on, switching his young listeners quickly from horror to beauty:
somehow . . . charming us in spite of the pitiful scene that was now under our eyes, for the wives of the little dead men had found the crushed . . . bodies and were crying over them . . . and a priest was kneeling there . . . praying; and . . . pitying friends were massed about them . . . a scene which Satan paid no attention to until the small noise of the weeping and praying began to annoy him, then he . . . took the heavy board seat out of our swing and brought it down and mashed all those people . . . just as if they had been flies.
But he soon enchanted the boys again "with that fatal music of his voice. . . . He made us drunk with the joy of being with him."
This fluctuation of mood between beauty and horror continues. The boys were always expecting beautiful things to happen when they were in Satan's presence. He told them of "the daily life in heaven" and also "of the damned writhing in hell." The vision of hell was so horrible, with condemned persons shrieking in their anguish, that the boys could hardly bear it; but Satan was "as bland about it as if it had been so many imitation rats in an artificial fire."
Whenever Satan's conversation turned to the human race, one would think he was talking "about bricks or manure or any other thing that. . . hadn't feelings." Presently he had the tiny castle finished, and it was beautifully done. He offered to create a miniature storm and earthquake around it, as entertainment, but warned the boys to stand back out of danger. They wanted to warn the tiny people, too, but "he said never mind them; they were of no consequence, and we could make more, some time . . . if we needed them." The tone of contemptuous indifference is only slightly more exaggerated than that of Mark Twain's Western sketch of 1864, "The Case of Smith vs. Jones," in which the ignorant, lying witnesses are shown in a sorry light, with a witness box in a corner "where more can be had when they are wanted." This time, however, Mark Twain's sympathy seems to be with the creatures in the box—here, the castle. A small cloud settled over the castle, and the little people flocked inside for shelter, but lightning blazed out and set it on fire. They "came flying out, shrieking, but Satan brushed them back, paying no attention to our begging and crying and imploring." Then an earthquake rent the ground, and the castle toppled into the chasm, which "closed upon it, with all that innocent life, not one of the . . . poor creatures escaping. . . . 'Don't cry,' Satan said; 'they were of no value. . . . we can make plenty more.'"
The boys wondered how he could be so callous to the tiny men he created, so indifferent to the sufferings of the villagers. Theodor asked him "why he made so much difference between men and himself." Satan picked up a creeping wood louse:
"What is the difference between Caesar and this?"
I said, "One cannot compare things which by their nature are not comparable."
"You have answered your own question," he said. ". . . Man is made of dirt. . . . Man is a museum of disease, a home of impurities . . . ; he begins as dirt and departs as stench. . . . And man has the Moral Sense. You understand? He has the Moral Sense."
They could not understand his dislike of the Moral Sense, especially when Father Peter explained it to them as "the one thing that lifts man above the beasts." Gradually they came to understand that Satan hated the Moral Sense because it gives man the power "to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which he will do . . . and in nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong." Satan maintained that men are more "brutal" than the beasts: "When a brute inflicts pain he does it innocently. . . . And he does not inflict pain for the pleasure of inflicting it—only man does that." And yet man cannot perceive that "the Moral Sense degrades him . . . and is a shameful possession."
The microscopic motif enters Satan's illustrations again when he explains that he has no more in common with man than an elephant has with a tiny red spider, not so big as the head of a pin. The elephant "cannot shrink his sympathies to the microscopic size" of the spider's affairs. "No, we cannot love men, but we can be harmlessly indifferent to them; we can also like them, sometimes." Satan declares that because he likes the boys and Father Peter, he is helping the villagers of Eseldorf. He insists that he has wrought well for the villagers,
though it does not look like it on the surface. . . . What I am doing for the villagers will bear good fruit some day. . . . a child's first act . . . begets an act, that act begets another and so on. . . . You people do not suspect that all of your acts are of one size and importance . . . ; to snatch at an appointed fly is as big with fate for you as is any other appointed act.
He explains that he has arranged for Nicky to try, in twelve days' time, to rescue little Lisa Brandt from drowning; both Lisa and Nicky will drown. Horrified, Theodor pleads for the two children, but Satan is adamant. This early death will save Lisa from a life of pain, shame, and depravity; Nicky, from a living death of forty-six years as "a paralytic log." After Nicky's death his mother keeps blaming herself; Satan explains that people are foolish to blame themselves for anything: "nothing happens that your first act hasn't made inevitable; and so, of your own motion you can't ever alter the scheme." But other parts of the story set moralism against this determinism. Satan himself falls briefly into the contradictions natural to Mark Twain. He protests mere indifference for mankind; yet sometimes his excoriation of the mangy, filthy race belies indifference. Moral condemnation of the villagers issues from the lips of Frau Brandt, sentenced to be burned for blasphemies uttered in grief at Lisa's death; she "would rather live with the professional devils in perdition than with these imitators in the village."
Throughout his life, Mark Twain derided man's belief that he is the favored creature of the universe; and the irony basic in this story appears in the relationship of the boys and Satan. When Satan takes Theodor to China on a tour of inspection, Theodor is "drunk with vanity and gladness." The three boys feel themselves to be the pets of Satan: yet he destroys Nicky and blasts the happiness of the other two by opening their eyes to what human life really is.
To entertain the two surviving boys, Satan shows them "the progress of the human race . . . its development of that product which it calls civilization." Mark Twain passed the ages in review: the boys saw the murder of Abel by Cain; then a long series of wars, murders, massacres; Sodom and Gomorrah; more wars. Christianity finally came into existence, but always there were wars, "hideous drenchings of the earth with blood." Then Satan exhibited the future, showing them "slaughters more terrible, . . . more devastating in their engines of war." Apparently, the chief progress had been, and would continue to be, in instruments for the mutual destruction of men. '"And what does it all amount to?' said Satan with his evil chuckle. 'You gain nothing; you always come out where you went in.'"
A peculiar mingling of the beautiful and the horrible pervades The Mysterious Stranger. Once, departing, Satan dissolved himself and let the boys see him do it:
He stood up and . . . thinned away until he was a soap-bubble, except that he kept his shape. You could see the bushes through him . . . as you see things through a soap-bubble, and all over him played and flashed the delicate iridescent colors of the bubble . . . You have seen a bubble strike the carpet and lightly bound along two or three times before it bursts. He did that. He sprang—touched the grass—bounded—floated along—touched again—and . . . presently exploded—puff! and in his place was vacancy. It was a strange and beautiful thing to see.
Mark Twain records here his distrust of all institutions. Satan argues that "monarchies, aristocracies, and religions" are institutions that will always remain to oppress and degrade the individual, who is always destined to be a slave of the minorities. A striking illustration is seen in the institution of war, aggressive war:
I can see a million years ahead, and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful . . . will shout for the war. The pulpit will. . . object—at first; the big, dull bulk of the nation will rub its sleepy eyes and try to make out why there should be a war, and will say . . . 'It is unjust and dishonorable, and there is no necessity for it.' Then the handful will shout louder. A few fair men . . . will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing . . . ; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out. . . . Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with those stoned speakers—as earlier—but do not dare to say so. And now the whole nation—pulpit and all—will take up the warcry, and . . . mob any honest man who ventures to open his mouth. . . . Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those consciencesoothing falsities, and will . . . refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will . . . convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.
Can anyone, reading these lines, believe that Mark Twain had in mind the practices of sixteenth-century Austria, rather than the world patterns of his own time?
One of his favorite themes, the distintegrating effect of money, appears here. The money found by Father Peter proves far greater curse than blessing; he is arrested for theft. At his trial the opposing lawyer points to the money on the table and says, "There it lies, the ancient tempter, newly red with the shame of its latest victory—the dishonor of a priest of God."
Satan insures Father Peter's future happiness by causing him to go mad, insisting that the insane priest "is now, and will remain, the one utterly happy person in this empire." When Theodor protests his method of making Father Peter happy, Satan grows almost angry: "Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination? No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is." To his remedies of death and delusion, Satan adds a third at the close of the book: one must cling to the idea that life is only a dream.
As manifested in Mark Twain's fiction, his conceptions of good and evil, beauty and ugliness, are closely connected with the philosophy of escape displayed in the travel books. There, ugliness is reality; beauty is dream. But in his late fiction the urge towards escapism enlarges the dream motif until the dream finally engulfs the whole of life, the ugliness as well as the beauty. The difference, however, is of degree rather than of kind. When Mark Twain at last arrives at the nihilism of The Mysterious Stranger, he arrives by a path on which his feet have been set since the Sandwich Islands letters of 1866, with their siren song of escape from an active life to an isle of dreams.
The Mark Twain of The Mysterious Stranger even affirms, in an elevated form, the creed of that Mark Twain of Western journalism who had insisted that "one can deliver a satire with telling force through the insidious medium of a travesty." Satan tells Theodor that laughter can destroy certain "juvenilities":
For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.
Satan continued to take Theodor about the world, showing him wonders reflecting the "triviality of our race. . . . not out of malice . . . it only seemed to amuse and interest him, just as a naturalist might be amused and interested by a collection of ants."
The Mysterious Stranger is Mark Twain's greatest use of the device of diminishing humanity to microscopic proportions. By means of Satan he employs the Olympian detachment of a god and at the same time, by means of Theodor, reports it through the lips of a boy. Thus he is twice-removed from the rage-provoking perversities of mankind. After studying early manuscripts of this story, Mr. DeVoto wrote that at first young Satan was "no more than a vehicle for Mark's derision of that God whose vengefulness creates human pain and for his scorn of the ant-like race pain is inflicted on. . . . But he became more than that." Yes, for the artist in Mark Twain would demand more than that—some sense of the alleviation that art requires to give a feeling of conclusiveness, as well as to make the tragic thing tolerable. He would not feel that need in a Socratic debate such as What Is Man? but in fiction he would be more alert to the obligations of the artist.
Unfortunately, by the time of The Mysterious Stranger he can no longer depend upon his boys for the saving grace. For Theodor confesses:
Naturally there were some who pitied Marget and Ursula for the danger that was gathering about them, but naturally they did not say so; it would not have been safe. . . . We boys wanted to warn them, but . . . when it came to the pinch . . . [we] found that we were not manly enough nor brave enough to do a generous action when there was a chance that it could get us into trouble.
Huck had often protected Nigger Jim at the risk of his own safety. But Mark Twain's boys have now become "like all the one-horse men in literature" and seem bent on earning the reader's contempt. By this time he cannot close the arc of his artistic circle by a realistic acceptance of human nature, even though he is dealing with boy nature; for these boys, through Satan, have had their eyes opened to the futility of human existence. And what does Mark Twain do to give the requisite sense of alleviation? As an artist, he does two things: he first presents the tragedy of life as a spectacle of the human race in miniature, with, as Mr. DeVoto says, "the suffering diminished to the vanishing point since these are just puppets, unreal creatures moving in a shadow-play"; and then he moves the reader on into a sense of dream. For anything can be endured in a dream.
These two devices used by Mark Twain for attaining what may be called an artificial alleviation—the dream and the diminution—appear over and over in his work, travel and fiction. In his fiction they were probably applied to satisfy his artistic sense; and these devices—like his preoccupation with palliatives for human suffering, with all sorts of external alleviations to be applied in one way or another—were necessary to him only because he could not attain the inner alleviation which comes with an unqualified acceptance of life. For him, art would not come full circle simply because he could not sense the latent grandeur of life, the glory that lies hidden somewhere beneath the boredom and the horror.
In Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), he employed for the first time in fiction his device of diminishing the human race to microscopic proportions, thus achieving a perspective which enabled him to paint injustice without what he called his "foaming at the mouth." The first instance comes when Tom, Huck, and Jim, high in their balloon, look down upon the desert and see a caravan winding across it, like a string of insects. As they watch, tiny robbers swoop down upon the caravan, shooting and killing; when the smoke has "cleared a little," they can see the dead and wounded. There is no comment upon this wrong, only Huck's objective presentation. Later the same device is employed in an example of Nature's cruelty to mankind. Another caravan crawls across the desert "like a thousand grand-daddy-long-legses," seen from above; the caravan camps, and the boys watch its people with interest. A sand storm sweeps across it, burying men, women, and camels beneath a level stretch of yellow sand. Huck says they had watched from above until they "had got to feeling real friendly" with the people, so that "this caravan's death went harder with us." The objective handling gives these scenes power.
In Mark Twain at Work, Mr. DeVoto has published the incomplete manuscript of "The Great Dark," which he considers "The Mysterious Stranger in embryo" and also a fictional expression of Mark Twain's mood of pessimism resulting from Susy's death and other disasters. The earliest published note indentifiable with "The Great Dark" stands under date of August 10, 1898:
Last night dreamed of a whaling cruise in a drop of water. Not by microscope, but actually. This would mean a reduction of the participants to a minuteness which would make them nearly invisible to God, and He wouldn't be interested in them any longer.
Much earlier, in 1883—one of his happiest years—there is a Notebook entry headed "Theme for a Story." This note markedly resembles "The Great Dark":
Life in the interior of an iceberg. Luxuriously furnished from the ship. . . . Children born. . . . Iceberg drifts in a vast circle, year after year The children born reach marrying age and marry. Others try to make them comprehend life on land . . . but wholly fail. . . .
This must be a woman's diary, beginning abruptly and does not explain how they got there. . . .
She must speak of a young girl who is an idiot and who is now 80 years old. She visits her husband's clear-ice grave . . . and finds him fresh and young, while she is old and gray.
This note contains the suggestions of drifting in an aimless circle at sea, of imprisonment there resulting in an unnatural way of life, of idiocy, of death, of tragedy. And the story "must be a woman's diary, beginning abruptly," which is the way "The Great Dark" begins. Mr. DeVoto believes that in "The Great Dark" Mark Twain was struggling to find the correct form for reducing to art his bitter experiences and also for embodying certain obsessive ideas. Through ten pages in Mark Twain at Work, DeVoto traces these ideas, which are here summarized:
Perhaps the earliest idea is that of the great stretch of time which may seem to elapse in a very short dream; then comes the idea of confusing dream with reality. A notebook entry proposes a story in which a man is to nod for a moment over a cigarette, to dream a sequence of events which appears to last for seventeen years, and to wake to such a confusion of reality with the dream that he cannot recognize his wife. Mark Twain attempts sketches dealing with persons—some innocent, some guilty—who are cast down from high places by circumstance. Other sketches deal with surface events in which sailors are marooned in vast wastes of ice.
He combines some of these ideas in the sketch which Mr. DeVoto named "The Great Dark," using a phrase from the story itself. A happy and prosperous man falls asleep just after looking through a powerful microscope at a drop of water in which he watches the movement of minute forms of life. The idea of the microscope, Mr. DeVoto remarks, "immensely deepens the story." The ensuing dream unrolls events in which the man and his family—reduced to microscopic proportions—are on a mysterious ship, sailing through "a perpetual darkness filled with storms of snow and ice. . . . No one knows . . . where they are going or for what purpose . . . but they are in the Great Dark at the edge of the microscope's field, a place of unimaginable desolation, and somewhere far off is the horror of the Great White Glare, which is really the beam cast through the microscope's field by the reflector."
There is a supernatural being on board, the Superintendent of Dreams (he is the God of What Is Man? as well as the Satan of The Mysterious Stranger), who has power over both the bodies and minds of his passengers. And in the terrifying darkness monsters roam about the ship, threatening the lives of its people. At first there is on board some recollection of waking life—"the world of reality outside both the microscope and the dream"; but gradually this fades, and the Superintendent of Dreams "steadily, vindictively, cultivates in their minds the doubt of reality which becomes the belief in dream."
This story Mark Twain was unable to finish. Mr. DeVoto finds strong autobiographical evidence in the notes which he left for its completion: the wife is maddened with grief over a lost child; and the beloved daughter dies "in exactly the delirium" which Mark Twain's notebooks record of Susy Clemens's fatal illness. Certainly, the autobiographical material is traceable. In "The Great Dark" the eldest daughter's birthday is March 19, the birthday of Susy Clemens, and the height of the husband and father is five feet, eight, exactly Mark Twain's height.
Nevertheless, the keynote of horror, of a life lived under some terrible enchantment, appears as early as 1876 in Mark Twain's letter to Mrs. Fairbanks, already quoted, in which he writes concerning Charley Fairbanks's current happiness:
I rejoice in his gladness. . . . Never mind about that grisly future season when he shall have made a dazzling success and shall sit . . . and look around upon his corpses and mine, and contemplate his daughters and mine in the mad-house, and his sons and mine gone to the devil.
And the Notebook shows an entry made before the catastrophes of the late nineties which outlines, in terms of regrettable sentimentality, a new tale of Tom and Huck:
Huck comes back sixty years old . . . and crazy. Thinks he is a boy again and scans always every face for Tom, Becky, etc.
Tom comes at last from sixty years' wandering in the world and attends Huck and together they talk of old times; both are desolate, life has been a failure, all that was . . . beautiful is under the mold. They die together.
The date is 1891; but the note of tragedy and futility is indubitably present.
In "The Great Dark," the unfinished story of the dream-bound ship on the icebound sea for which no chart exists, both the microscope and the dream are fundamental elements, as is Mark Twain's use of ice and snow as the symbols of despair. With time, the word dream takes on increasing significance in his work. The curious part played by dreams in his own life is too well known to need recounting here. In 1893 when his only apparent trouble was sporadic worry over his investments, he wrote to his sister-in-law, Sue Crane:
I dreamed I was born and grew up and was a pilot on the Mississippi and a miner and a journalist in Nevada and a pilgrim in the Quaker City, and had a wife and children and went to live in a village at Florence—and this dream goes on and on and sometimes seems so real that I almost believe it is real. I wonder if it is? But there is no way to tell, for if one applied tests they would be part of the dream, too, and so would simply aid the deceit. I wish I knew whether it is a dream or real.
And he wrote in his Autobiography: "What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts and his words. His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself; and his thoughts, not those other things, are his history."
It was not only in his old age that he led a sort of double life. In a book dealing with Mark Twain as a businessman, his great-nephew Samuel C. Webster has shown how his "double personality" affected his middle years. Mr. Webster observes that his book might well have been entitled Mark Twain vs. Mark Twain and that, apart from Mark Twain's business life, the title seems to apply also "to the struggles that went on between his conscious and unconscious. . . . What came to him from the inside was as real as what came from the outside." Because of these quirks and facets of personality, the biographical approach to Mark Twain, though valuable, can never be an adequate approach. The Notebook poses a query:
How is it that I, who cannot draw or paint, can sometimes shut my eyes and see faces (dark colored always, color of putty) most delicate and perfect miniatures, and can note and admire the details. How is it? They are not familiar faces, they are new—how can I invent them? And what is it that makes perfect images in my dreams? I cannot form a face of any kind by deliberate effort of imagination.
After Livy's death, his inability to reproduce faces in his memory became a calamity to him. But in his dreams he saw her so vividly that he sometimes woke feeling it was her death that was the dream.
The curious mingling of dreams and reality which threaded his life is seen, blended with the harmful effects of daydreams, in a number of short stories. In the book The American Claimant (1892), Colonel Sellers reappears in the title role. Mark Twain perhaps meant to show an advanced stage in the life of the habitual dreamer, a phantasy life in which the actual world is indistinguishable from the chimeras that throng the brain; but Colonel Sellers himself is here a chimera, an unbelievable figure. Mr. Brooks says that in The American Claimant Mark Twain has conducted us into "the penetralia of his soul." Sally Sellers, like her father, is a confirmed dreamer. Love awakens her to reality; but Colonel Sellers is too far gone. As in The Gilded Age, he remains steeped in dreams. If Mark Twain wished to inject a dreamlike quality into the character of Sellers in this book, the result, judged by any standards, is a failure.
By 1904, however, in "My Platonic Sweetheart" he was able to produce a story in which the dream world is presented with a clarity and precision which make it believable without destroying its magical effects. The delightful heroine's speech has a Carrollian flavor. Seated somewhere in India, in sight of both Bombay and Windsor Castle, with the Thames winding at her feet, she remarks that England is beautiful "because it is so marginal." For complete artistry, this small dream story is perhaps the most perfect of Mark Twain's short fictional pieces. In it he appears to have attained a mastery over dream in literature, a difficult feat. In one passage he claims to live an actual dream life, independent of the life lived in his body and usually more vivid and interesting. He maintains:
In our dreams—I know it!—we do make the journeys we seem to make; we do see the things we seem to see; the people, the horses, the cats, the dogs, the birds, the whales, are real, not chimeras;. . . and they are immortal and indestructible. They go whither they will. . . . That is where those strange mountains are which slide from under our feet while we walk, and where those vast caverns are whose bewildering avenues close behind us and in front when we are lost, and shut us in.
His favorite themes and fancies shuttle back and forth between the travel books and the fiction in a way which it is fascinating to watch. In Following the Equator he describes a river of India in terms of the human body; in "3,000 Years Among the Microbes" he describes the human body in geographic terms. This "Autobiography of a Microbe" presents "the planet Blitzowski"—a tramp inhabited by millions of microbes, one of which, Bkshp by name, is the narrator: "Our tramp is mountainous, there are vast oceans in him . . . there are many rivers." Mark Twain constantly satirized the "sublime conceit" of man, that poor creature who believes that he is the darling of God and that the universe was created for his pleasure and comfort. The microbe writes that, in his view, man was created only to provide a home and nourishment for the microbe and the bacillus; "let him do the service he was made for, and keep quiet."
Although Mark Twain's view of the essential meanness of the human race did not alter, his knowledge of how to attain detachment increased with the years; and at the end his use of the diminishing device was especially favored. Besides "3,000 Years Among the Microbes" (1904), he wrote "Letters from the Earth" (1909), purportedly written by an angel visiting the earth, thus achieving the Olympian detachment of The Mysterious Stranger. The letters are directed to another angel in Heaven, and their subject is Man, his innate perversity and irrationality.
We come now to the more or less neglected story called Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, published in 1908. According to Paine, Mark Twain began the story in 1868 and worked on it intermittently for forty years. It is foreshadowed, however, in a Western sketch of 1863, devoted to Mark Twain's adventures among the spiritualists; he questions one of the "irrepressible Smiths" resident in the spirit world about life in the hereafter. According to this particular Smith,
there are spheres—grades of perfection—he is making pretty good progress—has been promoted a sphere or so . . . he don't know how many spheres there are (but I suppose there must be millions, because if a man goes galloping through them at the rate this old Universalist is doing, he will get through an infinitude of them . . . I am afraid the old man is scouring along rather too fast . . . ) . . . . I sincerely hope he will continue to progress . . . until he lands on the roof of the highest sphere of all.
