The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain - Essay

Mark Twain


(Short Story Criticism)

The Mysterious Stranger Twain, Mark

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

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 In 1923 Paine released a new edition of the book that included a previously unpublished final chapter, which Paine claimed was Twain's original ending for the novella.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

Plot and Major Characters

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

Major Themes

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

Critical Reception

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

Edgar Lee Masters (essay date 1938)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4103 words.)

Carroll D. Laverty (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 entire section is 2792 words.)

Gladys Carmen Bellamy (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9722 words.)

Wendell Glick (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7006 words.)

Ellwood Johnson (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4762 words.)

John R. May (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4855 words.)

Buford Scrivner, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 entire section is 930 words.)

Robert Keith Miller (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7237 words.)

Patricia M. Mandia (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7348 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 126 words.)