The Mysterious Stranger Twain, Mark
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 In 1923 Paine released a new edition of the book that included a previously unpublished final chapter, which Paine claimed was Twain's original ending for the novella.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."
Edgar Lee Masters (essay date 1938)
(The entire section is 49,484 words.)