In 1878 when Orion Clemens was attempting to write a visit to hell, burlesquing Jules Verne, he had appealed to Mark Twain for literary advice. Mark Twain suggested some of the technical difficulties and gave warning that Orion was "not advanced enough in literature to venture upon a matter" so precarious:
Nine years ago I mapped out my "Journey to Heaven." . . . I gave it a deal of thought. . . . After a year or more I wrote it up. It was not a success. Five years ago I wrote it again . . . but still it wouldn't do. . . . So I thought and thought. . . and at last I struck what I considered to be the right plan! Mind, I have never altered the ideas . . . the plan was the difficulty. Now . . . I have tried, all these years, to think of some way of "doing" hell too—and have always had to give it up. Hell, in my book, will not occupy five pages of MS . . . it will be only covert hints.
The plan was to good purpose. This story is, with the exception of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's best fictional expression of the twofold aspect of life. This fact may be accounted for in several ways. He works inside the mind of Captain Stormfield, whose prototype, Captain Ned Wakeman, he described elsewhere (under the name of Hurricane Jones) as "only a gray and bearded child . . . an innocent, lovable old infant." As when he works inside the childlike mind of Nigger Jim, or speaks through the lips of the boy Huck Finn, this childish quality in Stormfield at once operates to give the necessary perspective by removing Mark Twain from him. But perhaps even more effective, here, is the device by which Stormfield looks back on the earth from a point far away in the sky, as if he were looking through a telescope; this device reduces everything to microscopic proportions. Aided by these devices, Mark Twain describes Heaven in a way that makes existence there the well-rounded sort of life he was generally unwilling to accept for life on earth.
When Captain Stormfield arrives at Heaven after "whizzing through space" for thirty years and racing a comet at one point, he announces that he is from the earth. The puzzled clerk, using a great magnifying glass, finally identifies the earth as a speck the heavenly clerical staff commonly call "the Wart." Stormfield demands his personal halo, harp, and wings, and rushes off to a cloud bank to join the heavenly choir. But he finds that singing hymns and waving palm branches is a dull and boresome business, stops singing, and "dumps his cargo": "heaven is . . . just the busiest place you ever heard of. There ain't any idle people here after the first day." Having worked hard, the people have good appetites and sleep well. "It's the same here as it is on earth—you've got to earn a thing, square and honest, before you enjoy it."
Heaven is explained to the Captain by Sandy McWilliams, formerly of New Jersey. Sandy makes it clear that sorrow and disappointment, as well as work, are a part of Heaven, so that happiness becomes the sweeter by reason of the contrast. A woman passes, with tears running down her face. Her baby girl had died years before; and, when she came to Heaven herself, she expected to get her baby back again. But in Heaven one can be whatever age one wishes, and this particular baby has elected to grow up. Moreover, she has improved her mind with "deep scientific learning" until a wide gulf now exists between mother and daughter:
" . . . what will they do—stay unhappy forever in heaven?"
"No, they'll come together and get adjusted by and by. But not this year, and not next. By and by."
In Heaven, it seems, there is time for the slow amelioration of ills which the impatient Mark Twain could never quite acknowledge on earth. And Heaven need not possess the perfection he seems to have demanded for earth life. His Heaven shows clearly that pain is necessary for human growth and that both pain and growth are a part of the progress which man continues to make in Heaven.
In many short stories he repeated the themes that form the material of his books. Some stories, sentimental and melodramatic in effect, have the conventional climax of an escape from death, back to life. Somehow, these never quite come off. Generally, when he tried to treat tragic subjects without some artificial means of attaining perspective, he failed. The results may be seen in the maudlin sentimentality of "The Californian's Tale," in the melodramatic claptrap of "The London Times of 1904," or in the patheticism of "The Death Disk," in which he had spared neither time nor effort; for he claimed he had worked twelve years on "The Death Disk," though it was "the shortest story I ever wrote." But the mawkish, sentimental coloring of the scene between seven-year-old Abby and her father contrasts with the honest simplicity of the scene between Nigger Jim and his little black daughter, as Jim relates it in Huckleberry Finn.
When Mark Twain reverses his theme to write of death as an escape from life, he is usually more convincing because he seems more convinced. Death as a release forms the theme of the little fairy story, "Five Boons of Life." In "About Play Acting" (1898), his review of Adolf Wilbrandt's The Master of Palmyra, he wrote:
Death, in person, walks about the stage in every act. . . . To me he was always welcome, he seemed so real. . . . Wherever . . . that black figure . . . passed . . . always its coming made the fussy human pack seem infinitely pitiful and shabby and hardly worth the attention of either saving or damning.
Although Mr. DeVoto and Mr. Brooks agree that he was "imprisoned in his boyhood," it seems doubtful that he was more imprisoned than any other man who in nostalgic moods returns to the memories of his boy days, settled beneath other superimposed memories like gold in the bed of a stream. As Howells wrote to Mark Twain just after reading Tom Sawyer, "I wish I had been on that island." Mark Twain himself said that the life of boys had a "peculiar charm" for him and therefore he used it in his fiction; but that same charm is probably felt by many men who write and by many others who do not. As a matter of fact, in actual life the adult Mark Twain consistently preferred girls to boys as companions; and this preference held true after his own daughters were gone from home. He remarked that he didn't associate with boys much—"their ways provoke me a good deal." The "peculiar charm" that boy-life once held for him had long been distilled into a literary technique.
In his use of boys—particularly in his use of Huck Finn—he availed himself of a means of gaining the detachment he found it hard to attain in other ways. When a literary device is recurrent in the work of an author, it is usually because it is the right answer to a technical problem. Nothing could indicate a plainer realization of his own shortcomings than Mark Twain's 1878 letter to Howells, already quoted, in which he expressed his desire to write satire and at the same time announced his inability to do so because of his inclination to stand before his subject and "curse it and foam at the mouth, or take a club and pound it to rags and pulp." When he wrote that letter, he had already finished the first unit of Huckleberry Finn, which, on the level of Tom Sawyer, has a light satiric touch but only that. When Huck Finn scanned the various levels of Southern life through which Mark Twain had so recently passed on his way down the river, when Huck took up the pen once more and put those scenes on paper in a way which impels the craftsman to try to find out how it was done, Mark Twain must have realized that a part of his own technical problem was solved.
So sensitive that when he was twenty-three his brother Orion wrote that "Sam's organization is such as to feel the utmost extreme of every feeling," he came to the business of writing, rich in the faculty of storing up emotional material, but handicapped in the parallel requisite of recollecting it in tranquillity—the tranquillity that alone can impose form upon it. His practice through the years, as we have seen, enabled him to employ various devices by which he achieved a measure of the serenity that art demands: speaking out his say through the lips of Huck Finn, through the childlike mind of Nigger Jim, through the childlike mind of Captain Stormfield; setting scenes for the handling of satire far off in time and space—the sixth-century England of King Arthur, the fifteenth-century France of Joan of Arc, the sixteenth-century England of Edward VI, the sixteenth-century Austrian village of Eseldorf, or "Assville," the far-off Heaven of Captain Stormfield; diminishing scenes in which human beings are involved to microscopic proportions, as when viewed from a balloon in Tom Sawyer Abroad, or glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope in "The Great Dark," or seen through the Olympian eye of a god in The Mysterious Stranger; finally, reducing life to a dream, as in both "The Great Dark" and The Mysterious Stranger, where the reality is so mingled with the dream that the dream at last submerges the reality, and the greatest wrongs become tolerable simply because they are not real. As techniques, some of these devices are more successful than others; but the effect of all of them is one and the same—to lend perspective, to lend aesthetic distance, to lend serenity; and these were the very qualities Mark Twain needed most as a literary artist. He developed and used these devices through forty years of practice as a professional writer.
Who is to say whether his use of them was conscious or unconscious? His letters to Howells would indicate that it was conscious, just as he was certainly conscious of devising his early-day "ingenious satires" in burlesque for the express purpose of teaching his moral lessons. His 1899 letter to Howells acknowledges that a writer's value depends upon his ability to recognize the latent dignity in mankind. But, without benefit of his devices, he stood before what he disliked and "pounded it to pulp"; or he enveloped his material in a sentimental glow which destroys the reader's illusion of reality. These defects were inescapable because his view of the world was frequently not rounded and whole, not compounded of the contending forces of good and evil which could have furnished him the necessary artistic tension. Part of his frustration lay in the fact that, after consciously dedicating the main body of his work to the common people, he could not content himself finally with their verdict. "Ah, Helen, . . . you don't understand," he complained to Helen Keller. ". . . Their laughter has submerged me." In 1899 he wrote Howells that he had put the potboiler pen away to do what he had long wanted to do: "write a book which should take account of no one's feelings, delusions; a book which should say my say . . . without a limitation of any sort. . . . It is under way now, and it is a luxury! an intellectual drunk. . . . I believe I can make it tell what I think of Man, and how he is constructed, and what a shabby poor ridiculous thing he is." This book, of course, was The Mysterious Stranger.
Man is a pretty horrifying creature to many people when he is stripped to the bone, and Mark Twain had stripped him to the bone. He wrote that "what a man sees in the human race is merely himself in the deep and honest privacy of his own heart. Byron despised the race because he despised himself. I feel as Byron did, and for the same reason." Inevitably recognizing the human evil within himself, he feared it, could not accept it. Neither in his hatred of the race nor in his excoriation of himself was there any catharsis. Sometimes it is as if he used his art as a form of self-torture.
He was not a profound thinker. His reaction to life itself was emotional rather than intellectual, and his criticism of life followed the same pattern. Formal education, perhaps even a planned program of reading, might have aided him to bridge the gaps in his thinking, might have helped him to resolve his philosophical dilemma and thus to achieve philosophic unity in his work. But, on the other hand, formal education might have detracted from the buoyancy and freshness of his writing style. It is often the excellence of the writing itself—its vigor and vividness, its sincerity and emotional drive—which holds the reader's interest sufficiently to mask the weakness of ideas.
Stung by the inexplicable failure of justice, steeped in bitterness, plangent with scorn—all these things Mark Twain was; but he was far from apathetic about anything. Still, if life is futile, writing is futile, too; and the fact that he kept doggedly on perhaps indicates that his pessimism was not complete, after all. It was always hard for him to remember that the human race was not worth saving. Clara Clemens says that he "took for granted that anyone he met must be a nice person."
Hawthorne and Dostoevsky shared the belief that only those who can suffer intensely are fully alive. On this basis, Mark Twain lived life to the full; for he suffered intensely, and—paradoxically—he was happy, even as he went roaming through the Waste Land. He himself said that he was partly a pessimist, partly an optimist. On January 26, 1910, a few months before his death, he wrote: "I am happy—few are so happy." Living the present moment intensely, he could find enjoyment in his family, his friends, his pipe, his cats, his billiards, his books; but in his view of mankind and the world, he was a pessimist. Since it was this view that he chiefly expressed in his work, it is what counts mainly for literature.
By his use of Nigger Jim and Huckleberry Finn he achieved what literary art demands for permanence because his twofold vision of life in their book gives it a firm aesthetic base; but in "3,000 Years Among the Microbes," in "The Great Dark," and in The Mysterious Stranger the limitations of his life view leave the reader defrauded and unsatisfied. His realization of this fact perhaps explains why he left those stories unfinished, save for The Mysterious Stranger. And there his practice is better than his theory. For, while denying the goodness of human nature as embodied in some of the villagers, he affirms it in the persons of Marget and Wilhelm Meidling and Father Peter; and among sixty-eight people who threw stones at a dying woman, sixty-two of them, according to Satan's count, felt no desire to do so in their hearts. Recalling Mark Twain's claim that if a man "draws 50 characters, they are all himself," we are ready to believe that somewhere in his heart, under the scornful Philip Traum, otherwise known as "Satan," he was also the tolerant Captain Stormfield and the broadly sympathetic Huck Finn.
When he read The Mysterious Stranger to Olivia Clemens, her reaction was that it was "Perfectly horrible—and perfectly beautiful!" Reporting this verdict to Howells, Mark Twain admitted, "Within the due limits of modesty, that is what J think." The impingement of horror on beauty pervades every scene in which Satan figures. And the art of Mark Twain is more complex than is generally believed. But, forced as he is to close the arc of his artistic circle by the emptiness of a dream, his last conclusion in The Mysterious Stranger is, in Satan's words,
Life itself is only a vision, a dream. . . . God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream. . . . Nothing exists save empty space—and you! . . . The dream-marks are all present, you should have recognized them earlier. . . . there is . . . no universe, no human race. . . . It is all a dream—a grotesque and foolish dream.
The artistic restraint of this story covers profound deeps of despair. The despair is greater in this dreamlike hopelessness than in the anger which rages and foams. But the art is greater, too. And Mark Twain, whom Mr. DeVoto has called "the fallen angel of our literature," perhaps measured and himself understood his greatest artistic defects.
With a dramatic insight that amounted to sheer clairvoyance, he could adopt the view of life appropriate to Huck Finn or to Captain Stormfield; as Mark Twain, it is to be feared, his personal view remained the same. The objectivity and artistic restraint of what John Erskine labeled as "our first and still our best account of Main Street" are explained by the fact that Huck Finn is its narrator. Huck's imaginative response to beauty also makes him valuable. He holds the beauties of the river so close to the printed page that the reader feels he, too, can almost reach up and pluck the stars down from the sky; he, too, can hear the singing of the birds as they fly across the water; he, too, can fairly smell the river.
Generally, however, Mark Twain's experience of life seems to have been far different. He longed for, seems even to have expected from life, a sort of perfection. He was constantly seeing reflections of beauty, flowerlike clusters of stars mirrored in the dark waters of a moonlit river; but when he leaned down to pluck the starry flowers, his fingers closed on a handful of Mississippi mud. The ugliness of life stood at his elbow, maliciously inviting him to look on shabby scenes, urging him on with laughter coarse or sardonic; the beauty of life floated far away, beckoning him to follow. But when he drew near, beauty became a quick-change artist, transforming itself into the familiar ugliness, so that he came to see the beckoning as a mere mockery and began to fling back mockery in return. Only at times was he able to see the glory beneath the boredom and the horror of life. Only at times was he able to sense the dignity that is latent in mankind.
His struggle was not an easy one. He could develop various devices for mitigating the effects of his rage, which he so clearly recognized as a literary blemish. But, although he explicitly recorded his realization that the best work can be done only by a writer who senses the "dignity in human life," he was unable to invent any technical devices to replace this lack within himself. His final literary achievement, under such a handicap, was really very great.
In Avalon, Isle of Dreams,
In vast contentment at last,
With every grief done away, . . .
With that incomparable drawl
He is jesting with Dagonet now.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 126
Eby, E. H. "Mark Twain's Testament." Modern Language Quarterly 23, No. 3 (September 1962): 254-62.
Discusses the theme of creativity as a redeeming force in The Mysterious Stranger.
Parsons, Coleman O. "The Background of The Mysterious Stranger." American Literature 32, No. 1 (March 1960): 55-74.
Identifies various sources that may have inspired The Mysterious Stranger.
Van Dover, J. Kenneth. "Mark Twain's Final Phase: The Mysterious Stranger.'" In Samuel L. Clemens: A Mysterious Stranger, edited by Hans Borchers and Daniel E. Williams, pp. 187-201. New York: Verlag Peter Lang, 1986.
Compares the three manuscript versions of The Mysterious Stranger.
Additional coverage of Twain's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 11, 12, 23, 64, 74; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 6, 12, 19, 36, 48 59; and World Literature Criticism.
Wendell Glick (essay date 1969)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7006
SOURCE: "The Epistemological Theme of The Mysterious Stranger," in Themes and Directions in American Literature, edited by Ray B. Browne and Donald Pizer, Purdue University Press, 1969, pp. 130-47.
[In the following essay, Glick analyzes various lines of philosophical argument in The Mysterious Stranger.]
Among the scores of literary fragments which accumulated around Mark Twain in the terminal years of his life—most of them vilifications of democratic man and democratic society—stands The Mysterious Stranger, bitter like the rest, but bitter with a difference. For while most of these fragments impress the reader as little more than the vituperative tirades of the idealist turned sour as a consequence of the demise in his old age of his youthful hopes and expectations, or perhaps of his belated recognition of the discrepancy between the ideal and the actual, The Mysterious Stranger, though it contains a measure of such raillery, does not end with it. The bitterness is provided with a rationale. It devolves, not so much from Twain's conviction that man is irrational, as from Twain's impatience with man's presumption that he is not. Exposed to the evidence of past and present that his absolutes are feigned, his vaunted moral faculty a compensatory delusion, his life a meaningless and ignorant journey to no end across a darkling plain, man compounds the tragedy of his fate by taking refuge in chimeras that even his feeble faculties should recognize as fraudulent. Nowhere in the book does Twain treat with complete cynicism the tragedy of man's constitutional incapacity to guide himself through the maze of existence. What elicits Twain's scorn, however, in almost every chapter, is man's denial that his dilemma is real, man's perverse refusal to admit, as Conrad put it, "that the play of his destiny is too great for his fears and too mysterious for his understanding." As a limited inhabitant of an illimitable chaos, Twain contends with Robert Frost that man's most pressing need is to learn, like the oven bird, to "make the most of a diminished thing."
This is the theme that lends unity and coherence to The Mysterious Stranger, and not the tacked-on solipsism of the final chapter. As every student of late nineteenth and of twentieth century literature knows, it is far from an uncommon one. It links Twain with Melville and Arnold, with Dreiser and the other naturalists, with the French existentialists who have pursued knowledge to the abyss of nothingness, refusing like Twain to take a Kierkegaardian "leap of faith," with Frost and Robinson, with Wallace Stevens, and a host of others of like Weltanschauung. Yet The Mysterious Stranger has generally been read as a response to Twain's personal disasters, rather than as a reflection of the epistemological malaise which has swept like an epidemic through the Western world in the last hundred years. The book has been dismissed as "mordant speculation"; "philosophically, The Mysterious Stranger is bunkum," another critic has observed, arguing that its "basic confusion" stems from "the perpetual agony of the faulty hypothesis." What, one might ask, is mordant speculation? Is this book indeed as confused as the critics have adjudged it to be? And who is to say that Twain's hypothesis is "faulty," any more than is Wallace Stevens' "hypothesis" in "Sunday Morning"? The condescension with which the book has been treated may be a reflection perhaps of the unpalatability of solipsism to the modern mind; or it may be a reflection of the difficulties critics have encountered in discerning any kind of unity between the solipsistic final chapter and the first ten. Whatever the reason, most of the critics who have approached the work from the critical rather than the biographical point of view have been pressed almost to legerdemain to justify the tale as thematically consistent, and some have given up the cause as impossible.
To argue as this paper does that Twain's theme is the ubiquitous twentieth century idea of the breakdown of epistemological certainty is to argue for a continuity in Twain's thought between The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Mysterious Stranger and for the emergence of similar epistemological themes in the two works. It is to argue, that is to say, for the continuation and intensification of the influence of W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne which, as Professor Walter Blair has demonstrated, provided the frame of reference for Twain's conception of Huck's moral dilemma [Mark Twain and Huck Finn, 1960]. Theodor Fischer's dilemma is Huck's, on a smaller canvas. As Twain's running debate with Lecky carried on in the margins of his copy of Lecky's History makes clear, Twain was a convert to the consequential morality of the utilitarians, having rejected Lecky's absolutist morality as Huck had rejected that of Miss Watson. In The Mysterious Stranger Twain exposes a less complex boy, Theodor, to the blandishments, the arguments, the prestidigitations of Satan, utilitarian moralist par excellence, who demonstrates to Theodor that prudential assessment of consequences is in a crisis the only basis man has for ethical guidance. But Satan attempts to take Theodor a step farther than Huck, with no mentor, was able to go: he shows Theodor as well that consequential morality is a live option only for clairvoyant beings who, when they choose between alternatives, are fully cognizant of what the consequences of each alternative will be. As Satan explained the point to Theodor: "Your race never know good fortune from ill. They are always mistaking one for the other. It is because they cannot see into the future." However much he tries, therefore, man cannot act prudently, in accordance with the only viable basis for moral action, because he lacks what Satan calls "mind"; and the result of his deficiency in clairvoyance is that all ethical guidance is for him foreclosed. This is the lesson which Satan attempts in almost every encounter to teach the boys of Eseldorf; it is the lesson that they as representative members of an absolutist community just as resolutely refuse to learn. The Mysterious Stranger can be read as a dialectic between Theodor Fischer, a confirmed Christian absolutist and defender of the "moral sense," and the prudential moralist, Satan—a dialectic that covers all the ground traversed by Twain himself in his debate with the absolutist Lecky in the margins of his copy of Lecky's History.
All of the ground, that is to say, except the solipsism of Chapter XL I doubt that solipsism can be assimilated into any thematic interpretation of this book; as Professor Eby has said of Chapter XI, "It and it alone creates the solipsism" [Modern Language Quarterly, September, 1962]. Chapters I through X simply do not tend in the direction of Chapter XL Solipsism moreover is a cheap escape from the human dilemma treated seriously and thoughtfully by Twain in the rest of the work, and the evidence points to the conclusion that Twain recognized this. It was not he who placed Chapter XI in the manuscript. The problem posed by Chapter XI, therefore, is an editorial problem, not a critical one.
The editorial history of Twain's manuscript of The Mysterious Stranger is a curiosity. The "concluding" Chapter XI, which has caused so much critical travail, owes its inclusion with the rest of the story only to the conjectures of Paine and DeVoto that it belongs there. Neither, apparently, based his judgment upon a serious, informed analysis of the extant manuscripts of the different versions of the novel in the Mark Twain Papers. Nor did either, it would appear, follow the internal evidence in the respective versions in arriving at a decision as to which version of the tale Twain intended the solipsistic chapter to conclude. The aim of both men seems to have been to use the chapter to support their biographical conjectures about Twain's personal crisis during the last fifteen years of his life. Advertently or inadvertently, as Professor John Tuckey has ably demonstrated, they were led into editorial chicanery that has placed in jeopardy many of their conclusions [Mark Twain and Little Satan, 1963].
Among other errors, DeVoto arbitrarily lifted the solipsistic chapter from a late version of The Mysterious Stranger—the "Print Shop" version written in 1904—and appended it to the earlier Eseldorf version which Twain had abandoned in 1900, the version which now serves as the textual basis of the novel. Albert Biglow Paine is even more culpable; he went to the unconscionable length of altering the names of the characters in the original manuscript of the solipsistic chapter to make them fit the names in the Eseldorf manuscript. Professor Tuckey thus summarizes his findings after an exhaustive study of the holographs:
The characters named in the solipsistic conclusion, as written by Twain, are those of the "Print Shop" version. The manuscript shows the editorial changes that were made by Paine to make the fragment fit "Eseldorf": where the names "44" and "August" occur, these have been deleted and "Satan" and "Theodor" inserted. The last paragraph of Chapter X and the first paragraph of the concluding Chapter XI of The Mysterious Stranger were also supplied as editorial editions to make the "Print Shop" fragment serve for the completion of "Eseldorf." By such editorial carpentry, the ending that Twain had intended for his latest form of The Mysterious Stranger was joined to a form of it that he had almost certainly not worked upon since the summer of 1900.
This being the case, the task of the critic of the "Eseldorf ' version of the work we call The Mysterious Stranger (though Twain gave the title to the "Print Shop" version) is not to discover devices for reconciling the spurious ending with the remainder of the work, but to ignore the solipsism of Chapter XI and to discover whither the remainder of the unfinished manuscript tends. As resolutely as Twain strove to finish the manuscripts on which he was at work in his years of personal crisis at the turn of the century, it is difficult to belive that he would not himself have used the solipsistic chapter as a conclusion to the "Eseldorf ' manuscript had he felt that aesthetic propriety justified his doing so. That he did not would seem to eliminate solipsism as a possible theme of the book.
With the hypothesis in mind that what we have in The Mysterious Stranger is a dialectic between representatives of Christian absolutism (Theodor) and prudential utilitarian morality (Satan), let us examine the interaction between these two major characters as the book develops. Theodor Fischer, who narrates the book in retrospect, establishes in Chapter I the Christian absolutism of his sixteenth century Austrian community: "It was still the age of belief in Austria. . . . We were all proud of it"; and the credulity of the people of Eseldorf (Assville), himself included: "Father Adolf had actually met Satan face to face more than once . . . and defied him. This was known to be so. Father Adolf said it himself." No attempt was made to educate the people; knowledge had a way of shaking the faith of the absolutist: "We were not required to know much; and, in fact, not allowed to. Knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented." The rulers of Eseldorf, it would seem, were motivated by a prudent concern for tranquility to perpetuate the ignorance of the populace.
Chapter II begins with a re-emphasis of the narrator's credulity: Felix Brandt "told us about ghosts and horrors of every kind . . . and he told these things from his experience largely," and then introduces Satan, a young man "sixteen thousand years old" whose mind could alter and create matter at will, and even give life to the diminutive men and women it willed into being. Along with the power to create went the prerogative to destroy what he had created; when they offended him, Satan disposed of the little quarreling beings he had made by swatting them with the board seat from the boys' swing "as if they had been flies," emphasizing all the while the inferiority of human beings to angels like himself, and denying that in disposing of them he had done "wrong,"—denying even the capacity for doing wrong.
Chapter III sharpens the disparity between the mind of Satan and that of the boys: they are "dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited"; he is "not limited. . . . not subject to human conditions." "The difference between man and me," Satan tells Theodor who had rushed to the defense of the rationality of the human race, is the difference between a wood-louse and Caesar. In place of a mind like Satan's that can penetrate into past and future, "man has the Moral Sense" "You understand," Satan repeats emphatically, "He has the Moral Sense. That would seem to be difference enough between us, all by itself." Though Theodor is not sure what the Moral Sense is, he feels as a girl feels when her dearest finery is being ridiculed. When Satan disappears, Father Peter strolling by discovers his wallet stuffed with 1100 ducats on the spot where Satan had vanished, Satan having used his "mind" to create the money Father Peter needed but which, cursed with his human limitations, the Christian absolutist could not supply.
In the brief Chapter IV, set the following day, Father Peter pays Solomon Isaacs the money, and "a number of cool, old friends became kind and friendly again." Though to Christian absolutists Father Peter's having money or not having it should have made no difference in their friendship, their morality is prudential—it might later stand them in good stead to be on friendly terms with a wealthy man. The boys now separate themselves from their peers, whose games and enterprises, compared with Satan's pyrotechnics, seem "trifling and commonplace." The next day Theodor secures from Father Peter a definition of the Moral Sense: it is "the faculty," according to the priest, that enables man "to distinguish good from evil." As to its value, Father Peter exclaims: "Heavens; Lad, it is the one thing that lifts man above the beasts that perish and makes him heir to immortality." The impact of this intelligence is something less than overpowering upon the boys: upon leaving Father Peter's house they fail to put to use their Moral Sense when William Meidling, Marget's faithful suitor, questions them about how the music lesson Marget is giving her pupil is coming along. They base their reply that the lesson is nearly finished on consequential morality and risk a falsehood to give William pleasure: "We judged it would please him, and it did, and it didn't cost us anything." Nothing, that is, but their veracity.
Chapter V begins with the astrologer's charging Father Peter with theft: though the astrologer contradicts himself and supplies no evidence to support his claim to ownership of the money, the credulous community accepts his story. Father Peter is jailed, and the money impounded. The boys' parents, "afraid of offending the community," forbid them to visit Marget to "show friendliness for her": their conception of moral propriety is also based upon their assessment of prudential self-interest. And of course all erstwhile friends of Father Peter now disappear; nothing is to be gained by consorting with the relatives of an accused thief. Ursula learns to lie to support Marget. In a crisis, she does what is expedient rather than what is dictated by her Moral Sense. Satan materializes, and with the boys pays a visit to Marget, cheering her up by "being friendly and telling lies"—among others that he was studying for the ministry. Since the result was Marget's happiness, the lies were moral, by Satan's criteria. Theodor, though prone to lie himself to give William Meidling pleasure, excuses Satan's lies but does not condone them: "He told a good many lies, it was no harm in him, for he was only an angel and did not know any better. They do not know right from wrong: I knew this, because I remembered what he had said about it." The chapter ends with Satan's whisking the boys inside the torture chamber of the jail where splinters are being thrust under the nails of a young man who will not lie and admit he is a heretic. But Twain does not dwell on the morality of refusing to lie to avoid pain to oneself, but upon Theodor's remark that the torture was a "brutal" thing. Brute beasts, demurs Satan, are not fettered to a poisonous absolutism. What follows is Satan's strongest attack so far upon man's illusion that he is guided in fact by a Moral Sense: it is characteristic of man, charges Satan, that he is "always lying, always claiming virtues which [he] hasn't got, always denying them to the higher animals." By claiming the guidance of a Moral Sense men can rationalize heinous cruelties: the torturers in prison are presumably following their Moral Sense in thrusting splinters under the nails of the accused heretic. What they do under the delusion that their behavior is "good" degrades them below the beasts, who make no pretense of possessing "a sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong."
Chapter VI is a chamber of horrors—"some more Moral Sense," as Satan labels it, beginning with the anachronistic factory scene treating the exploitation of the poor by the rich, moving on to two witch burnings, and ending with the tightening of the net around the unwitting, "foolishly happy" Marget, as Father Adolph seeks to prove that there is witchcraft in her home. Interspersed among these incidents are tirades by Satan against man's illogic and unreason in presuming that he is guided in perpetrating these inhumanities by a justifying Moral Sense, when what actually guides him in almost every case is self-interest determined by a fumbling assessment of consequences. Men are "little Satans" insofar as their basis for moral choice is concerned, though they vehemently deny it. But both the import of the instances of human brutality and Satan's explanations of the real moral bases of them are lost on Theodor: though, for instance, he senses keenly "the danger that was gathering" around the innocents Marget and Ursula, it is fear of consequences rather than concern for what is right and just according to his Moral Sense that dictates his reaction to Marget's plight. His morality, like that of most members of the community, is an accommodating morality, not an absolute one. Theodor's rationalization of his decision to do nothing on Marget's behalf is typical of many scattered through the book:
In any community, big or little, there is always a fair proportion of people who are not malicious or unkind by nature, and who never do unkind things except when they are overmastered by fear, or when their self-interest is greatly in danger, or some such matter as that. Eseldorf had its proportion of such people, and ordinarily their good and gentle influence was felt, but these were not ordinary times—on account of the witch-dread—and so we did not seem to have any gentle and compassionate hearts left, to speak of. Every person was frightened at the unaccountable state of things at Marget's house, not doubting that witchcraft was at the bottom of it, and fright frenzied their reason. Naturally there were some who pitied Margaret and Ursula for the danger that was gathered about them, but naturally they did not say so; it would not have been safe. . . . We boys wanted to warn them, but we backed down when it came to the pinch, being afraid. We found that we were not manly enough nor brave enough to do a generous action when there was a chance that it could get us into trouble (my italics).
This is precisely what Satan has been trying to tell Theodor all along—that "naturally," in the "pinch," men try to act with an eye to the consequences, all the while proclaiming loudly and hypocritically that they are following their Moral Sense. Theodor is not a confirmed hypocrite; he knows that he is not being "manly" or "brave." But community mores, not a personal ethic, govern in most instances what men will do. Satan can afford to challenge the blacksmith, the butcher's man, the journeyman, and the entire citizenry of Eseldorf at the hanging of the innocent lady in Chapter IX, since the community has no power over him; but Theodor threw his stone at her, prompting the observation from Satan: "I know your race. It is made up of sheep." Unlike Huck Finn, who would not participate in the community tarring and feathering of the rascally Duke and King, Theodor feels that to protect himself he must hurl at least one stone. On the other hand, it might be added, Huck did not have to fear the consequences of remaining aloof.
Chapter VII brings together Satan, the astrologer, Father Adolph, Theodor, and most of the town including the boys' parents at Marget's party, where the astrologer's feats of supernaturalism while his body is possessed by Satan reduce the townspeople to terror and apprehension. Though the people of Eseldorf conclude almost to a man that what they have witnessed is a demonstration of the power of the Devil, what concerns these Christian absolutists above all else is not their ultimate salvation but the probable social and economic consequences to the town. The judge, Nikolaus' father, predicts that despair will strip away the courage and energy of the people; Seppi Wohlmeyer's father, the innkeeper, laments that the tourist trade will suffer: "The Golden Stag will know hard times." The night following the party, Satan transports Theodor alone to China, which gives the boy an opportunity to express the community concern over Satan's party prestidigitations. With sublime naivete, Theodor upbraids Satan for, of all things, "random," "impulsive" action without consideration of the consequences. Ironically, without the least awareness that he is assuming the dialectical position of his opponent, the absolutist condemns the utilitarian for actions unjustified by utilitarian morality. The humor of the situation does not escape Satan:
We talked together, and I had the idea of trying to reform Satan and persuade him to lead a better life. I told him about all those things he had been doing, and begged him to be more considerate and stop making people unhappy. I said I knew he did not mean any harm, but that he ought to stop and consider the possible consequences of a thing before launching it in that impulsive and random way of his; then he would not make so much trouble. He was not hurt by this plain speech; he only looked amused and surprised, and said:
What? I do random things? Indeed, I never do. I stop and consider possible consequences? Where is the need? I know what the consequences are going to be—always.
The absolutist has missed completely the point of Satan's lessons, that Theodor's absolutism is academic, that in practice his morality is prudential.
But Theodor's charge seems to provoke in Satan a determination to set the boy right once and for all. There follows his longest (1600 words), most restrained, and most thorough exposition in the entire book of his ontological and epistemological position. He reiterates that assessment of the consequences of an act is the only ground for reasonable action. He shows Theodor that with his clairvoyant "intellect" he can act reasonably, for he can know in full what skein of consequences his every act will evoke. And he can act in accord with his foreknowledge of these consequences, because he is immortal, unlike man whose life "is but a laugh, a sigh, and extinction." His mind is not subject to the limitations that hamstring the mind of man: "Man's mind clumsily and tediously and laboriously patches little trivialities together and gets a result—such as it is. My mind creates." Satan knows all, forgets nothing; man perceives little, and yet remembers but a miniscule portion of what it has perceived. The result of such a life without "intellect," Satan insists, is a life completely dictated in its course by circumstances and environment—not "foreordained" by God in the Calvinistic sense, but dictated by temporal external forces as a result of man's being compelled by his limitations to act on the basis of a present, imperfect conception of the facts only: "Your race never knew good fortune from ill. . . . It is because they cannot see into the future."
For the first time, in response to Satan's long analysis of man's innate epistemological insufficiencies, Theodor evinces some comprehension of the tragedy of the human condition. Man "is a prisoner of life," he tells Satan "sorrowfully," "and cannot get free." "'But I can free him," Satan replies, and informs Theodor that he has already, with his knowledge of the future, changed for the "better" the "careers of a number of your villagers." To add to their sum total of happiness, he has introduced a new link into the lives of Lisa Brandt and Nikolaus. Both will shortly die, delivered from future lives of pain and shame. And Father Peter will have his good name restored and be happy for the rest of his life following his trial. Though Satan wrings from Theodor the admission that what he had done for these people was morally acceptable—that in dictating Lisa's early death, for instance, he had been "wiser" and "kinder" than the girl's mother had been—Theodor was far from intellectually convinced. "He had such strange notions of kindness!" Theodor thought. "But angels are made so, and do not know any better."
Chapter VIII is art of the highest order, Twain's most successful integration in the book of action and character, focussed with consummate mastery upon his theme. Satan's strident philippics are gone, replaced by action that unfolds with verisimilitude and poignancy. Theodor and Seppi are endowed for twelve days with Satan's clairvoyance; unfettered from the human curse of being unable to judge the moral Tightness of their choices by measuring them against a certain knowledge of future events, the boys now possess a "true" moral standard for adapting their behavior toward Nikolaus to the fact of his impending death. They are changed boys. Theodor's recollection of the "little, shabby wrongs" he had done Nikolaus in the past "tortured" him: he and Seppi resolved to devote the few days Nikolaus had to live to make him happy. Nikolaus sensed the change:
Our tone toward Nikolaus was so strangely gentle and tender and yearning that he noticed it, and was pleased, and we were constantly doing him deferential little offices of courtesy. . . . These things touched him, and he said he could not have believed that we loved him so; and his pride in it and gratefulness for it cut us to the heart, we were so undeserving of them. When we parted at last, he was radiant, and said he had never had such a happy day.
But the behavior of the boys who know the future of Nikolaus contrasts sharply with that of Nikolaus' parents, who lack the boys' knowledge of the future yet love their son more deeply. Theodor and Seppi suffer as they watch Nikolaus' mother and father make the "human" mistakes to which their limited knowledge of the future dooms them—mistakes that, as the boys are painfully aware, the parents will soon profoundly regret. Nikolaus' mother, in particular, feels the burden of having to make decisions to govern the son she loves, while lacking the knowledge she needs to have to make those choices that will prove best for him: "Dear, dear," she laments, "if we could only know! Then we shouldn't ever go wrong; but we are only poor, dumb beasts groping around and making mistakes." What parent can miss the poignancy of what Twain is saying here? Greek tragedy was often conceived around just this concept of peripeteia! Twain makes the pain of the "Cassandra" comprehension of the boys that of the reader as well, who shares with the boys the foreknowledge of Nikolaus' death, and thus perceives how little man can do to prevent catastrophes he cannot foresee. Yet her comprehension of her helplessness does not prevent Nikolaus' mother after his death from upbraiding herself for unwittingly making the decision that led to his drowning. Theodor has learned enough from Satan to see the error in this: the mother's self-reproach "shows how foolish people are," he observes, "when they blame themselves for anything they have done." There can be no moral reproach when there is no freedom of choice.
Frau Brandt, more devout in her Christian absolutism than Nikolaus' mother, has relied upon prayer to protect her daughter Lisa from the unknown hazards of the future. The death of her child provokes her to make a pragmatic judgment of her absolutism: prayer, she concludes, does not work. "Night and day I have groveled in the dirt before Him praying him to have pity on my innocent child and save it from harm," she cries bitterly, "and here is His answer!" And she vows never to pray again, in the hearing of Fischer the weaver, who charges her with heresy and brings down upon her the wrath of a mob of "holy hypocrites" who burn her at the stake for a witch, though she tells them that if she were a witch she could strike all of them dead in five minutes. But the logic of this defense does not save her from the wrath of the fanatics. Knowing the sort of life she would have had to endure had she lived, the boys do not lament her death: "We were glad of her death and not sorry that we had brought it about." But when it came to enlightenment as to what the consequences of these events they had initiated would be in other lives, they pleaded with Satan that they "did not wish to know." The burden of knowing what the future portends is too excruciating. Moreover, they are far from being converted to Satan's consequential morality. "We fully believed in Satan's desire to do us kindnesses," says Theodor, "but we were losing confidence in his judgment." Satan has their admission that death is preferable to a life of misery, but the pain attendant upon foreknowledge, and their old commitment to community conceptions of what is moral, are too strong for them.
But Satan continues their education nonetheless, showing them a panorama of blood-letting and war from Cain and Abel through the history of empires to the present, and giving them as well a glimpse of man's "raging, struggling, wallowing through seas of blood" in the future. His point: man learns nothing from history, though reviewing it should convince him at least of his own unreason. But Satan fails to make his point, and the boys take refuge in their absolutism. At least, is their reaction, they believe there is a heaven, and "we shall be there some day." But when they look to Satan for confirmation, he declines to affirm their hope. The utilitarian is not willing to offer the boys the solace of a fictional Kierkegaardian "leap of faith."
Chapter IX is yet another demonstration that fear of the consequences of opposing majority opinion, even in a community of absolutists, is a stronger force in human motivation than commitment to one's sense of the right and just. The people of Eseldorf, there being a lull in the activities of the community, "took to witch-hunting on their own score, and began to chase a born lady who was known to have the habit of curing people by devilish arts, such as bathing them, washing them, and nourishing them." Only Satan, of all those witnessing the ensuing murder, refuses to cast stones at the innocent woman. Yet when the blacksmith who had accused Satan of not participating in the murder collapses as Satan had predicted, the people turn on each other, accusing their neighbors of having accused Satan of non-participation as the blacksmith had done. Wars begin, Satan tells Theodor, in just this manner, with people deceiving themselves into equating self-interest with "conscience-soothing falsities." The basic element in human motivation, Satan reiterates, is man's "desire, for safety's or comfort's sake, to stand well in his neighbor's eye."
Chapter X is the last chapter that Twain himself included in the manuscript of the Eseldorf version of the book. "It was getting high time for Father Peter to have a saving change toward happiness," Theodor felt, and to effecting this end Twain devotes most of this final chapter. To make good on his promise, Satan has to lie to Father Peter, but the lie is morally justified by utilitarian morality, for it brings about Father Peter's happiness, though robbing him of his sanity. His education still incomplete, as it is to remain, Theodor censures Satan for securing Father Peter's happiness at such a price:
It was difficult to irritate Satan, but that accomplished it. "What an ass you are!" he said. "Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination? No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those. . . . Of course, no man is entirely in his right mind at any time, but I have been referring to the extreme cases. I have taken from this man that trumpery thing which the race regards as Mind; I have replaced his tin life with a silver-gilt fiction; you see the result—and you criticize!" . . . He heaved a discouraged sigh, and said, "It seems to me that this race is hard to please."
"I apologized," says Theodor, "as well as I could; but privately I did not think much of his processes—at that time." Theodor senses the reasonableness of Satan's morality of accommodation and consequence; he dimly perceives that his own morality is a consequential morality, but not even an angel can divest him of his stubborn faith in the human mind as a moral instrument which intuitively separates right from wrong.
Two scenes conclude the manuscript as Twain left it. The final one deals with the foreigner "in white linen and sun-helmet" in India—obviously a Britisher—whose inhuman refusal to allow the starving natives to gather fruit from the everbearing tree Satan has created on his land draws from Satan the penalty that he will have to water the tree hourly every night to preserve his life. "Let him think as he may, reason as he may, one thing is certain," says Satan, "he will water the tree." Prudential self-interest will prove to be, in the crisis, the regulator of his actions.
The other scene (comprising only a short speech by Satan) introduces a new note that Twain did not elect to develop. Instead of duping itself "from cradle to grave with shams and delusions," as Satan suggests to Theodor, instead of relying upon an imagined Moral Sense for guidance, man might with more profit rely upon his sense of humor. He might laugh at the absurdity of life. Instead of perceiving with his presently undeveloped "mongrel perception of humor" only the comic side of "a thousand low-grade and trivial things," he should learn to laugh at the "ten thousand high-grade comicalities which exist in the world"—chief of which, one would assume, is man's ludicrous attempt to live reasonably without a mind that makes it possible for him to scan the future. Should man ever see the humor in his plight, the "colossal humbug" of "power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution" could be blown "to rags and atoms at a blast." But presently, asserts Satan, man lacks "the sense and the courage" to use this weapon. The paranoiac human race is not about to laugh at itself. So it will go on mistaking "delusions" for "realities," clinging to its imagined absolutes, refusing to face up to its limitations, and consequently wallowing in blood and gore in the sort of future of which Satan has already given Theodor a terrifying glimpse.
In arguing that most of the action in The Mysterious Stranger contributes to a fairly consistent epistemological theme, I do not wish to be trapped into the position that the book is without serious artistic flaws. Certainly, if art conceals art, if great fiction is the organic development of theme from within through appropriate action of the characters in accordance with the internal exigencies of the work itself, The Mysterious Stranger falls short, for seldom throughout the piece is the reader unaware that Twain is manipulating action and dialog. The theme is frequently carried on by external devices, the long harangues of Satan for example, that are often gratuitously foisted upon the work. Can anyone read the book without feeling that Twain is unabashedly using Satan as his redacteur? That the choice of incident and character is such that Satan is provided with unfair leverage for his attacks upon the people of "Assville"? Are not many of the scenes nonsequiturs? Could not the scene in India in Chapter X, for instance, be placed with as much aesthetic justification in Chapter VII? Or Chapter V? Does artistic necessity dictate the repeated and increasingly strident attacks by Satan upon the unreasoning human race, even though the increase in stridency develops a kind of unity as Satan unsuccessfully attempts to divest Theodor and the other boys of their unquestioning acceptance of the moral sense epistemology of Christian absolutism? Why should Satan have had even a passing interest in making such attempts? Despicable as he considers the unreasoning human race to be, why should Satan "like" the boys and Marget as he tells them he does, and go to such lengths to enlighten them, having the foreknowledge that he will fail? Is either of the main characters—Satan or Theodor—convincingly realized? Cannot one feel Twain's heavy hand upon the action in such scenes as the melodramatic foreclosing of the mortgage on Father Peter's house by Solomon Isaacs? Is Marget any more than a sentimental heroine, the passive victim of the crass villains, Father Adolph and the astrologer? And are they any more than pasteboard villains, created for Twain's private purposes rather than for reasons of artistic necessity? Is not the theme itself jeopardized by a kind of internal bifurcation, for if man is doomed to unreason as a result of his not having been born with a clairvoyant, creative mind, does he merit severe censure for attempting to create a "gilt-edged fiction" to obscure his doom from himself? Is not this precisely what the utilitarian Satan provided for Father Peter to ensure the largest measure of happiness for him? Is Twain attacking man's unreason, or man?
Twain's tone in most scenes of the book is acid; is such bitterness justified by the theme? Since man as Twain depicts him is more sinned against than sinning, living as he does in a world of non-existent options, should not Twain's tone have been more appropriately one of pity and fear, stemming from a sense of the irremediable tragedy of the human condition, a recognition of the starkness of human life in a world in which all ethical guidance is denied? This book is satire; should it not have been tragedy? I do not argue that Twain's pity for man's plight never emerges; in the incident of Lisa and her mother it is deeply felt, as it is in the incident in which the boys, gifted for once with Satan's prescience as to what will happen to Nikolaus, await the catastrophe of his drowning. My point here is that Twain's tone is not only unjustifiably bitter through most of the book; it is ambivalent. Had the author's pity for man pervaded the entire work, rather than only a few moving scenes, an aesthetically functional harmony of tone with theme might have been achieved. But it does not, and the stridency of Twain's raillery, though his mouthpiece Satan, conflicts so harshly with the poignancy of the tragedy of the few of these townspeople who are real enough to claim our empathy, that the reader's end response is an uneasy one.
"Mental self-possession" Joseph Conrad once described as "that fine attitude before the universally irremediable which wears the name of stoicism." Thinking is its enemy: "The habit of profound reflection, I am compelled to say, is the most pernicious of all the habits formed by civilized man." Thinking about the limitations of thinking led Twain to an impasse in The Mysterious Stranger. How could he conclude such a book? A foray into solipsism was certainly not the answer; Twain had no illusions about the reality of the human problem he was grappling with. To make a feint at resolving it by the subterfuge of allowing Satan to claim that man is not real and hence his problems must not be either, was aesthetically unsatisfactory and intellectually cheap. Having reached this point in his book, Twain apparently could see his way clear to no conclusion that was not cheating. And this book was not to be another Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, marred in its conclusion, as Professor Leo Marx has shown so convincingly, by a "failure of nerve." ["Mr. Eliot; Mr. Trilling; and Huckleberry Finn," Interpretations of American Literature, 1959]. Perhaps, we may conjecture, Twain felt too strongly about the issue of Christian absolutism to write with detachment upon a theme so intimately connected with his own life; after all, he seems to have fought for a lifetime unsuccessfully to purge the Calvinistic absolutism from his own bloodstream. Though committed intellectually to utilitarianism at the time he wrote The Mysterious Stranger, the Calvinism still ran in his blood. Whatever the explanation for the book's failure, if indeed it did fail, it provokes questions, and they are questions of human relevancy. Faulkner once remarked of The Sound and the Fury that it was his "greatest failure," but having failed in probing such themes is not the same as having achieved nothing.
Ellwood Johnson (essay date 1970)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4762
SOURCE: "Mark Twain's Dream Self in the Nightmare of History," in Mark Twain Journal 15, No. 1, Winter, 1970, pp. 6-12.
[In the following essay, Johnson situates Twain 's philosophical stance within the duality of idealism and pragmatism.]
There is, as F. O. Matthiesen and Stephen Whicher have remarked, in Emerson's developing metaphysics a double consciousness, an awareness that there are two ways of seeing the world, an ideal and a real, in terms of freedom and fate, or from the points of view of Reason and the understanding. Because nature is an extension of thought, because the act is manifest thought, man is as free as thought. But at the same time nature and man himself are fated by their own biology and chemistry. There is, then, existent at the same time, causationism that Emerson defines in his essay, "Power," as a determined and necessary relationship between event and thought, events as extensions of the self, and a determinism, or fate, which is a necessary cause-and-effect relationship in nature and between events which carries man along helplessly within it.
The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other; never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and paradise . . .
Emerson never quite resolved the opposition in his own mind, except to decide in faith that he preferred "infinitude and paradise"; he simply accepted idealism as more pragmatic than materialism, and the evidences of the soul as less confining than the evidences of the senses alone.
The same double consciousness may be seen in the later works of Mark Twain which, despite their disillusionment and despair, were written in what Emerson called the "optative mood" of American letters, in the full consciousness of what man, paltry creature that he is, might and should become. Like Emerson, Twain saw man as subjectively free and objectively fated: events are extensions of the self, and yet, the self is imprisoned in the logic of events. The central image, I suggest, of this period of Twain's work is the "dream self" in the prison of history. The Mysterious Stranger, as the culmination of Twain's thinking on this subject through the last half of his life, is the best exposition we have of his misanthropic and yet extremely optimistic philosophy and at the same time the purest example of the version of American individualism that "optatively" posits infinite power in man's inner, intuitive, creative self.
For perhaps thirty years after its posthumous publication, The Mysterious Stranger was generally dismissed by scholars as an expression of the misanthropy and disillusionment of Twain's later years and as an attempt, in Bernard de Voto's words, to "save himself from his own black despair brought about by several personal tragedies. The findings of recent scholarship do not support this view. The evidence is that Twain had been evolving a philosophy of ideal determinism through the latter half of his life and that the several manuscripts from which the form of the novel we know was extracted were attempts at systematizing his beliefs.
It appears that much that has been supposed about The Mysterious Stranger, and indeed about Twain's later period, may have to be reconsidered. The theory that he "saved himself in the end" by writing the story that has been published .. . has been widely accepted as a basis for explaining what happened to him and to his literary work. The findings do not support that theory, and there seems to be a need for reappraisal and reinterpretation [The Portable Mark Twain, 1946].
Further, it appears that the germ of the idea for the novel was Twain's interest in the "dream self as a creator of reality, the outer world created by the inner man, instead of the mechanistic determinism that gives the novel its black tone.
Some of the misconceptions about The Mysterious Stranger grew out of scholars' faith that Twain could not have been serious in attaching the solipsistic ending to all the cynicism that had gone before—that he was only playing an ironic trick on the reader, and that Satan's rhetoric on the damned human race is the real meat of the work—but the structural evidence within the novella itself, as well as the notes and letters Twain wrote on the subject, suggests that Twain had a more idealistic purpose in writing the book.
Some of the misinterpretations of the story may also have resulted from critics' inability to see quite what Twain meant by "dream." He was, of course, writing about visions, creative imagination, a dream world, but the implication of the word dream in the story is always belief. The dream existence of Philip Traum is the result of the boys' belief in angels and the loss of their fear of the supernatural. Felix Brandt makes their belief (dream) possible, and their belief makes Traum possible, and Traum's beliefs free Theodor Fischer from history.
Structurally, The Mysterious Stranger divides dialectically into thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, thus developing two distinct plot lines and themes and a resolution. The two thematic developments may be termed ideational determinism (thesis) and mechanistic determinism (antithesis); these are brought together and resolved in a solipsistic conclusion. The thesis says that man's history is determined by the scope of his belief (dreams); the antithesis says that history is determined by the cause-and-effect relationship between events over which man has no control. Other, and perhaps more illuminating, terms for the two themes are the "uses of imagination" versus the "uses of the moral sense." Imagination (dreams) determines infinite possibilities for the future; man's sense of good and evil limits him to suffering and death. The mechanistic and pessimistic thematic elements are enclosed within the elements of plot that are ideationally determined to reveal the hopelessness of history as an effect of the nightmare created by man's limited and depraved imagination.
Satan compares the mechanistic view of life to a game the boys play.
. . . you stand a row of bricks on end a few inches apart, you push a brick, it knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That is human life. A child's first act knocks over the initial brick and the rest will follow inexorably.
Thus each individual is the victim for life of his own first childish act.
. . . each act unfailingly begets an act, that act begets another and so on to the end, and the seer can look forward down the line and see just when each act is to have birth, from cradle to grave.
Obviously such a view of life reduces man to a mere digit in the universe, a captive of his own circumstances and environment.
"He is a prisoner for life," I said sorrowfully, "and cannot get free."
"No, of himself he cannot get away from the consequences of his first childish act . . . "
Not only events, but man himself is predictable according to this theory. Because man has a "moral sense," he makes predictable choices between what he believes to be good and evil, but which always, according to Twain, turn out to be choices of evil. "Your race never know good fortune from ill. They are always mistaking the one for the other." To change the goal of a life is generally to choose between disease, insanity, early death, or hell. In such a "real" world, only insanity, the habitation of a fantasy world, can bring happiness; and it is for this reason that Satan must finally reward Father Peter by making him insane. The mechanistic view is utterly pessimistic because man, as a kind of "suffering machine," inevitably chooses violence and misery. Twain sees history as the development of the art of murder, not, as Emerson saw it, optimistically as the escape from war. Although war, according to Emerson, "when seen in the remote past . . . appears a part of the connection of events, and, in its place, necessary," history must be "the record of the mitigation and decline of war," and in the sense that history is war, man will have escaped both when he shall "be himself a kingdom and a state; fearing no man . . . because he is sure of himself and never needs to ask another what in any crisis it behooves him to do." With Twain, the old idealism has darkened and is tending toward the ultimate pessimism of more recent fiction.
One of the more specious ironies of the novella is that the angel, with a perfectly free will, cannot experience a sense of guilt about his own acts, but man, with no control over his own life, is guilt-ridden.
It shows how foolish people are when they blame themselves for anything they have done. Satan knows, and he said nothing happens that your first act hasn't arranged to happen and made inevitable, and so of your own motion you can't ever alter the scheme or do a thing that will break a link.
In man's "always blaming himself" Twain sees another reflection of man's tendency to believe evil and act wrongly.
The original determinant on the ideational level is Felix Brandt, the caretaker at the castle, who makes Theodor Fischer's meeting with an angel possible. He has seen many ghosts and witches and enchanters and the Wild Huntsman and an incubus and a vampire. "He encouraged us not to fear supernatural things, such as ghosts, and said they did no harm but only wandered about because they were lonely and distressed and wanted kindly notice and compassion . . . " He teaches the three boys so well that they are able to witness a ghost in the "haunted chamber of the dungeons" without inordinate fear. He also teaches them not to fear angels.
Theodor Fischer's mind, as E. S. Fussell says, has "to be prepared step by step, since the mind can only accept that for which it is prepared by previous experience." The angel that Theodor and his companions see "strolling toward [them] through the trees" one May morning, is an accurate representation of what Brandt has led them to expect in angels:
They had no wings, and wore clothes, and talked and looked and acted just like any natural person, and you would never know them for angels except for the wonderful things they did which a mortal could not do, and the way they suddenly disappeared while you were talking with them, which was also a thing which no mortal could do. And he said they were pleasant and cheerful . . .
His name is Satan, the nephew of the fallen Satan, but he is a "good" angel who does not know how to do wrong. After some introductory magic, the four of them make a castle and a population of animals and humans (500 of them!) out of clay, and Satan brings them all alive. When the little people annoy him, he brings a board down on them and mashes "all those people into the earth just as if they had been flies" and goes on "talking just the same." Later, he creates a storm and an earthquake to destroy the castle and all else. The boys are appalled by his heartlessness. "An angel who did not know how to do wrong and yet destroys in cold blood hundreds of helpless poor men and women who had never done him any harm!" The dream-angel is contagiously joyous, bubbling, and gay, because he has no sense of wrong and thus no feelings of guilt or remorse.
A motif runs through the novel of sleep, dreams, and belief culminating in Satan's advice to "Dream other dreams and better." In the first paragraph we are told that "Austria was far away from the world, and asleep," and "by the mental and spiritual clock it was still the Age of Belief in Austria." In the second paragraph we are told again, "Austria was far from the world, and our village was in the middle of that sleep," and further that news "hardly ever came to disturb its dreams." Whenever the prince and his family departed after a rare visit "they left a calm behind which was like the deep sleep which follows an orgy." When Father Peter comes along the path where he is to find the purse of money, he supposes "I have been dreaming along for an hour and have come all this stretch without noticing," and after he has found the money he falls "to dreaming . . . and caressing some of the coins." Theodor "seeing these romantic and wonderful things," wonders if it is not a dream, a dream that feels like music and cannot be put into words. After Satan has gone, the boys sit "wondering and dreaming and blinking." Later Theodor falls asleep to pleasant music and "away in the night Satan came and roused me" to show him a "tranquil and dreamy picture" of a vast landscape "with cities and villages slumbering." There Satan tells him about his immortal mind that can create anything "out of the airy nothing which is called thought."
At this point, the words dream, idea and thought are interchangeable. Distance does not exist for the angel because he has only "to think the journey and it is accomplished." Time and space do not exist for Satan, nor do they for Theodor after he has been "freed," because the world of thought is dimensionless. Theodor asks the angel to think the light on his hand into a glass of wine. After they finish drinking the wine, Satan leaves him, saying, "I will put you to bed." He had roused him from a sleep and after showing him visions put him back to sleep; the difference now is that the dreams are consciously willed as thought.
But a real world created out of thought is limited by the scope of man's imagination. On another occasion Satan says, "The wine which has flown to our hands out of space by desire is earthly," and then thinks a heavenly wine for them. "We drank it, and felt a strange and witching ecstasy as of heaven go stealing through us." And this sets them to dreaming of the joys of heaven. A major difference between the "earthly" and the "heavenly" and between men and the angel as a vision of infinite power is in the degree of imagination each has. Man's mind reasons, "patches little trivialities together," but the immortal mind creates out of imagination and desire. Man's patching of trivialities together but the immortal mind creates a mechanistic, cause-and-effect real world of war and famine which a higher imagination might transcend.
In The Mysterious Stranger, knowing is like dreaming and thinking. What we know, what we dream or believe, is essentially what we are. The innocence of man before the Fall. Twain tells us, was a kind of knowledge, or lack of it, that kept man out of history, in Paradise. In Twain's dream-world of Austria, 1590, "knowledge was not good for the common people." In the context of the novella, this is the knowledge of good and evil, the origin of the moral sense, which Twain says is the source of man's innate depravity. For the boys who do not know what the moral sense is, "Eseldorf was a paradise ... " When one comes to believe in the duality of good and evil, one becomes capable of evil, where one previously had been capable only of the instinctually good, that is, the paradisal. This duality is symbolized in the characters of Father Peter and Father Adolf, who, in a sense, are a God-worshipper and a Devil-worshipper. Father Peter is suspended from the priest-hood because he believes that "God is all goodness and would find a way to save all his poor children." Father Adolf, in contrast, is held in "solemn and awful respect" because he has "absolutely no fear of the Devil" and has met him in open combat. To be able to see the Devil, to be his antagonist, he must believe in him; he believes in the absoluteness of evil. In a dual world, as Satan explains to the boys, wrong must triumph over good nine times out of ten, and Father Peter as a true believer in the good—he believes that the moral sense enables man to choose the good—must be a loser no matter how Satan stacks the cards for him. The good man in this case can triumph over the "moral" world only by escaping it into insanity where, in his own dream world, he can find peace and happiness.
As all-knowing as he is, the angel has one kind of ignorance—that is the ignorance of sin. He, unlike the Satan he was named for, has not tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. This innocence appears to be the foundation of his power. In being unable to distinguish right from wrong legalistically, he can do no wrong—"we cannot do wrong . . . because we do not know what it is." By contrast, humans, who can distinguish right from wrong, can do no right. In terms of the "double consciousness" of the novella there is a kind of knowledge that man has which angels and dogs lack and a power of imagination that the angel has which is extremely limited in man. The angel is not only Theodor's vision of infinite power but of perfect innocence as well.
In his essay, "The Lowest Animal," Twain had defined man's moral sense as "the quality which enables him to do wrong" In The Mysterious Stranger he defines it as
A sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which of them he will do. Now what advantage can he get out of that? He is always choosing, and in nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong. There shouldn't be any wrong; and without the Moral Sense there couldn't be any. And yet he is such an unreasoning creature that he is not able to perceive that the Moral Sense degrades him . . .
Satan's immediate example is a French factory, an anachronism in 1590, whose owners are "rich and very holy" proprietors. The "innocent and worthy" workers "kennel together, three families in a room, in unimaginable filth and stench; and disease comes, and they die off like files." When one of "these ill-smelling innocents" violates the proprietors' moral laws, he is broken on the wheel and smashed to rags and pulp. "It is the Moral Sense which teaches the factory proprietors the difference between right and wrong."
Man's moral sense and the angel's innocence of sin "would seem to be difference enough between us, all by itself." After Satan explains to the boys that "those who are ignorant of sin are not able to commit it" he crushes the life out of two of the little workmen he has created for their entertainment.
Satan reached out his hand and crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief, and went on talking where he had left off: "We cannot do wrong . . . "
It seems a strange speech to the boys under the circumstances, and they give his act its "true name": "wanton murder." Twain's point is that good and evil are just that: names given to define the legality of behavior. The angel's innocence is in reality the absence of a sense of guilt; since he cannot name acts of right or wrong, he cannot feel guilty about anything he does. And it is the absence of guilt in him that makes the boys "drunk with the joy of being with him and of looking into the heaven of his eyes." Satan's superhuman power comes in part from his being uninhibited by the moral sense, "not subject to human conditions."
The moral sense in man, according to Twain, explains not only why he chooses wrong over right but also suffering over happiness. The angel who can do no wrong is always full of bubbling spirits, but man is a suffering machine.
Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously, with a fine and delicate precision, on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in one department the other stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain—maybe a dozen. In most cases the man's life is about equally divided between happiness and unhappiness. When this is not the case the unhappiness predominates—always, never the other.
Lacking the moral sense, the angel is ignorant of suffering as well as sin; Twain's heavy-handed emphasis on this point indicates that in some sense these two things, suffering and sin, are meant to be the same thing. ".. . Suffering is nothing to [angels], they do not know what it is, except by hearsay."
And man, as a suffering machine, must lack the "sense and courage" of humor. His tendency to believe in evil instead of good makes him incapable of laughing away the very grotesqueries of history that he creates.
Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them—and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter.
The effective weapon of laughter is available only to the guiltless and the most imaginative and creative of minds. In his diatribe against man's "mongrel perception of humor," as in all else in the novella, Twain draws a one-toone relationship between creative thought and the power of the individual.
With all this preparation of sleeping, dreaming, thinking, and moral belief, the denouement that "Life itself is only a vision, a dream," should not be surprising. "God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, and the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream," and life and history are "the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks." What is surprising is the one logical step beyond the dream that Twain must take. If life is a dream, the self can be nothing more than a thought. The ending would be a total negation of all hope—"And you are but a thought—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!"—except for the previous "But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!" The angel has set Theodor free from the nightmare of history so that he may, if he chooses, think other dreams, other worlds into existence.
The nightmare is the mechanistic, cause-and-effect world of the understanding, reported by the senses, which Emerson had opposed to Reason, the evidences of the divine spirit in man. This double consciousness is resolved in favor of the latter: the mechanistic is created by man's limited logic which patches together trivialities unimaginatively and hopelessly. The fault, then, is not in history but in man himself; he has only to free himself of the religious, moral, and economic dogma to which as an imitator and "sheep" he has enslaved himself and with the power of his own intuitive belief escape out of history.
Stephen Whicher, in discussing the sudden reemergence of Emerson's old arrogance in his later and less optimistic period says,
Emerson reiterates his saving gospel: 'the individual is the world.' The assertion grows only more uncompromising under pressure. There is an undertone of individualism-at-any-cost in this section. 'Nature, art, persons, letters, religions, objects, successively tumble in, and God is but one of [our] ideas, Nature and literature are subjective phenomena; every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast.' From being the vestibule of the spiritual life, idealism has become rather a final refuge. We foresee the desperate conclusion of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger: 'Nothing exists; all is a dream.'
There are important similarities, not only in the desperate struggles between pessimism and idealism in both Twain's and Emerson's later years, but in the ways they both opposed, all through their respective careers, fate with freedom, and the "imbecille masses" with heroes. For Twain, Emerson's "imbecille masses" were the sheep and his heroes were "real men"; the former were imitators afraid of what their neighbors might think of them, and the latter were the one in ten thousand who had the courage to follow their own intuited moral convictions.
The Mysterious Stranger, I suggest, is in this respect Emersonian in extremis, almost ad absurdum. In it, Twain developed to extreme his faith in the causationism of the self. Emerson had used this expression causationism in contradistinction to determinism and predestination to indicate the necessary and compensatory relationship between power and event. He saw no cause and effect relationship between events, no determinism, no predestination, but a necessary flowing of the world out from an "unsounded centre in himself." Man's freedom was limited to the centre where he could choose his thoughts and his visions from which the events of life necessarily grew. In terms of fate and freedom both, man was causal rather than determined; whether from chemistry or character, the event was an extension of the self. In The Mysterious Stranger, the causationism takes the form of an elaborate ideational determinism, which says that there is a cause and effect relationship between ideas, beliefs, dreams; but that the facts of experience are only the outward signs of these inner relationships. This determinism is opposed to a mechanistic determinism which says that all history is a downward sequence of events over which people have no control.
The metaphysics of The Mysterious Stranger describes man's soul as creative thought from which is created a dream self out of which, as Emerson has described it in The Transcendentalism the world flows perpetually.
. . . His thought,—that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him.
. . . All that you call the world is the shadow of that substance which you are, the perpetual creation of the powers of thought, of those that are dependent and of those that are independent of your will. . . .
You think me the child of my circumstances: I make my circumstance. Let any thought or motive of mine be different from that they are, the difference will transform my condition and economy. I—this thought which is called I—is the mould into which the world is poured like melted wax. The mould is invisible, but the world betrays the shape of the mould. You call it the power of circumstance, but it is the power of me.
The angel's concluding statement, "Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought," is reminiscent of a sentiment in Emerson's first sermon:
Every thoughtful man has felt that there was a more awful reality to thought and feeling, than to the infinite panorama of nature around him. The world . . . seems to him at times, when the intellect is invigorated, to ebb from him, like a sea, and to leave nothing but thought.
For Emerson and Twain both, the world is "the perpetual creation of the powers of thought." Freedom, again, is the power to intuit belief; belief becomes character, or self; and life and the universe are extensions of the self. But in the beginning is the logos.
The Mysterious Stranger serves as an example of the version of individualism that insists that the outer world is only an extension of an inner world: the individual creates the universe, God, and nature out of a dream center within himself. Philosophically this may be bunkum, as Fussell says, but it is a faith and a fantasy that dominates the Puritan imagination, and if it is bunkum, Emerson's speculations on human freedom and power are also. The powers of the self may be infinite. We do not as yet know where the limits of our power lie because, in our fear and imitativeness, we have never really tested ourselves. Only in a creative imagination can this solipsism be tested; and nowhere in American literature is the anatomy of the Puritan imagination as nakedly and naively exposed as in The Mysterious Stranger.
John R. May (essay date 1971)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4855
SOURCE: "The Gospel According to Philip Traum: Structural Unity in The Mysterious Stranger,'" in Studies in Short Fiction 8, No. 3, Summer, 1971, pp. 411-22.
[In the following essay, May examines the connections between the central narrative of The Mysterious Stranger and its final chapter .]
The major problem with the criticism of The Mysterious Stranger to date is that it has been too narrowly concerned with a thematic justification of the last chapter in relation to the rest of the work. The story was unfinished at the time of Twain's death; and it was not until his literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, "discovered" the final chapter that the story was eventually published in 1916. Without a final chapter the story undoubtedly lacks a sense of direction, yet critics have had trouble justifying the relationship between the unambiguous solipsism of the last chapter and the earlier development of the story. Is there any preparation in the story for the utter negation of external reality that Philip Traum's revelation in the last chapter represents?
In Mark Twain and Little Satan, published in 1963, John S. Tuckey establishes conclusively the order of Twain's composition of the three distinct versions of the Satan story, that Bernard DeVoto had previously named—the Eseldorf Version, the edited text that was actually published; the Hannibal Version, describing the influence of a young Satan named "44" on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; and the Print Shop Version, concerned again with "44," but as the dream self of August Feldner. One of Tuckey's conclusions is that Paine's last chapter is actually the conclusion to the Print Shop Version; but since the Eseldorf text was clearly the most developed manuscript, he made the necessary editorial changes so that the Print Shop conclusion would fit the Eseldorf story. His thesis seems to have had little impact on the present state of criticism of the novel; there is obvious need, therefore, for serious critical study of the manuscripts. The publication of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (University of California, 1969), edited by William M. Gibson, will no doubt aid this process. The volume contains the three fragmentary versions, with notes concerning the appearance of the manuscripts and all emendations, cancellations, marginalia—and in whose handwriting. As interesting and informative as these textual investigations will be, though, perhaps criticism will in the final analysis simply have to accept Paine's 1916 version as a kind of literary "fortunate fall"—a masterful piece of editing and, because of its extraordinary power, a work of art in its own right.
The most satisfactory attempts to discover unity in the present manuscript have concentrated on the relationship between the first ten chapters and the conclusion; and since the conclusion is so openly didactic and philosophical, these studies have focused on the thematic development in the earlier chapters. Edwin Fussell finds a coherent development in the story to its solipsistic conclusion; it represents, he says, an objectification of the mental process whereby Theodor discards his mistaken belief in the reality of the world for an acceptance of the reality of dreams alone [Studies in Philology, 1952], (His essay, published ten years before Tuckey's rejection of the last chapter, justifies the acceptance of the Paine conclusion on the grounds that Twain did after all write the chapter; whether he liked it or not, says Fussell, is beside the point.) Pascal Covici thinks that "the most salient feature of The Mysterious Stranger is that Theodor's point of view changes and changes radically" [Mark Twain's Humor, 1962]. William C. Spengemann, seeing this last major work of Twain's in relation to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, believes that the final chapter can be taken as the "logical conclusion" of the events which precede it if it is interpreted in terms of "escape from life in cosmic innocence" [Mark Twain and the Backwoods Angel, 1966].
The excellence of these studies is nonetheless marred by the fact that the excessive concern for justifying the final chapter has forced them to be selective. They concentrate on the thematic development of the novella and thereby ignore much of the richness and coherence of the narrative structure. It is hard to see, for example, how their conclusions concerning the thematic unity of the story answer the objections raised by Edmund Reiss. "Although beginning auspiciously," he writes, "the novelette tends to become disjointed. The questions of the worth of man, of the ambiguity of good and evil, of the Moral Sense, begin to fade into the background as Twain emphasizes the adventurous part of the story. . . . Incidents that are interesting but distracting begin to appear. In not contributing much to the whole work, many of Theodor's adventures . . . are . . . satirical, curious, but yet, as they stand, not really necessary. It is with the final chapter that The Mysterious Stranger regains the intensity of its opening episodes" ["Foreword," The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories, 1962].
Any satisfactory treatment of the unity of the story will, therefore, have to go beyond the thematic development to show, if possible, how the whole narrative contributes to the development of the discerned underlying theme. It is with this purpose in mind that I offer the following observations concerning the structural unity of The Mysterious Stranger.
Coleman O. Parson is credited with making the connection between the portrayal of Satan and the Jesus of the New Testament Apocrypha; there are clear references in Mark Twain's notebook to the impression that the discovery of the Apocryphal Gospels made upon him [American Literature XXXII, 1960]. His indebtedness to the New Testament, however, whether conscious or unconscious, goes beyond the similarity of characterization. For if there is any principle of structural unity in The Mysterious Stranger, it is a variation of the Gospel form, which frequently—as in Matthew—juxtaposes the actions and discourses of Jesus within the pattern of his ministry of salvation. In the light of this, The Mysterious Stranger becomes a kind of anti-Gospel because the news that it brings is not a celebration of reality but it negation.
The structural unity of The Mysterious Stranger develops out of Philip Traum's mission of salvation to Theodor Fischer. The narrative context of this educational process is circumscribed by Traum's three attempts to help Fr. Peter and his household—first, by giving Fr. Peter money to pay his debts; then, by helping Ursula and Marget while Fr. Peter is in jail; and finally, by possessing Wilhelm Meidling during his defense of Fr. Peter at the trial. A moral lesson, presented in the form of a discourse, is drawn from the circumstances surrounding each of these actions—which is rendered universal for Theodor's instruction by Traum's manipulation of time and space. One can demonstrate that all of the narrative lies within this threefold framework, either as descriptive preparation for or dramatic consequence of the action taken, or as illustrative of Satan's discourses. For the purpose of describing the three segments of the story, it seems advisable to consider the whole novel, first, on the level of action and discourse, and only then to treat the significance of the threefold excursion into time and space.
The narrative is set in a dreamy Austrian village in 1590. Austria itself was asleep, we are told; and Eseldorf "was in the middle of that sleep, being in the middle of Austria. .. . It was still the Middle Ages in Austria, and promised to remain so forever." The medieval atmosphere of the village is accentuated as the narrator describes successively the castle, the absent prince, the importance of Christian training, the two priests, the astrologer, and the "inquisition."
The finely-sketched introduction quickly reveals the situation out of which the three narrative strands will develop. Fr. Peter has been charged "with talking around in conversation that God was all goodness and would find a way to save all of his poor human children." The astrologer, Fr. Peter's open enemy—and "a very powerful one"—because he impressed the bishop with his piety, was suspected of reporting Fr. Peter's statement to the bishop. Despite pleas for mercy from the priest's niece, Marget, the bishop "suspended Fr. Peter indefinitely." For two years Fr. Peter has been without his flock, and he and his niece are in serious financial difficulty.
The way is prepared for the appearance of a savior. The morning after a nocturnal encounter with a ghost at the castle, Theodor Fischer and his inseparable companions, Seppi Wohlmeyer and Nikolaus Bauman, are talking over the experiences of the previous evening, in the shade of a nearby woody hilltop, when a youth comes strolling toward them through the trees. The handsome stranger tries to put the boys at ease by miraculously providing the fire that they need to be able to smoke. He says that his name is Satan, even though he is really only Satan's nephew. When he is trying to conceal his identity, he uses the name Philip Traum.
Satan quickly commands the attention and interest of the boys by creating some tiny people whom he later wantonly destroys because they begin to argue and fight. Satan's powers both charm and frighten the boys. They are charmed by his creative ingenuity, yet appalled by his merciless destruction of the people he has created. From a narrative viewpoint, this passage serves the purpose of establishing his credentials as one who can achieve the miraculous; it also provides the opportunity for Satan to introduce the thesis of his first discourse: that man is the victim of the moral sense—"a sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which of them he will do." "He is always choosing," Satan insists, "and in nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong." This thesis will be developed throughout the first phase of the narrative, which is concerned with the events resulting from Satan's gift to Fr. Peter.
Thus, when Fr. Peter recovers his lost wallet in the presence of the boys and finds it filled with money, the boys know immediately the source of the money—even though they cannot tell because Satan will not allow them to reveal his identity. They nevertheless persuade Fr. Peter to keep the money and use it to pay his debts, until the rightful owner can be found.
The people attribute his good fortune "to the plain hand of Providence." The ironic interplay of reality and belief is humorously suggested when one or two of the citizens say privately that "it looked more like the hand of Satan," and Theodor observes that "really that seemed a surprisingly good guess for ignorant people like that." Celebrating Fr. Peter's good fortune, the boys approach him to ask what the moral sense is. Fr. Peter's answer that "it is the one thing that lifts man above the beasts that perish and makes him heir to immortality" leaves the boys "filled but not fatted."
Fr. Peter's prosperity is short-lived, though. Accused by the astrologer of stealing his money, Fr. Peter is put in jail; and his niece and the household are again reduced to penury. Concerned about Fr. Peter, Theodor thinks that he would like to see the jail; and he and Satan are there the next moment because Satan reads his thought. A young man accused of heresy is being tortured on a rack, and Theodor calls it "a brutal thing." Satan's response is a further elaboration of the perversity of the moral sense. "No, it was a human thing," he reminds Theodor; "you should not insult brutes by such a misuse of that word. .. . No brute ever does a cruel thing—that is the monopoly of those with the moral sense." As a further illustration of the point, Satan takes Theodor to a French factory "where men and women and little children were toiling in heat and dirt and a fog of dust." Satan explains: "It is the Moral Sense which teaches the factory proprietors the difference between right and wrong—you perceive the result." The next moment they are back on the streets of Eseldorf and hearing from Seppi about the mysterious disappearance of Hans Oppert, who has not been seen since he "brutally" struck his faithful dog and knocked out one of his eyes. Satan reminds them "that brutes do not act like that, but only men." His lesson concerning the moral sense is ironically heightened by the fact that the dog, despite his beatings, has been trying in vain to direct the villagers to his dying master; but no one pays any attention to the dog, and Hans dies without absolution.
At this point in the narrative, though, the second strand has already been introduced because as soon as Fr. Peter is imprisoned, Satan helps his household again by giving Ursula, Fr. Peter's servant, the Lucky Cat—"whose owner finds four silver groschen in his pocket every morning." This overlapping of narrative strands is no indication of lack of artistic control, but rather a technique of heightened artistic effect parallel to the overlapping statements of the melody in a fugue.
Human nature being what it is, Ursula hires young Gottfried Narr to help around the house—now that there is an abundance of money. The boys wonder, though, about the wisdom of this decision because Gottfried's grandmother had been burned as a witch, and "the witch-terror had risen higher during the past year than it had ever reached in the memory of the oldest villagers." Theodor tells Satan about Gottfried's grandmother and about eleven schoolgirls all of whom the commission had forced to confess to practicing witchcraft. Satan answers by calling a bullock out of a pasture and emphasizing the fact that animals, like angels, do not have the moral sense and therefore "wouldn't drive children mad with hunger and fright and loneliness," nor would they "break the hearts of innocent, poor old women."
Again Providence was "getting all the gratitude" for the temporary well-being of Fr. Peter's household. But Fr. Adolf and the astrologer begin to suspect witchcraft, especially after Gottfried's remark in the presence of the latter that Marget and Ursula were "living on the fat of the land." When other means of detecting witchcraft have failed, they decide that they will use the party Marget has announced as an opportunity to discover with certainty the source of the household's abundance. When they see the house filled with delicacies, knowing that no supplies were brought in all week, they are convinced that it is "witchcraft .. . of a new kind—a kind never dreamed of before." Satan intervenes, though, to cast suspicion back on the astrologer and Fr. Adolf. The situation deteriorates when the possessed astrologer performs stunts in the market square beyond his age and powers. So rampant now is the fear of witchcraft that the townspeople are convinced that God has forsaken them.
These events lead directly into Satan's second discourse. Theodor feels that he has to try to reform Satan and begs him "to be more considerate and stop making people unhappy." They are in China at the time, and Satan explains to Theodor that there is nothing that can be done about the happiness quotient in a human's life. "Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined"; and either happiness and suffering are equally divided, or suffering predominates. The principal point of this discourse and of the events that follow it by way of illustration through Chapter Eight seems to be that there is so much necessary misery in human life that death comes as a genuine favor to victimized humanity. The determinism that is preached here does not, as some critics have suggested, imply a denial of the freedom that is necessary to make the perversity of man's moral sense deliberate; it is rather a determinism to misery. If there is any lack of freedom, it is not the freedom of moral choice, but rather the freedom to choose happiness over misery. As a corollary to his instruction concerning the mercy of death in the light of human misery, Satan anticipates his ultimate denial of the reality of an afterlife by denying the existence of purgatory and implying that there is no heaven.
The whole discussion of the inexorable sequence of man's acts—like the toppling of bricks laid in a row—is placed within the context of man's inability to know good fortune from bad because he cannot see into the future, where there is nothing but misery. Man's "first childish act," which situates him in particular circumstances, in a certain environment, can hardly be important from a moral point of view; it is simply the origin of his misery because it is the beginning of a life that only death can happily terminate. Satan, who can see all the possible careers open to an individual, knows that the only favor that can be done for a human being is either to terminate his life or to make him insane. The subsequent events in this second strand illustrate the mercy of death; in the third strand of the narrative, Satan will resort to insanity as salvation for Fr. Peter.
The conclusion of the second part of the story deals in some detail with the changes that Satan effects in the lives of Nikolaus, Frau Brandt, and Fischer the weaver. Of the three, only Fischer's life is lengthened; the defect in the change is the terrifying implication for Theodor that as a result of his new career Fischer will go to hell. Finally, the vision of human history from its beginning into the future, with no one but a "parcel of usurping monarchs and nobilities" profiting from life, fortifies the lesson of human misery.
The third strand of the narrative focuses on the trial: Satan's victory for Fr. Peter through the defense by Wilhelm Meidling and the doctrine of laughter that Satan preaches as the only enduring antidote to the absurdities of life. The witch-commission, at first, is afraid to proceed against Fr. Peter and the astrologer—no doubt because of the esteem the village holds for both of them. Instead they hang a poor, friendless woman, while a mob throws stones at her. Satan bursts out laughing, and his laughter is clearly significant. The crowd demands to know why he laughed and especially why he threw no stone. After answering his three accusers with the announcement of their imminent deaths, Satan admits to Theodor that he was actually laughing at him for throwing stones while "his heart revolted at the act." Distrust of neighbor and fear of reprisals had led the mob to be ruled by the malicious few.
When Fr. Peter eventually comes to trial, Satan possesses Wilhelm and, by demonstrating from the date on the coins that they could not belong to the astrologer, wins Fr. Peter's freedom. But the happiness that he had promised Theodor he would gain for Fr. Peter is the happiness of insanity, for he lies to Fr. Peter and tells him that he has been found guilty and been disgraced—and the shock dislodges the old man's reason. When Theodor reproaches Satan for his lie, Satan explains his action: "Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination? No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those."
Satan's third discourse follows immediately; it is an explanation of his laughter during the stoning episode as well as a corollary to his observations on insanity and happiness. The human race, he insists, lacks a genuine sense of humor. They see "the comic side of a thousand low-grade and trivial . . . incongruities"—another example of the "continuous and uninterrupted self-deception" that enslaves the race, but they miss thereby "the ten-thousand high-grade comicalities which exist in the world." The only antidote to these radical inconsistencies is to "laugh at them—and by laughing at them destroy them." He concludes: "Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." We understand now the curious rationality behind his salvation of Fr. Peter. Both laughter and insanity negate reality; but since the race lacks the courage to laugh, insanity was the only sure redemption for Fr. Peter.
The excursion to India is the last narrative episode of the story; and although it seems somehow unequal to its climactic position in the narrative, it does nevertheless serve as a summary illustration of Satan's Gospel. The foreigner, a Portuguese colonist, refuses to allow the natives to enjoy the fruit of Satan's tree even for a hour because the tree is on his property. The natives respond with humble obeisance to their master. Only the moral sense can explain the foreigner's perversity, and the misery of the groveling natives is another example of the foolish acceptance of the master-slave relationship "which is the foundation upon which all civilizations have been built." The foreigner will conceal his acceptance of the sentence Satan has imposed upon him—for fear of the natives. Only by preventing their revenge can he secure his ascendancy over them. The "high-grade" incongruity of the foreigner's situation is that he will "fetch a priest to cast out the tree's devil." Of course, the priest's incantations will be ineffectual; such belief itself is the ultimate incongruity of the race because it is patently groundless.
Before discussing the final chapter in relationship to the narrative as it has unfolded thus far, we must consider the cosmic dimension added to the narrative structure by the threefold excursion into time and space. "It was wonderful," Theodor exclaims at the beginning of Chapter Nine, "the mastery Satan had over time and distance." An overview of Twain's method of universalizing the lessons learned through the process of Fr. Peter's salvation is crucial to a proper understanding of the function of the controversial last chapter.
Each of Satan's three discourses is applied to all of humanity—in space and in time. In the first strand, the journey to the French factory becomes a spatial confirmation of the universal perversity of man's moral sense. The temporal expansion of the discourse is achieved by Satan's symbolic repetition of the creation of the world. The sequence of miracles by which he establishes his angelic powers (which are really more divine than angelic, according to any traditional theological model)—fire, ice, fruit, animals, and finally men—corresponds roughly to the order of creation found in the first chapter of Genesis—light, firmament, plants, animals, and man. There would seem to be no other reason for this succession of miracles, in precisely this order, than to take us back in time to the very origin of man's problem—his creation as a being endowed with the moral sense.
The setting of the second discourse is China, as far removed from Eseldorf as is spatially conceivable on this planet. We may conjecture that the reason "why Satan chose China for this excursion instead of another place" is that he has thereby encircled the globe with his doctrine of necessary human misery, determined by the very fact of our existence in this world. The temporal excursion during this portion encompasses the whole of human history from Cain through the present and then "two or three centuries" into the future of the race, exhibiting only "a mighty procession" of slaughter and oppression.
The third discourse deals with the capacity of laughter to annual the appalling incongruities of reality. The last spatial excursion is to India and Ceylon; and the episode that occurs is, as we have seen, weakly illustrative of Philip Traum's total vision of the human race. The location, though, suggests the aura of mysticism characteristic of that area of the world—a perfect prelude to the final encounter between Theodor and Satan. The last chapter and its announcement of the dream quality of reality becomes the temporal conclusion to the story. To be fully understood within the structure of the work, it must be seen—in juxtaposition to creation at the beginning of the narrative—as the apocalypse of the end of time. We can see now more clearly, too, the progression from insanity through laughter to dream—since the proclamation that all reality is nothing but a dream is, of course, the theoretical ultimate in this series of views destructive of reality.
Understood as apocalypse, the final chapter both completes the temporal progression of the story and helps us to comprehend the nature of the change that has come over Theodor, because there can be no doubt that there is a qualitative difference between their encounter in the last chapter and their relationship until then. If we trace the development of Theodor's attitude toward Satan through the three stages of the narrative, we find that he moves from a period of profound shock at Satan's indifference to humanity, to a desire to reform Satan's ways, and finally to an attitude of diminished grief and private disapproval of Satan's actions. When Satan's lie has resulted in Fr. Peter's insanity, Theodor reflects: "Privately I did not think much of his processes." And after Satan's punishment of the Portuguese landowner, he admits that it grieved him, "though not sharply, to see [Satan] take such a malicious satisfaction in his plans" for the foreigner. There is no simple linear development in Theodor's acceptance of Satan's shocking vision of humanity.
The level of response that we have traced thus far is primarily concerned with Satan's attitude and the consequent harshness of his actions. Running throughout the story, though, is the far more important motif of the boys' personal attachment to Philip. The enchantment of the person—the lure of his music, the excitement of his presence, and the ecstasy of his wine from heaven—is pronounced from the beginning and only grows in intensity as the story unfolds. "He made us drunk with the joy of being with him, and of looking into the heaven of his eyes, and of feeling the ecstasy that thrilled our veins from the touch of his hand." It is undoubtedly this attachment to the power of Philip's personality that becomes the ground for Theodor's leap of faith in accepting his final revelation.
But Satan himself is a dream and nothing more. How are we to understand this subtler aspect of the final revelation? "I am but a dream—your dream, creature of your imagination. .. . I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!" The dream that has uttered a final and definitive "No!" to reality is a dream that is conditioned by the age of belief—and which denies the reality of God, heaven, hell, the human race, and the universe. What is rejected here by Theodor's imagination is quite simply, but emphatically the Christian explanation of existence. But it is also more than this. It is a rejection of any reality outside of the self. Theodor is nothing more than "a vagrant thought, . . . wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!" The only better dream, then, that he can presumably dream is laughter.
We are left, finally, with the evident incongruity of an adolescent solipsist. However, even though the first person point of view is used, the story is narrated in the past tense—which indicates the passage of time between the actual occurrence of the events and the time of narration. Despite the fact that an effort is made to maintain the youthful point of view, there are certain passages where the age of the narrator shows through. In the opening paragraph, the narrator indicates that the Austria of the story is a remembrance, but that he remembers it well even though he was "only a boy." In recalling his last days with Nick, he notes: "It was an awful eleven days; and yet, with a lifetime stretching back between today and then, they are still a grateful memory to me, and beautiful." In Chapter Ten, while commenting on the fact that Satan seemed to know of no other way to do a person a favor except "by killing him or making a lunatic out of him," he adds: "Privately, I did not think much of his processes—at that time" (my emphasis). And during Satan's final revelation, there is the patently adult exclamation: "By God! I had had that very thought a thousand times in my musings." Rather than consider these as lapses from the established viewpoint, as some critics have done, it seems more reasonable to explain them as intended emphasis of the passage of time. It certainly makes it easier for us to understand and accept the final vision of reality if we realize that it is an old man who is reflecting the bitterness of age, or at least a process of many years.
If Mark Twain has treated us to a harshly solipsistic view of reality, he has not done so without a sense of humor. Moreover, he has sweetened his anti-Gospel with the nostalgia of youth and given the vision artistic distance by setting the story in the remote past of our belief. And then he has, of course, left us with laughter.
Buford Scrivner, Jr. (essay date 1975)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 930
SOURCE: "The Mysterious Stranger: Mark Twain's New Myth of the Fall," in Mark Twain Journal 17, No. 4, Summer, 1975, pp. 20-1.
[In the following essay, Scrivner presents The Mysterious Stranger as Twain's attempt to rewrite the Biblical myth of the fall of humanity .]
To understand the pattern of organization and thematic concern which operate together to make a unified work of Twain's Mysterious Stranger, one must see the events of the story in relation to a Christian world view according to which temporal history begins with the fall from innocence. The Mysterious Stranger is the working out of a kind of restoration, or anti-fall, which reverses the baneful consequences of the fall of man by negating altogether the Christian world view which established and sustains such a belief.
It was the proffered knowledge of good and evil with which the serpent tempted Eve, the disobedience necessary to obtain that knowledge supposedly being the cause of man's subsequent depravity. From the beginning, Satan, whose name strongly suggests a parallel in function with the original tempter, represents a knowledge that is simultaneously and paradoxically also in ignorance. Like prelapsarian man, he lacks the "Moral Sense" and destroys the tiny beings he creates for the boys with a casualness which horrifies them. Even as he wipes the blood from his fingers, the amoral Satan blandly confesses that angels such as he "cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is."
For Satan, time and space, the seemingly-irreducible givens of human experience, do not exist any more than does the distinction between right and wrong. Under the tutelage of Satan, Theodor learns that time and space are mere habits of the human mind, which alone is responsible for their creation and perpetuation: "He called them human inventions, and said they were artificialities." The "Moral Sense," which Father Peter so reverently defines as "the one thing that lifts man above the beasts that perish and makes him heir to immortality," is nothing more than inculcated values which thwart man's innate benevolent impulses; in actuality it "degrades him to the bottom layer of animated beings." Thus Theodor denies his feelings of sympathy and casts a stone at the woman being hanged for witchcraft. Both the initiation of time and the knowledge of right and wrong are, in Christian thought, the direct results of the fall, the Theodor's confident acceptance of both is at last subverted by Satan.
In response to the "education" provided by Satan, Theodor yearns for a creative power like that of the angeltempter. Confronted with a beautiful landscape, he reflects, "If we could only make a change like that whenever we wanted to, the world would be easier to live in than it is, for change of scene shifts the mind's burdens to the other shoulder and banishes old, shop-worn wearinesses from mind and body both." But Theodor must first overcome the greatest impediment to effecting any alteration for the better, man's lack of faith in his own freedom. Satan expounds upon absolute determinism so convincingly that Theodor is led to conclude that man "is a prisoner for life . . . and cannot get free." To this Satan rejoins, "But I can free him." In his final harangue, Satan vehemently attacks the Christian concept of a God who "created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself." Ultimately, however, God is only a creation of man through which he has made himself his own prisoner, and Satan is no more than an extension of Theodor's mind.
Once Theodor has learned all that Satan can teach him, there is no longer a meaningful distinction between the two, and Satan, the true voice of man's free will, takes his leave of Theodor by admonishing him to "dream other dreams, and better," indicating that a new world can be constructed as soon as mankind, qua Theodor, fully understands the truth that "life itself is only a vision, a dream." What is here propounded is not an intense pessimism seeking refuge from an evil world in the private universe of solipsism, but an optimistic belief in the collective power of the human mind literally to create the world anew. Philosophically, Twain's stance is a variety of absolute idealism in which Theodor becomes not an individual mind but a representative of universal Mind. Satan had earlier told Theodor that mankind "lived a life of... uninterrupted self-deception . . . (duping) itself from cradle to grave with shams and delusions which it mistook for realities." What is required is an awareness of the mind's sovereignty, the collective error of mankind being the acceptance as imposed from without of what in fact it has fabricated for itself.
But Satan's revelation that there is "no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell" leaves Theodor "appalled." It is fitting that it should, for the prospect of abandoning such notions as an omnipotent God and an afterlife is hardly a comforting one for those to whom it represents truth. The Mysterious Stranger ends at a beginning as well as an ending, with Theodor, the new Adam, poised between annihilation and re-creation, his shocked numbness linking him to the old fallen Adam in their parallel realizations that nothing as it has been will ever be again. The Christian paradox of the felix culpa has its place in this new myth in that a great loss is seen to be the means by which a greater gain can be accomplished.
Robert Keith Miller (essay date 1983)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7237
SOURCE: "The Growth of a Misanthrope," in Mark Twain, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1983, pp. 161-95.
[In the following essay, Miller suggests that The My sterious Stranger draws together concepts expressed in Twain's earlier work, but does not truly represent his own sentiments.]
The most important of Twain's shorter works, it [The Mysterious Stranger] is also the most contemptuous. In various manuscripts, it engaged Twain's attention from 1897 to 1908 and was "published" only after his death. His last work, in a manner of speaking, and one of his most problematic, it must be considered in detail.
Twain had a lifelong fascination with Satan that can be traced to his childhood. In his Autobiography, he recorded how his mother was once moved to defend the devil:
She was the natural ally and friend of the friendless. It was believed that, Presbyterian as she was, she could be beguiled into saying a soft word for the devil himself, and so the experiment was tried. The abuse of Satan began; one conspirator after another added his bitter word, his malign reproach, his pitiless censure, till at last, sure enough, the unsuspecting subject of the trick walked into the trap. She admitted that the indictment was sound, that Satan was utterly wicked and abandoned, just as these people had said; but would any claim that he had been treated fairly? A sinner was but a sinner; Satan was just that, like the rest. What saves the rest?—their own efforts alone? No—or none might ever be saved. To their feeble efforts is added the mighty help of . . . prayers that go up daily out of all the churches in Christendom and out of myriads upon myriads of pitying hearts. But who prays for Satan? Who . . . has had the common humanity to pray for the sinner that needed it most . . . he being among sinners the supremest?
As an old man, Twain claimed to have tried to write Satan's biography when he was seven. And whether or not this is true, he definitely sounds like his mother's son in "Concerning the Jews," an essay published in Harper's the same year as "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg":
I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim to have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side.
Toward the end of his life, Twain wrote three separate versions of a tale designed to give Satan his say. These works were found among his papers after his death in 1910, and they are usually referred to as the "Eseldorf," "Hannibal," and "Print Shop" manuscripts, collectively known as "The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts." Twain's own title for the Eseldorf manuscript was "The Chronicle of Young Satan." Heavily edited by Albert Bigelow Paine and Frederick A. Duneka, the general manager of Harper & Brothers, it was published in 1916 under the title The Mysterious Stranger. Commonly anthologized, the Paine/Duneka edition remains the version of the work known to most readers.
The story is set in a small town in sixteenth-century Austria, Eseldorf, which can be translated from German as "Assville." The narrator is a man named Theodor Fischer who recounts his experience as a boy when, together with his good friends Nikolaus Bauman and Seppi Wohlmeyer, he met Satan's nephew in the forest outside the town. The boyish-looking nephew is sixteen thousand years old, which is, we are told, quite young for an angel. His name is also "Satan," and he sees nothing embarrassing about this, explaining, "It is a good family—ours," having only one member that has ever sinned. The boys all fall under his spell and watch with fascination as he plays with the lives of the Eseldorf burghers.
As the name of the town suggests, these people are a limited lot—ignorant, foolish, and bigoted. Although nominally ruled by a prince, "neither he nor his family came there oftener than once in five years." It is a world unto itself because "Austria was far away from the world, and asleep, and our village was in the middle of that sleep, being in the middle of Austria." In the absence of temporal power, the Church has much influence. It is represented by two priests, one of whom is rumored to have uttered the heresy that "God was all goodness and would find a way to save all his poor children." This priest, Father Peter, is supplanted by another, Father Adolf, "a very zealous and strenuous priest," held in "solemn and awful respect" because he is so harsh and self-important. But the village is dominated by superstition, and Father Adolf is less important than an astrologer who lives in a tower outside the town. Although denounced by Father Peter as "a charlatan—a fraud with no valuable knowledge of any kind," he is treated with respect by Father Adolf, and the bishop himself is said to consult with him.
Perceiving Father Peter as a threat, the astrologer ruins him by repeating to the Bishop his "shocking remark" about God's infinite charity. He is stripped of his pastoral duties and lives in poverty with his niece Marget, dependent upon whatever money she can earn by teaching the harp. Their house is about to be foreclosed upon when, in order to demonstrate his power, Satan draws Father Peter into the woods. The priest loses his wallet, and when he finds it again, it is filled with eleven hundred ducats—a great fortune. Father Peter suspects that some enemy has laid a trap for him, but he uses two hundred ducats to pay his debts, leaving the rest of the money to collect interest with a moneylender against the day its true owner comes to claim it.
As a result of his new wealth, Father Peter is once again popular in the village, and it looks as if Satan has done him a good turn. But the astrologer hears about the money and insists that the priest stole it from him. Despite the absurdity of his claim, he manages to have Father Peter imprisoned, and Marget is once again neglected by the people who had pretended to be her friends.
Under the name of Philip Traum, Satan visits Marget and magically provides her with a seemingly endless supply of luxurious food and drink. No provisions are ever seen to enter the house, however, and Father Adolf comes to believe that witchcraft is involved. He denounces the house as "bewitched and accursed," but Satan intervenes to make it seem that the astrologer is responsible for the larder that supernaturally replenishes itself. And fulfilling a promise to the boys, Satan arranges for Father Peter to be found innocent when his case comes to trial, shaping his fate so that he will be happy for the rest of his life. He appears before the prisoner and tells him, "The trial is over, and you stand forever disgraced as a thief." This shock "unseated the old man's reason," and when his friends arrive to tell him that he had been found innocent, they find a madman who believes himself to be the Emperor. Theodor complains that he has been tricked, but Satan argues otherwise:
Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination? No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those. . . . I said I would make him permanently happy and I have done it. I have made him happy by the only means possible to his race—and you are not satisfied!
Reflections of this sort form the real substance of "The Chronicle of Young Satan." The plot is simply a device for helping to bind together a series of Socratic dialogues between Satan and Theodor. Shortly after the resolution of Father Peter's story, the work comes to an abrupt conclusion in which Satan assures his admiring friend that "Life itself is only a vision, a dream" and goes on to offer an almost existential view of life:
Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you!
He explains his own appearance to Theodor as "but a dream—your dream, creature of your imagination" and promises to "dissolve into nothingness":
I am perishing already—I am failing—I am passing away. In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever—for you are but a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. . . .
As metaphysics, Twain's position is sketchy to say the least. But his vision of life as a process of wandering "limitless solitudes," "alone in shoreless space," should be familiar to anyone who has devoted himself to the study of his work as a whole. The pilot in Life on the Mississippi suffers "the exquisite misery of uncertainty" because he is lost in "a vague dim sea that is shoreless." Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn often find themselves in a "limitless solitude." And both Hank Morgan and David Wilson are both isolated as well; Hank because he has traveled across time and Wilson because no one in Dawson's Landing is capable of understanding his sense of humor. Different though they are in many respects, Twain's protagonists are all loners, cut off from "friend or comrade forever."
Nonetheless, most readers are disappointed by this conclusion, finding it arbitrary and artificial. It is true that "Traum" means "dream" in German, but nothing else in the story prepares us for a conclusion that tells us everything is a dream. And this is only one of the reservations frequently expressed about the work. Characterization is uncertain. Anachronisms abound. And several scenes sound more suggestive of nineteenth-century Missouri than sixteenth-century Central Europe.
It's hard to believe, for example, that the inn in Eseldorf would have "a nice garden with shade trees reaching down to the riverside, and pleasure boats for hire." This is very civilized for a town where bathing is considered a devilish art, and witches are regularly burned at the stake. The courtroom scene might easily have come straight out of Tom Sawyer. And Theodor himself often seems suspiciously similar to Tom. The way he treats Nikolaus—until learning that he is about to die—is very reminiscent of the way Tom had treated his own schoolfellows:
Once at school, when we were eleven, I upset my ink and spoiled four copy-books and was in danger of severe punishment, but I put it on him and he got the whipping.
And only last year I had cheated him in a trade, giving him a large fish-hook which was partly broken through for three small sound ones.
Together with Nikolaus and Seppi, Theodor is easily enchanted by Satan, and we are led, at first, to think that this will be a story of innocence corrupted: "He made us forget everything; we could only listen to him and love him and be his slaves, to do with as he would." Soon after they meet, Satan teaches the boys how to make miniature men and women out of clay, and they laugh at the suffering of the misshapen creatures for whom they are responsible:
Our men and horses were a spectacle to see, they were so little like what they were intended for; for, of course, we had no art in making such things. Satan said they were the worst he had seen, and when he touched them and made them alive, it was just ridiculous the way they acted, on account of their legs not being of uniform length. They reeled and sprawled around as if they were drunk and endangered everybody's lives around them, and finally fell over and lay helpless and kicking. It made us all laugh, though it was shameful to see. The guns were charged with dirt, to fire a salute, but they were so crooked and so badly made that they all burst when they went off, and killed some of the gunners and crippled the others.
Shortly after this, Satan makes a miniature earthquake in which all five hundred of the people die. The boys "could not keep from crying," but Satan cheers them by playing on "a strange, sweet instrument" that "made one mad, for pleasure," and they are soon dancing on the grave of those who died. But after their friendship with Satan has developed further, the boys can still be surprisingly tenderhearted. Theodor gives an apple to an old woman who is about to be executed and he is unable to watch what subsequently transpires, sounding like Huck when he explains, "it was too dreadful, and I went away." And he is very upset when a horrible brute of a man dies without receiving absolution. It could easily be argued that the lingering innocence of the boys serves as a useful foil to Satan's mixture of cynicism and indifference. But we are left wondering how it is that their relationship with Satan does not have a more pronounced effect upon their character.
There are inconsistencies in Satan's character as well. He claims to be disinterested in the affairs of men, but he condemns their folly with passion. He insists that he is immeasurably greater than the boys, and yet he seems strangely eager to impress them with feats of juvenile glory. And as William Gibson has pointed out, he denounces men as "sheep" and "mutton," while speaking to animals in their own language and praising them as morally superior to men.
Twain should not be held altogether responsible for these flaws, however. Had he considered one of the three versions of the story complete, he almost certainly would have published it. He did not, and for this reason alone, it seems hardly fair to complain that the work shows "inventive impulse dissipating into indulgence." Moreover, what appear to be flaws are the result, in many instances, of the way the work was edited. It is important to realize that The Mysterious Stranger most readers know is a composite.
In editing The Mysterious Stranger for publication, Paine and Duneka took serious liberties with the material. Using "The Chronicle of Young Satan" as their principle text, they lifted the concluding chapter to the Print Shop manuscript, changed the names of the characters in it to "Satan" and "Theodor," announced that they had found the conclusion lying separate in the mass of papers Twain left behind him, and then printed the story without revealing what they had done. So the conclusion that disturbs so many readers disturbs them with good reason—it is not the conclusion for the work to which it is attached. And this is only one of the changes Twain's editors made after his death. Fearing that the work seemed anticlerical, they introduced the character of the astrologer—"borrowing" him from the same manuscript that provided them with both their conclusion and their title—and gave to him the worst of the features originally attributed to Father Adolf. The introduction of the astrologer is probably responsible for their decision to move the story back from 1702, when Twain himself set the action, to 1590. This is a date of their own choosing and a change that requires us to believe that a servant in Eseldorf could have been drinking coffee ninety-three years before the siege of Vienna, when it was introduced to Europe from Turkey. As S. J. Kahn has recently reminded us, "Clemens was an old hand at reporting, and at writing historical fictions, and he was rarely careless about such details. He was merely made to seem careless by Paine's irresponsible editing" [Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger: A Study of The Manuscript Texts, 1978]. And Kahn makes a convincing case in arguing that Paine should have published the Print Shop manuscript as the most coherent of the three versions with which he had to deal.
Incredible though it now seems, Paine and Duneka decided that, as the result of their changes, the text was suitable for children. And after serialization in Harper's, it was first published as a children's gift book, with a picture of the astrologer on the cover. One wonders what children could possibly have made of Satan's often quoted definition of man:
Man is made of dirt—I saw him made. . . . Man is a museum of diseases, a home of impurities; he comes today and is gone tomorrow; he begins as dirt and departs as stench.
Representative of the work's tone as a whole, this is not the sort of thing one expects to engage the minds of children as they sit before the yuletide fire. Twain's editors could not have been taking him very seriously.
Satan is altogether contemptuous of mankind; we are, in his view, "so dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited, and so diseased and rickety and such a shabby, poor, worthless lot all around." He proves to Theodor that most men and women are also cowards. In one important scene, a woman is persecuted as a witch because she "was known to have the habit of curing people by devilish arts, such as bathing them . . . and nourishing them instead of bleeding them and purging them . . . in the proper way." Even Theodor joins the mob, explaining that he threw a stone at the woman only because "all were throwing stones and each was watching his neighbor, and if I had not done as the others did it would have been noticed and spoken of." Satan finds this amusing, for he knows that sixty-two of the sixty-eight people throwing stones at the woman had no wish to do so. This becomes a parable for what we like to call civilization, as Satan explains to Theodor:
I know your race. It is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that make the most noise. . . . The vast majority of the race, whether savage or civilized, are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive minority they don't dare assert themselves. Think of it! One kindhearted creature spies upon another, and sees to it that he loyally helps in iniquities which revolt both of them.
Foremost among these iniquities is war. Satan takes Theodor and Seppi on a journey through time and space. They watch as Cain kills Abel and are then subjected to a vision of history in which war follows immediately upon war. A "long series of unknown wars, murders, and massacres" is a prelude to the Hebraic wars, in which "the victors massacre the survivors and their cattle."
Next we had the Egyptian wars, Greek wars, Roman wars, hideous drenchings of the earth with blood; and we saw the treacheries of the Romans toward the Carthaginians. . . .
Next Christianity was born. Then ages of Europe passed in review before us, and we saw Christianity and Civilization march hand in hand through those ages, 'leaving Famine and death and desolation in their wake, and other signs of the progress of the human race,' as Satan observed.
Satan then treats the boys to a vision of the future that has proven to be dishearteningly accurate: "He showed us slaughters more terrible in their destruction of life, more devastating in their engines of war, than any we had seen."
If wars have proven to be inevitable, it is because of the cowardice that had prompted Theodor to join in the persecution of a woman who had done no harm. Surveying the history of human warfare, Satan declares:
There has never been a just one, never an honorable one—on the part of the instigator of the war. I can see a million years ahead and this rule will never change in so many as half a dozen instances. The loud little handful—as usual—will shout for war. . . . A few fair men on the other side will argue and reason against the war with speech and pen, and at first will have a hearing and be applauded, but it will not last long; those others will outshout them, and presently the anti-war audiences will thin out and lose popularity. Before long you will see this curious thing: the speakers stoned from the platform, and free speech strangled by hordes of furious men who in their secret hearts are still at one with the stoned speakers—but dare not say so.
But wars are also the result of conscience, or what Satan calls "Moral Sense." It leads man to believe he can distinguish "right" from "wrong" and encourages him to attack the "wrong" with sanctimonious viciousness. To illustrate this, Satan takes Theodor to watch a man tortured because he is suspected of heresy:
They asked the man to confess to the charge, and he said he could not, for it was not true. Then they drove splinter after splinter under his nails and he shrieked with the pain. Satan was not disturbed but I could not endure it, and had to be whisked out of there.
Theodor says that torture is "brutal," but Satan disagrees, insisting that it is eminently human:
You should not insult the brutes by such a misuse of that word; they have not deserved it. . . . It is like your paltry race—always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn't got, always denying them to the higher animals, which alone possess them. No brute ever does a cruel thing—that is the monopoly of those with the Moral Sense. When a brute inflicts pain he does so innocently; it is not wrong; for him there is no such thing as wrong. And he does not inflict pain for the pleasure of inflicting it—only man does that. Inspired by that mongrel Moral Sense of his.
As the scene in the torture chamber suggests, Christians are especially apt to be intolerant, inspired by the dictates of the particular "Moral Sense" they have cultivated. The harshest words in The Mysterious Stranger are reserved for the civilization that calls itself Christian. Reflecting upon the progress of the human race, Satan observes:
It is a remarkable progress. In five or six thousand years five or six high civilizations have risen, flourished, commanded the wonder of the world, then faded out and disappeared; and not one of them except the latest ever invented any sweeping and adequate way to kill people. They all did their best—to kill being the chiefest ambition of the human race and the earliest triumph in its history—but only the Christian civilization has scored a triumph to be proud of. Two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians; then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian—not to acquire his religion, but his guns.
Ironically, Satan's condemnation of the West has proved to be too generous. We have become gun-runners to the world, not in "two or three centuries" but in less than one. But in making this prediction, Twain was giving voice to still another of his concerns—the relationship between the first world and the third, the industrialized West and the colonies it had seized during the ascendancy of imperialism in the nineteenth century.
Toward the end of his life, Twain became increasingly political; his protests against the abuse of colonial power—in works like "King Leopold's Soliloquy" and "To the Person Sitting in Darkness"—are both eloquent and vituperative. And in The Mysterious Stranger it is possible to see Twain exploring ideas he would later work out elsewhere. When Satan takes Theodor to China, they see sights "too horrible to think," and the narrator promises "I may go into that by and by and also why Satan chose China for this excursion instead of another place; it would interrupt my tale to do it now." This is almost certainly a reference to the outrages that followed the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, a subject Twain pursued in "To the Person Sitting in Darkness," faithful to his promise to go into it "by and by." And in their final journey together, Satan and Theodor visit India, where Satan takes a cherry seed and makes it grow into a beautiful tree bearing a rich variety of fruit, fruit that the people joyfully begin to gather. But then a foreigner in a white linen suit and sun helmet arrives, exclaiming, "'Away from here! Clear out, you dogs; the tree is on my lands and is my property.'" Satan humbly begs the man to relent, asking him to allow the people "to have their pleasure for an hour," after which he will still have more fruit than he could ever consume. This prompts the colonist to hit Satan with his cane, whereupon "The fruits rotted on the branches, and the leaves withered and fell." Satan then lays the following curse upon the man:
Take good care of the tree, for its health and yours are bound together. It will never bear again, but if you tend it well it will live long. Water its roots once in every hour every night—and do it yourself; it must not be done by proxy, and to do it in daylight will not answer. If you fail only once in any night, the tree will die, and you likewise. Do not go home to your own country any more—you would not reach there; make no business or pleasure engagements which require you to go outside your gate at night—you cannot afford the risk; do not rent or sell this place—it would be injudicious.
This scene is clearly a parable. Having seized property that is not rightfully his, the colonial planter becomes a slave on his own estate. Because he has dispossessed the people who belong on the land, he can never leave it untended for fear of losing all he has. We see here what George Orwell would later call "the hollowness, the futility of the white man's dominion in the East," his every action determined by the fact that he had to remain in control. Orwell discovered that "when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom he destroys" ["Shooting an Elephant," The Orwell Reader, 1956], and this is precisely what Twain had shown more than a generation earlier.
But it should also be recognized that this scene is a parody of the expulsion from Eden. An unrelenting authority figure forbids men to taste the fruit of a tree in his garden, the end result of which is an unalterable sense of loss. And this is only one of several scenes that evoke comparison with Biblical tradition. On his first visit to Marget's house, Satan makes new fish appear in the kitchen, magically replenishing what had already been served, and this naturally calls to mind the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The marriage feast at Cana is suggested by the party at which the wine bottle never empties. And when Satan makes little men and women at the beginning of the story, he is acting like the young Jesus of the Apocrypha who made miniature animals out of clay and then gave them life. Apparently suggesting that Satan is divine, Twain is undeniably flirting with heresy, "convinced that whatever shocked his genteel wife would make the foundations of organized Christianity tremble" [Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, 1960].
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Twain had come to believe in a diabolically controlled universe. Although Satan has supernatural powers, he is ultimately helpless, "a puppeteer who cannot . . . control his puppets." Twain expounds a determinist view of life, in which free will is an illusion and man's fate entirely predestined. Satan can only play with the lives of men. He is capable of much mischief, but he cannot alter the basic order of things—he can "only laugh in the face of a world he cannot change." He himself explains the nature of life to Theodor:
Among you boys you have a game: you stand a row of bricks on end a few inches apart, you push a brick, it knocks its neighbor over, the neighbor knocks over the next brick—and so on till all the row is prostrate. That is human life. A child's first act knocks over the initial brick and the rest will follow inexorably. If you could see as far into the future as I can, you would see everything that was going to happen to that creature, for nothing can change the order of its life after the first event has determined it. That is, nothing will change it, because each act unfailingly begets an act, that act begets another, and so on to the end, and the seer can look forward down the line and see just when each act is to have birth, from cradle to grave.
Developing this idea, he argues that even when man
is trying to make up his mind as to whether he will do a thing or not, that itself is a link, an act, that has its proper place in his chain; and when he finally decides an act, that also was the thing which he was absolutely certain to do. You see now that a man will never drop a link in his chain. He cannot.
As Theodor observes, "He is a prisoner for life."
The result of this system is to reduce men and women to automata:
Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined. The two functions work together harmoniously, with a fine and delicate precision, on the give-and-take principle. For every happiness turned out in the one department the other stands ready to modify it with a sorrow or a pain—maybe a dozen. In most cases the man's life is about equally divided between happiness and unhappiness. When this is not the case the unhappiness predominates—always, never the other. Sometimes a man's make and disposition are such that his misery-machine is able to do nearly all the business. Such a man goes through life almost ignorant of what happiness is. Everything he touches, everything he does, brings a misfortune upon him. . . . To that kind of person life is not an advantage. . . . It is only a disaster.
Given the misfortune that afflicted Twain during his later years, it is difficult not to believe that he is drawing here upon the bitterness of his own experience. By the time he began The Mysterious Stranger, he had gone bankrupt and—more importantly—lost his favorite daughter. What's more, his wife died during the years he sporadically worked on the various versions of the tale. By reducing life to a mechanistic formula over which he had no real say, Twain may have been trying to come to terms with his own miseries. Bernard DeVoto even went so far as to argue that working on this manuscript helped bring the aged author "back from the edge of insanity," by allowing him to locate his own troubles at a distance from him:
The miracles, which at first are just an idle game for the amusement of boys and the astonishment of the villagers, become finally a spectacle of human life in miniature, with the suffering diminished to the vanishing point since these are just puppets, unreal creatures moving in a shadow-play, and they are seen with the detachment of an immortal spirit, passionless and untouched. And so from a spectacle they become a dream—the symbolic dream of human experience that Mark had been trying to write in travail for so many years [Mark Twain at Work, 1942].
DeVoto was under the mistaken belief that the Eseldorf manuscript was the last of the three versions of the story, whereas we now know that it was the first. We cannot, therefore, subscribe to his belief that it represents Twain's final point of view. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to assume that Twain's personal misfortunes account for much of the harshness in this work, and also for its despair.
Three of the maxims that preface the chapters in Pudd'nhead Wilson reveal Twain's conviction that death is a release from sorrow:
Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world. (Chapter Three)
Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved. (Chapter Nine)
All say, "How hard it is to die"—a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live. (Chapter Ten)
The Mysterious Stranger goes even further in advocating death over life. As the result of Satan's intervention in Eseldorf, two young children die, but Satan assures Theodor that he is doing them a favor. Nikolaus would otherwise have become "a paralytic log" for forty-six years, "praying for the blessed relief of death." Although he had "a billion possible careers," Satan insists that "not one of them was worth living; they were charged full with miseries and disasters." And Lisa's early death saves her from "ten years of pain," followed by "nineteen years' pollution, shame, depravity, crime, ending with death at the hands of the executioner." Impressed by the visions Satan reveals to him, Theodor reflects, "we do not know good fortune from bad and are always mistaking the one for the other. Many a time since I have heard people pray to God to spare the life of sick persons, but I have never done it."
It is hard to know what to make of this. Twain worked on The Mysterious Stranger manuscripts for nearly eleven years, and this suggests that the story was important to him. On the other hand, the fact that he never chose to publish any of the three versions militates against taking their philosophy too seriously. Then again, Twain did leave these manuscripts for others to deal with after his death, while deliberately destroying others.
Our task in evaluating this work is further complicated by the fact that the most cynical observations in it are all spoken by Satan, and we should hesitate before accepting his word as gospel. It is true that he is an Unfällen angel—unlike his uncle—but he is still a close relation of what a more religious age than ours called the Arch Fiend. He is a persuasive commentator on human affairs, but cunning is an integral part of the Satanic tradition, and his arguments need not be true simply because they are eloquent. If we were intended to accept these arguments uncritically, why did Twain choose for his mouthpiece a little Satan when there are Unfällen angels of less dubious reputation? Moreover, there is a comment in Twain's hand on the back of a notebook he used in 1904 describing as "a foible" Satan's claim that existence is only a dream. As John S. Tuckey has pointed out:
Twain's note may indicate that, unlike his narrator, he did not necessarily accept this soiipsistic view as his own; that he perhaps considered the 'life-is-only-a-dream' idea betokened a certain frailty or slight weakness on the part of anyone who would take it altogether seriously [Mark Twain and Little Satan, 1963].
Twain is often sympathetic to Satan's point of view, but he also sympathizes with the good Father Peter, who defends "Moral Sense" as "the one thing that lifts man above the beasts that perish and makes him heir to immortality!" His sympathies shift back and forth, a common technique in speculative fiction that relies heavily upon irony. Few intelligent readers think Sir Thomas More admired everything about his Utopians, any more than Jonathan Swift shared Gulliver's adoration of the Houy-hnhnms. Twain uses Satan to expose our sins, but he does not identify with him—he leaves that role to his narrator, a lifelong citizen of Assville.
The Mysterious Stranger is thus a work that must be read critically. It is too important to ignore, but too fragmentary to regard as necessarily representative of Twain's final views. While failing to offer a coherent and systematic creed, it offers a clear understanding of the conflicts with which Twain struggled in the last decade of his life, conflicts that can be traced back to the early stages of his work but reach a new degree of intensity within these pages.
When we ask ourselves why Twain was never able to finish The Mysterious Stranger, we ask, in effect, what became of him as a writer. His dilemma was familiar: "what to do with little boys about to grow up." But while few of Twain's conclusions are entirely satisfying, the fact remains that he was usually able to finish what he undertook until the 1890s. Fundamentally skeptical, he nevertheless cherished a number of illusions that helped him work out at least a formal resolution. But these illusions gradually slipped away from him.
Despite a strong undercurrent of doubt, Life on the Mississippi shows Twain working hard to make himself believe in the reality of "progress." By the end of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, he has come to envision the industrial world in an apocalypse of its own making. In Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, he looks to the vitality and innocence of children as a source of hope. In Pudd'nhead Wilson the juvenile Tom Driscoll is irredeemably wicked, and in The Mysterious Stranger the boys are like "the wan ghosts of Huck and Tom," lacking both imagination and courage. We have seen how Twain was never really able to resolve the conflicts that give meaning to his work. But for most of his career, he was able to pretend that he had done so by keeping alive some alternative to whatever provoked his scorn. The violence of The Mysterious Stranger may spring from Twain's inability to imagine any alternative beyond a nihilistic denial of life.
Ultimately one can only speculate as to why Twain never finished The Mysterious Stranger. The three manuscripts are all fragmentary, but there are many instances in which Twain allowed inadequately edited material to go into print, if for no other reason than to get it off his desk. On the other hand, if his interest was deeply engaged, Twain could devote years to a work before being willing to part with it. Seven years went into the making of Huckleberry Finn and five into A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Although the composition of The Mysterious Stranger stretched out over eleven years, most of the work familiar to readers was composed in the five years between 1897 and 1902—the year in which Twain signed a contract with Harper & Brothers that guaranteed him a minimum of $25,000 a year. No longer pressed by financial necessity, Twain continued to work sporadically at The Mysterious Stranger until 1908. There is no evidence to suggest that Twain was satisfied with what he had done, and it may be that he held back from publication for the simple reason that he no longer needed to worry about money and thus felt himself under no pressure to publish a work with which he was not satisfied.
Twain had always had difficulty with fiction. His earliest works were all variations on the travelogue, and as late as 1882, he was unable to finish Life on the Mississippi until he had returned to the river to gather new material to report. He could not return to Eseldorf. And Hannibal itself had changed almost beyond recognition by 1902, when he made his last visit there. Over sixty years old and spiritually exhausted by personal misfortune, Twain experienced a failure of imagination. Prolific until the end of his life, he turned for inspiration to what he read in the newspapers, finding new subjects for his wrath in the Boer War and the Belgian Congo. In a sense, his career can be said to have come full circle—he began as a journalist and ended as a commentator.
Intellectually, Twain was no revolutionary. The contemporary of Nietzsche and Freud, he liked to claim—toward the end of his life—that his ideas were too shocking for publication. But the student of Twain's work as a whole knows otherwise. Remarkable for its vehemence rather than its originality, The Mysterious Stranger says nothing that Twain had not said before. It is his angriest work, but the contempt for human nature it embodies is implicit in nearly everything Twain ever wrote.
Confronted with the triumph of folly, Twain held fast to one last belief—his belief in the redemptive power of laughter. Unable to remake the world, he hoped that laughter might check the ignorant armies that clash by night. As Satan explains to Theodor, most men and women
see the comic side of a thousand low-grade and trivial things—broad incongruities, mainly; grotesqueries, absurdities, evokers of the horse-laugh. The ten thousand high-grade comicalities which exist in the world are sealed from their dull vision. Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them—and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No, you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No, you lack sense and the courage.
This passage accounts for Twain's development from humorist to satirist. Early works, like "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" and "The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," depend upon "broad incongruities" for their humor; "evokers of the horse-laugh," they are essentially good-humored. But from the mid-eighties on, Twain used laughter as a weapon against "humbug." To laugh at corruption, like the citizens of Hadleyburg, is to "blow it to rags and atoms at a blast." However worthwhile its purpose, such laughter is seldom amusing. It is not the "laughter of affection and self-approval" that converts common failings into a form of pleasure, but a laughter that emphasizes the distance between the wise and the foolish.
It was Twain's misfortune that he came to believe, with Hank Morgan, that all men are fools and that he alone perceived the truth. Increasingly isolated even as he became one of the great celebrities of his age, he became a moralist who saw himself preaching in an empty hall. He began numerous works only to let them drop, and those that he published are characterized by a mocking irony, which could not appease the anger and despair that found relief only in the grave.
Patricia M. Mandia (essay date 1991)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7348
SOURCE: "The Mysterious Stranger and '3,000 Years Among the Microbes': Chimerical Realities and Nightmarish Transformations," in Comedic Pathos: Black Humor in Twain's Fiction, McFarland, 1991, pp. 102-22.
[In the following essay, Mandia discusses pessimistic themes in The Mysterious Stranger and "3,000 Years among the Microbes. "]
"When I was a man, I would have turned a microbe from my door hungry. . . . The very littleness of a microbe should appeal to a person, let alone his friendlessness. Yet in America you see scientists torturing them, and exposing them naked on microscope slides, before ladies," Huck, a man who has been transformed into a cholera germ, points out in "3,000 Years Among the Microbes." In The Mysterious Stranger, Theodor Fischer fears that the beautiful image of Satan dissolving himself is only a dream. Theodor marvels, "You could see the bushes through him as clearly as you see things through a soap-bubble, and all over him played and flashed the delicate iridescent colors of the bubble" before Satan, lightly floating along, touches the grass and disappears. As works of black humor, these stories have much in common. Although the humor in "Microbes" is whimsical at times, both stories intermingle cruelty and death with humor, present a deterministic universe, and include satire that does not attempt to reform. Most significally, they make it difficult for the characters and the reader to distinguish between dreams which appear real and reality. In Mysterious Stranger, Twain goes so far as to suggest that there is no external reality, that life is a bad dream. Nihilistic and solipsistic, Mysterious Stranger, like contemporary black humor, offers laughter as the best weapon in an absurd world.
Mysterious Stranger and "Microbes," written late in Twain's life, are more pessimistic and bitter in tone than such earlier works as Huck Finn. Twain began Mysterious Stranger in 1898, after the failure of the Paige typesetting machine, the bankruptcy of his publishing firm, and the death of his daughter Susy. He wrote several versions of Mysterious Stranger, which he worked on intermittently, and was still writing this story when he began "Microbes" in 1905, after his wife's death. Both were published posthumously. The tone of Mysterious Stranger is more despairing than that of "Microbes." In Mysterious Stranger, Twain implies that there is no external reality. By suggesting that pain, suffering, and death are nothing more than events in a dream and that man has no free will, Twain attempted to assuage his feelings of guilt and pain over the losses he experienced. Perhaps the slightly lighter tone of "Microbes" may be attributed to the fact that the germ of this story appeared in his notebook as early as 1883, although this original idea is very pessimistic: "I think we are only the microscopic trichina concealed in the blood of some vast creature's veins, and it is that vast creature whom God concerns Himself about and not us." Albert Bigelow Paine contends that "Microbes" contains some "fine and humorous passages," but that "its chief mission was to divert [Twain] mentally that summer during those days and nights when he would otherwise have been alone and brooding upon his loneliness" [Mark Twain: A Biography, 1912]. Twain tired of it and never completed it, just as he never finished Mysterious Stranger.
Paine and Frederick Duneka pieced together Mysterious Stranger and published it in 1916. In 1909, just months before Twain died, Paine discloses that Twain pointed to a drawer full of manuscripts, one of which was Mysterious Stranger, and told him, "There are a few things there which might be published, if I could finish them; but I shall never do it, now"; Paine claims, however, that he found the final chapter of Mysterious Stranger among Twain's papers several years after his death and published it. Twain wrote three distinct versions of this story and, according to William Gibson, he did write a draft of the conclusion for the third version. Gibson maintains, however, that Paine attached this ending to the first version, changed characters' names, and bowdlerized and eliminated parts of the manuscript to "create the illusion that Twain had completed the story" [Mark Twain: The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, 1969]. But as James Cox points out, "Paine's posthumous edition of Mark Twain's last work is the closest thing to Mark Twain's intention that we shall ever have" [Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, 1966]. Because it is beyond the scope of this study to analyze all three unfinished manuscripts, Paine's edition, which is the most well-known and widely criticized version, will be examined here.
Perhaps the narrative structure of Mysterious Stranger and "Microbes" is loose because they were left uncompleted. More than likely, however, the rambling plots reflect a belief typically held by black humorists: life lacks coherence. The plot of Mysterious Stranger largely consists of a string of episodes in which Satan awes the narrator, Theodor Fischer, and two other boys, Nikolaus Bauman and Seppi Wohlmeyer, by performing such extraordinary feats as instantaneously starting a fire by blowing on a pipe, making a clay squirrel and dog come to life, and showing the boys the history of the human race. In "Microbes," after being transformed into a cholera germ by a magician whose trick goes awry, Huck meets various other microbes and bacteria on his journeys inside of Blitzowski, the man whose body he inhabits. In the preface to this story, the "translator" of Huck's narrative admits that it is anything but tightly constructed: "His style is loose and wandering and garrulous and self-contented beyond anything I have ever encountered before, and his grammar breaks the heart."
The mock-historical preface supposedly written by a human translating the original microbic into English and the mock-authentic footnotes supposedly written by Huck are evidence of the typical black humor device of obviously contriving from in order to emphasize that life is empty and meaningless beneath the metaphysical, scientific, and religious systems that man tries to impose on it. In black humorists' view, these systems are as ridiculous as the conspicuously contrived forms of their fiction. In addition, this technique distances the reader from the story by reminding him that he is reading fiction, not fact, thus enabling him to laugh at the humor he sees in the characters' plights. In the preface, the translator declares that he believes Huck's story is true, and he professes, "There is internal evidence in every page of it that its Author was conscientiously trying to state bare facts, unembellished by fancy." And in one explanatory note, Huck says that 5,000 microbic years later the microbe no longer calls itself Microbe, but labels itself a Sooflasky. He translates that "Sooflasky" means "The Pet, The Chosen One, The Wonderful One, The Grand Razzledazzle, The Whole Thing, The Lord of Creation, The Drum Major, The Head of the Procession." In a subtitle to "3,000 Years Among the Microbes," Huck reveals that the notes were "Added by the Same Hand 7,000 Years Later." In this way, Twain further attempts to enhance the authentic appearance of the manuscript.
Besides exhibiting structural techniques typically seen in contemporary black humor, "Microbes" and Mysterious Stranger evidence stylistic techniques, one of which is the inclusion of antiheroes in the story. In Mysterious Stranger, Satan is an outsider, a stranger who is very different from the others but, unlike antiheroes, his supernatural abilities give him the power to control his environment. A handsome boy, this Satan is the nephew of the legendary Satan. He humorously alludes to Satan's work down in hell when he discloses that he has "an uncle in business down in the tropics." The youthful Satan in Mysterious Stranger is all-knowing. At all times he knows what everyone is thinking. He declares, "Nothing goes on in the skull of man, bird, fish, insect, or other creature which can be hidden from me." A supernatural being, he is not governed by heredity and environment, as the others are.
Unlike Satan, Father Peter and Wilhelm Meidling are antiheroes. Father Peter is ostracized after calling the astrologer a charlatan; the outraged astrologer persuades the bishop to give Father Peter's congregation to Father Adolph. After the destitute Father Peter finds a large sum of money (gold coins conjured up by Satan) in his wallet, the astrologer accuses him of robbing him and has Father Peter incarcerated, leaving his niece, Marget, penniless and alienated. Her boyfriend, Wilhelm, an unsuccessful lawyer, wins Father Peter's case, much in the manner of Pudd'nhead Wilson. Instead of dreaming the solution, however, Wilhelm is possessed by Satan during the trial and magically realized that the coins Father Peter found could not belong to Father Adolf, who claimed to have had them two years ago, because the dates stamped on the coins are more recent than that. A typical anti-hero, Wilhelm succeeds because of Satan's intervention, not by his own efforts. And Father Peter is assured future happiness not by his own actions but by Satan who, believing that only insane people can be happy, intervenes and makes him insane.
Huck is a representative antihero in "Microbes," as well. Environmental circumstances beyond his control change him from a man to a microbe. Huck says, "At first I was not pleased." This understatement describing his feelings after the tragic transformation is darkly humorous in itself. As an outsider, Huck is ridiculed. When he finally finds the courage to tell some of his microbe companions that he was once a man who lived on the planet Earth, they laugh at him and call him a liar. His descriptions of the world's characteristics are outrageous to them. When he discloses, for instance, that the Earth is round and has continents and oceans, they say, "What a shape for a planet! Everybody would slide off," and they think that the oceans would spill off of the bottom of the planet. They look at this alien "sadly" and "reproachfully" because they believe he is lying. In the end, though, this antihero succeeds, at least in his own mind, when he believes his own lie that he found a gold mine in Blitzowski's molar.
In "Microbes," Twain shows the reader that there are multiple realities and that one must accept different views. At first, Huck, new to their world, is afraid to introduce the microbes to a different reality, for fear that they will think he is mad, so he tells them that he is a native of the northwestern nerve in the back molar on the left side of Blitzowski's jaw. He confides that he has good reason to lie about being from this region: "To say I was an American and came of a race of star-bumping colissi who couldn't even see an average microbe without a microscope, would have landed me in the asylum." What is normalcy to one is insanity to another, depending upon one's point of view. Huck, like Hank Morgan in Connecticut Yankee, has two views. Both of them see from two perspectives: Hank can view his world from the perspective of the sixth and the nineteenth century, and Huck can see from the perspective of a human being and a cholera germ. Huck expresses an awareness of his double perception when he says, "I could observe the germs from their own point of view. At the same time, I was able to observe them from a human being's point of view."
Twain reveals that even though people's view is restricted because they have been limited to one perspective, the possibility exists that there are other perspectives and other realities. Life on Earth is real to humans, and life inside of a human body is real to Twain's microbes, who think of this body as the universe and can conceive of nothing existing outside of it. There are worlds within worlds in "Microbes," and except for Huck and the reader, everyone's view is limited to what he can see within his own cosmos. The microbes myopically believe that Blitzowski is the only planet, and when Huck informs them that he is from a larger planet, Earth, one of them chides him: "Why, you muggins, there isn't any other. Lots of germs like to play with the theory that there's others, but you know quite well it's only a theory. Nobody takes it seriously." The microbes do acknowledge that there are microbes within microbes. When the bacteriologist, himself a microbe, reveals this to Huck, he is astonished. Huck marvels that the "little old familiar microbes" he viewed under this scientist's microscope "were themselves loaded up with microbes that fed them" and he expresses amazement over their finding that below each "infester there is yet another infester that infests him—and so on down and down and down till you strike the bottomest bottom of created life—if there is one, which is extremely doubtful."
Twain thus plants the idea in the reader's mind that the universe he inhabits is contained within another one, which is housed by yet another, and that this continues infinitely. In addition, he suggests that man's purpose is to foster parasites, to be their "universe," and man, in turn, is a parasite in a bigger universe. Each universe is absurd, diseased, and ultimately meaningless because its only contribution is that it sustains others that are like itself, only smaller.
Besides showing that there are multiple realities Twain, like other black humorists, establishes emotional distance between the reader and the characters, thus encouraging the reader to laugh at the humor present in inherently sad or tragic situations. Twain prevents one from excessively sympathizing with the characters in Mysterious Stranger by setting this story in a distant place (Austria) in the distant past (the winter of 1590).
The microscopic motif in Mysterious Stranger and "Microbes" also emotionally distances the reader from the characters and their suffering. In "Microbes," the characters are so diminished that they are invisible to the naked human eye. And in Mysterious Stranger, Satan shows that man is as small, petty, and trivial to him as man also must be to God. Time and space seem limitless in this story. In comparison to the immensity of space and time, man and his life indeed seem to be microscopic and unimportant. All Satan has to do is think of a destination, and instantly he is there. He provides the boys with panoramic visions of historical events that begin in the garden of Eden and end in the boys' present. Then he shows them the future in visions of destruction and war. The amount of time any one person's life lasts is infinitesimal when compared to the vast expanse of time with which Satan is acquainted. He tells the boys that man's "foolish little life is but a laugh, a sigh, and extinction." Satan says that just as an elephant "cannot sympathize with man. Satan confesses that he is only "amused" by man, "just as a naturalist might be amused and interested by a collection of ants." Like the naturalist, whose interest is scientific, Satan remains superior and detached.
Satan's violent destruction of the miniature people he created out of clay illustrates that it is impossible for him to care for paltry man and his trivial suffering. To entertain the boys, Satan makes 500 toy people, but when two of them quarrel Satan, annoyed, "crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief, and . . . went right on talking, just as if nothing had happened." The boys are shocked. Nevertheless, enchanted by the "fatal music of his voice," they continue to listen to Satan's stories of his travels through other solar systems. When the relatives and friends of the two dead miniature men sob and a miniature priest prays, Satan is irked by their noise and smashes them into the ground with a board, "just as if they had been flies." Later, he makes more living toy people, only to destroy them in a storm and earthquake which he creates for amusement. Satan's indifference is apparent when he reminds the crying boys, "They were of no consequence. . . . They were of no value. . . . It is no matter; we can make plenty more."
Primarily through Satan, Twain intermingles humor, cruelty, and death in Mysterious Stranger. Satan, for example, chuckles over the fact that he has sent the evil astrologer to the moon: "I've got him on the cold side of it, too. He doesn't know where he is, and is not having a pleasant time." Then he dryly remarks, "Still, it is good enough for him, a good place for his star studies." After Frau Brandt's daughter drowns, Satan alters one link in the chain of circumstances comprising her life so that instead of living in grief for 29 years, she will be burned at the stake in three days. Satan logically explains that she can only benefit from this: "She gets twenty-nine years more of heaven than she is entitled to, and escapes twenty-nine years of misery here." There is macabre humor in Theodor's statement that Satan "Did not seem to know any way to do a person a kindness but by killing him." Similarly, after Satan makes Father Peter insane, Theodor comments, "He didn't seem to know any way to do a person a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him." And it is gruesomely humorous later when Theodor says after watching Satan quarrel with a foreign man and then vanish, "I was sorry for that man; sorry Satan hadn't been his customary self and killed him or made him a lunatic." At this point in the story, Theodor seems almost as indifferent to human suffering as Satan.
Although some of the humor in "Microbes" is whimsical, much of it, too, is fused with dismalness. The humor, for instance, is light and fanciful when Huck says that he entertained the microbes by singing "Bonny Doon" and "Buffalo Gals Can't You Come Out To-night," and he explains, "Microbes like sentimental music best." When Huck describes in a footnote a banquet he attended, the humor is still whimsical: "We had both kinds of corpuscles, and they were served up in six different ways, from soup and raw down to pie." The humor darkens, however, when Huck discusses food later in a passage that echoes Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." He notes that when a noble microbe of the highest rank is ambling along and "munching on" a live "spring pectin" of the working class, "its cries and struggles made [Huck's] mouth water, for it was an infant of four weeks and quite fat and tender and juicy." The satire on the mobility's greedy exploitation of the poor is grimly humorous. After the noble microbe shares a leg with him, Huck attests, "It seemed to me that I had never tasted anything better," and he points out that spring pectin are "quite choice when they are well nourished."
The fact that death is imminent is treated comically when Huck offers a microbe acquaintance, Franklin, a bit of wisdom: "Carpe diem—quam minimum credula postero" which, Huck explains, is Latin for "Be thou wise: take a drink whilst the chance offers; none but the gods know when the jug will come around again." Franklin likes this so much that he wants to "make an illuminated motto out of it and stick it up in his parlor like a God-Bless-Our-Home." Grotesque humor results from the incongruity between the commonplace sign typically embroidered and hung in the parlor and Huck's ominous reminder.
Finally, the humor is sinister when Huck describes malignant cells. Ironically, the most destructive cells in Blitzowski's body, the cancer cells, are also the most beautiful, energetic, and intelligent. One of these cells, Catherine of Aragon, benefits from the disease because "it lifted her mentalities away above the average intellectual level of her caste, for the cancers are bright, and have always been so." Huck admires Catherine, who is so petite and "very very pretty—pretty as a diatom."
Like much contemporary black humor, the setting of "Microbes" is a wasteland. The action in this story takes place within the body of a ragged, dirty, diseased old tramp, Blitzowski. Although Hungary has sent the tramp to America to get rid of him, he is the microbes' "world, their globe, lord of their universe, its jewel, its marvel, its miracle, its masterpiece," and his veins are rivers of which the microbes are proud because of the numerous diseases that they so efficiently transport. From a human's point of view, however, "his body is a sewer, a reek of decay, a charnel house, and contains swarming nations of all the different kinds of germ-vermin."
Similarly, the setting of Mysterious Stranger, Eseldorf, Austria, is a wasteland. At first glance, Eseldorf appears to be a land of idyllic, peaceful beauty where a "tranquil river, its surface painted with cloud-forms and the reflections of drifting arks and boats," flows near a "far-reaching plain dotted with little homesteads nested among orchards and shade trees." The village "drowsed in peace" and was "infinitely content." But this description belies the ghastliness of the villagers. After the astrologer spreads the rumor that Father Peter said "God was all goodness," Father Peter is excommunicated and alienated because, as all agree, "it was a horrible thing to say." The self-righteous residents of Eseldorf ("Assville") are always ready to condemn and destroy anyone who deviates from their standards. Witch-burning is one of their favorite sports. It becomes evident that killing people that they do not like has become increasingly popular when Theodor naively states:
Of late years there were more kinds of witches than there used to be; in old times it had been only old women, but . . . it was getting so that anybody might turn out to be a familiar of the Devil—age and sex hadn't anything to do with it.
Ironically, Theodor unsuspectingly is a friend of Satan's.
Irony of fate also operates in Mysterious Stranger and "Microbes"; again Twain shows that man is controlled by heredity and environment. Twain emphasizes that the way man is "made" determines his behavior. Theodor says that it is easy for people to lie because "it is the way we are made." Likewise, when discussing how one person's conception of beauty can be different from someone else's, Huck says, "It is the way we are made and we can't help it." And when he thinks he has discovered gold in a molar Huck, musing over his new feelings of greed, says, "So suddenly as this I was changed like that! We are strangely made!"
Born with the moral sense, man is the only creature who can distinguish between right and wrong. Yet man "inflictfs] pain for the pleasure of inflicting it," according to Satan. Possessing the ability to choose right instead of wrong, "in nine cases out of ten he prefers the wrong."
Nevertheless, man is blameless, Twain would like to believe. Satan says that man is a mere machine, "a suffering-machine and a happiness-machine combined," and that some men are never happy because "sometimes a man's make and disposition are such that his misery-machine is able to do nearly all the business." Here, of course, Twain suggests that no one is responsible for his unhappiness, that man is like a robot operating according to the program that has been built into him. In "Microbes," Huck indicates that man cannot control his mind, particularly his memory: "Memory is a curious machine and strangely capricious. . . . It is always throwing away gold and hoarding rubbish." If man is a machine that cannot govern his emotions, thoughts, or deeds, then he cannot be held responsible for anything. Addressing the reader, Huck argues that man is not to be blamed for his hypocrisy:
We can't help our nature, we didn't make it, it was made for us; and so we are not to blame for possessing it. . . . Let us not allow the fact to distress us and grieve us that from mommer's lap to the grave we are all shams and hypocrites and humbugs, seeing that we did not make the fact and are in no way responsible for it. If any teacher tries to persuade you that hypocrisy is not a part of your blood and bone and flesh, and can therefore be trained out of you . . . do not you heed him; ask him to cure himself first, then call again.
Because these flaws are inborn and permanent, it would be futile to try to reform.
In Mysterious Stranger, Satan reveals that guilt over one's misdoings is ridiculous because everyone's actions are determined, rendering them blameless. Satan, having foreknowledge, can change the future. He knows that Nikolaus is supposed to save Lisa Brandt from drowning, that he will then catch a cold followed by scarlet fever, which will transform him into a deaf, dumb, and blind "paralytic log," and that this condition will last for 46 years until he dies. By altering this chain of circumstances, Satan ensures that Nikolaus will arrive several seconds later than the predetermined time, that Lisa will be in deeper water by then, and that he will drown attempting to rescue her. After this happens, and the boy's mother blames herself for allowing him to leave the house that day, Theodor points out, "It shows how foolish people are when they blame themselves for anything they have done."
Except for Satan's intervention, future outcomes are impossible to change. Satan professes that a child's "first act determines the second and all that follow after," and that "nothing can change the order" of one's life "after the first event has determined it." Satan says of this first act, which takes place at an age left unspecified: "Man's circumstances and environment order it." Repeating one of Satan's lessons, Theodor says that everything is inevitable: "Of your own motion you can't ever alter the scheme or do a thing that will break a link" in the chain of circumstances. And Satan explains that when one does drop a link in the chain, it is due to the fact that this, too, has been predetermined.
Like Satan, Huck acknowledges the power or circumstance. "Circumstance," Huck says, "is master," and "we are his slaves." He elaborates, "We seem to be free, but we go in chains—chains of training, custom, convention, association, disposition, environment—in a word, Circumstance—and against these bonds the strongest of us struggle in vain." Because man is not free to change anything, including himself, it is useless to try.
Twain's pessimism permeates both stories because the satire in them does not attempt to reform. Because man's vices cannot be corrected, it would be pointless to provide standards, norms, or answers. The tone of both stories is mocking, particularly in Mysterious Stranger when Satan ridicules man. At the same time, however, the tone of this story is calm and resigned, perhaps because nothing can be done to alter anything. It is possible that Twain did not finish either novel because late in his life he came to the conclusion that even writing about the uselessness of attempting to reform anyone was in itself futile.
Like other black humor, these stories satirize polarities to reveal that there are no answers, that everything is flawed. Monarchy and democracy, for instance, are satirized in "Microbes." The microbes in Blitzowski have been ruled by the royal Pus family for twenty-five hundred thousand years, and each king of the Pus lineage uses the name "Henry." This "stern and noble race" which "by diplomacy and arms has pushed its frontiers far" is revered by the microbes who, in honor of their good work, "have come to speak of pus and civilization as being substantially the same thing." In a similar vein, nobility is satirized when Huck discloses that they are all diseases. Speaking of one of these nobles, Huck confides, "He had a gentle way with him, and a kind and winning face, for he was a Malignant; that is to say, a Noble of the loftiest rank and the deadliest. . . . He was not aware that he was deadly; he was not aware that any Noble was deadly." Conversely, Twain satirizes a possible remedy, democracy. There is a republic in Blitzowski's stomach, the Republic of Getrichquick. Getrichquick's "commerce, both domestic and foreign, is colossal"; it "imports raw materials from the North and ships the manufactured product" to the South. For years, Huck notes, Getrichquick selfishly cared only for its own prosperity and happiness. Later, when recounting a shooting that took place on Earth, Huck, who believes that the killer was justified in committing this deed, says that "the whole State joined in an effort to get the death-sentence commuted to a term in Congress or jail, I do not remember which it was," suggesting that congressmen endure punishment that is not better than being incarcerated.
In addition, Twain satirizes science and its antithesis, religion. Science and religion are examples of man's vain attempts to impose order on the chaos of life. Huck is a cholera germ that was once a scientist. He mentions that when he was human he was most interested in paleontology. Yet, in hopes of being turned into a bird, this scientist puts himself into the hands of a magician. The microbes who are scientists in Blitzowski are laughably narrow-minded. When Huck tries to enlighten them by describing life on Earth, they refuse to consider the possibility that anything he has said is true. Twain satirizes religion in this story when Catherine of Aragon recites an unintelligible religious doctrine of the Established Church of Henryland:
The fealty due from the Ultimate in connection with and subjection to the intermediate and the inferential, these being of necessity subordinate to the Auto-Isothermal, and limited subliminally by this contact, which is in all cases sporadic and incandescent, those that ascend to the Abode of the Blest are assimilated in thought and action by the objective influence of the truth which sets us free.
When Huck says that he does not understand what she has said, Catherine informs him, "We are not allowed to explain the text, it would confuse its meaning." Twain indicates here that the Church encourages rote memorization, not understanding and thinking. Thinking is dangerous because it could lead to disagreement and subsequent rebellion against the Church.
Similarly, Twain satirizes Christianity in Mysterious Stranger. The villagers, believing that Satan, who uses the alias Philip Traum when he is around them, is studying for the ministry, attribute the attainment of high religious rank to physical attractiveness, not to spiritual goodness. It is darkly ironic when they say of Satan, "His face is his fortune—he'll be a cardinal some day." Twain's satire lapses into sarcasm later, when Satan notes that in contrast to the Greeks and Romans, Christians have developed such amazing weapons that people in the future "will confess that without Christian civilization war must have remained a poor and trifling thing to the end of time. . . . All the competent killers are Christians."
In "Microbes," by proposing that man's purpose is to provide microbes with a place to reside, and that man may, in turn, be nothing but a microbe, Twain satirizes man's vanity, his conceited belief that he is the focal point of God's attention because he is so important. Huck deflates man's feelings of self-importance when he says that man is possibly "himself a microbe, and his globe a bloodcorpuscle drifting with its shining brethren of the Milky Way down a vein of the Master and Maker of all things." Twain satirizes man's obsession with status and rank when he shows how ridiculous is the microbes' concern with these things. High-ranking microbes never ask such lowly workers as plumbers, carpenters, or cobblers to dinner, and microbe parents with the most status refuse to allow their daughters to marry any natives; instead they make the girls wait until "a foreign bacillus with a title comes along." Describing the castes in Blitzowski, Huck notes that kings look down upon nobles, who look down upon commoners, and that at the lower end of the scale the burglar looks down upon the landlord, who finally looks down upon the real estate agent, who is at the bottom of the scale.
Twain even satirizes himself, the satirist, in "Microbes." Huck, trying to recall the name of an author whose books he read long ago when he was human says, "Twain . . . Twain . . . what was his other name? Mike? I think it was Mike." He claims that he read his books but does not "remember what they were about now . . . no, it wasn't books, it was pictures. . . . He was a Californian, and his middle name was Burbank; he . . . was finally hanged." Twain satirizes his own feelings of self-importance here by showing that a writer's fame is fleeting.
Most importantly, like other black humorists Twain confuses appearance and reality to indicate the unreliability of reality. In "Microbes," Huck has difficulty distinguishing between dreams which appear real and reality. When his microbic acquaintances want to gather together Huck's stories about Earth and sell them, Huck, to divert their attention and make them forget this idea, lies about discovering a gold mine in a molar. But Huck gradually comes to believe his own lie. Like the Fosters in "The $30,000 Bequest," Huck forgets that his dreams of being wealthy are just dreams. Shortly after planting dreams of dental gold in the others' minds, he is aware that his imagination is starting to make the nonexistent gold seem real: "The mine was there, sure—pretty dreamy, yes, pretty dreamy, but there, anyway . . . honest dentist's gold, 23 carats fine! . . . In the alembic of my fancy . . . my dream-gold was turning into the real metal, and my dream was turning into fact." But as the gold becomes more and more real to him, he changes his original plans to share it with his friends until, at the end of the story, he concludes that he will keep it all and give them part of the amalgam and all of the cement. The dream has overpowered reality.
Additionally, the longer Huck is in Blitzowski's bloodstream, the more his past as a human seems a dream to him. His life in the tramp's body seems vivid and real in contrast to his past, which seems "far away and dim, very dim, wavering, spectral, the substantiality all gone out of it," and he can no longer visualize the faces of his human loved ones, who seem to be "mere dream-figures drifting formless through a haze" now.
Twain also intermingles dreams and reality in Mysterious Stranger. The possibility exists that this story is Theodor's dream. Satan's alias is Philip Traum. The name Traum, meaning "dream" in German, indicates that he is associated with dreams. Sleep and dream imagery pervade the novel. Eseldorf is in the middle of "Austria [which] was far from the world, and asleep"; it "drowsed in peace"; and "news from the world hardly ever came to disturb its dreams." While he sits with Satan upon a mountain, Theodor says of the scenery: "It was a tranquil and dreamy picture." When Satan makes himself and the boys invisible, Theodor insists, "It seemed almost too good to be true, that we were actually seeing these romantic and wonderful things, and that it was not a dream." Later, after Satan dissolves himself for the boys' entertainment, they "sat wondering and dreaming," and one of them says, "I suppose none of it has happened." And when Satan possesses the astrologer, who then juggles and walks a tightrope like an expert, the villagers walk "like persons in a dream" and wonder, "Was it real? Did you see it, or was it only I—and I was dreaming?" Satan imparts a feeling of lazy ecstasy to all who surround him. Theodor associates Satan with a "winy atmosphere."
Felix Brandt, the oldest serving-man in the Eseldorf castle, tells the boys stories which may influence Theodor to dream about Satan. Felix takes the boys down into the "haunted chamber in the dungeons of the castle" at night and recounts stories about ghosts, witches, enchanters, and "horrors of every kind," including "battles, murders, and mutilations." He encourages the boys not to be afraid of supernatural beings, because they mean no harm, and he confides that not only has he seen angels, but he has talked with them. Felix points out that angels wear clothes, not wings, and that they are always pleasant and cheerful. One night the boys go to a wooded hill after listening to the stories, and while they are mulling over Felix's description of such supernatural beings as angels and are comfortably lying on the grass, a youth strolls toward them. Perhaps at this point Theodor has fallen asleep and dreams that he sees this youth, Satan, who fits Felix's description. Satan is "friendly" and "handsome," he has "a pleasant voice," and he is wearing "new and good clothes," which he may have just created when he assumed the form of a human. When the boys ask him who he is, he replies "an angel."
Whether Satan really appears in Eseldorf or is only a creature in Theodor's dream ultimately does not appear to matter. Most significantly, at the end of story Satan speaks for Twain when he tells Theodor that life is nothing more than a dream:
Life itself is only a vision, a dream. . . . Nothing exists; all is a dream. . . . Nothing exists save empty space—and you! . . . And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence; I am but a dream—your dream, creature of your imagination. . . . 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—a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!
In his last work, Twain renounces external reality and proposes that life is a bad dream in which one imagines his own reality. This nihilistic, solipsistic conclusion reveals that the only reality that exists is produced by one's own mind. Twain moves beyond black humorists' contention that the universe is fragmented, pluralistic, without system, meaning, or design. He proclaims that there is no universe.
If there is no external reality, it cannot harm anyone, and one need not ever feel guilt or despair, because he does not physically exist and therefore could never have done harm to anyone else or even have known anyone else. In 1904, while writing the conclusion of Mysterious Stranger, Twain wrote a letter that echoes this conclusion. Lonely, in deep despair over his failed business ventures, and grieving over his loved ones who died, Twain insists that the past seven years have seemed "NON-EXISTENT." Additionally, in this letter Twain argues:
There is nothing, . . . There is no God and no universe. . . . There is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And . . . I am that thought. And God, and the Universe, and Time, and Life, and Death, and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that insane Thought.
If life is a dream, as Twain suggests, then he cannot be blamed for his past mistakes. It is likely that his nihilistic views helped him to cope with his failures and losses.
The absurdities of life are accounted for and seem less absurd when one knows that life is a dream. Satan informs Theodor that his dreams are "frankly and hysterically insane—like all dreams." Then he enumerates parts of his dreams, which include a God "who mouths justice and invented hell," a God who "could have made every one of [his children] happy, yet never made a single happy one," a God who "with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor, abused slave to worship him!" Likewise, in his letter written during the same period, Twain argues that once one knows that life is a bad dream, "the absurdities that govern life and the universe lose their absurdity and become natural, and a thing to be expected"; everything becomes understandable, even "a God who has no morals, yet blandly sets Himself up as Head Sunday-school Superintendent of the Universe. . . . Taken as the drunken dream of an idiot Thought. . . these monstrous sillinesses become proper and acceptable." After revealing that life is a dream, Satan advises Theodor to "dream other dreams, and better!"
But Twain's indication in Mysterious Stranger that life is a dream is not convincing, although he himself would have liked to believe that his late nightmarish years were unreal. This world must not be a dream; it must be real. The structural problem Twain faces in Mysterious Stranger is obvious: while Twain proposes in the story that life is a dream, the past life experiences Theodor narrates are based on fact.
Moreover, Theodor is more than a "thought"; he is a disillusioned old man looking back. At the beginning of the story it is clear that the narrator is older when he says of the Austrian winter of 1590, "I remember it well, although I was only a boy." And he is more sophisticated than a boy. It is apparent that he is an older man who has suffered the loss of many loved ones. Theodor says that when he knew that Nikolaus had little time left before he would drown, he recalled the wrongs he had done to his friend, and he was filled with remorse, "just as it is when we remember our unkindnesses to friends who have passed beyond the veil, and we wish we could have them back again, if only for a moment" to beg for their forgiveness. He explains that his last days with Nikolaus "were days of companionship with one's sacred dead, and I have known no comradeship that was so close or so precious."
Like other black humorists, Twain offers laughter as the best weapon in an absurd world. If an absurd external reality does exist, the best way to abide it is to laugh at it. Satan indicates that if one does not have the good fortune of being insane like Father Peter, who obviously no longer lives in reality, he must have a sense of humor. Father Peter is "as happy as a bird" because he thinks he is Emperor. Satan comments, "No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is." The best a sane man can do is laugh. Satan says that people have "one really effective weapon—laughter," and he wonders, "Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them—and by laughing at them destroy them?"
Twain laughs at the absurdity of life in Mysterious Stranger and "Microbes," but the humor is dark, especially in Mysterious Stranger. These stories represent some of the blackest humor Twain wrote. In both of them, Twain fuses horror with humor, indicates that man has no free will, and ridicules man's follies without offering answers or standards because, since man does not possess the power to change, this would be futile. Like contemporary black humorists, Twain suggests that there is no one correct answer anyway in this pluralistic universe. In "Microbes," the characters have difficulty distinguishing between reality, and perceptions and dreams that appear real. Additionally, in this story Twain plants the notion in the reader's mind that there are multiple realities. The microbes believe that the human being they inhabit is reality, and human beings believe that their universe is reality. Twain suggests that this universe, in turn, may be contained within another, which is encased within another, in a neverending series which is ultimately meaningless. In Mysterious Stranger, Twain offers laughter as the best coping mechanism in an absurd world. This world, he propounds, is not real, but a bad dream. Beset by tragedies in his life, he would have liked to believe that life is only a nightmare that appears real to the unenlightened.