The Mysterious Stranger Style and Technique

Mark Twain

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

There has been some controversy concerning the editing of “The Mysterious Stranger.” William M. Gibson, editor of The Mark Twain Papers, a project at the University of California, states flatly that the story published in 1916 was a literary “fraud” perpetrated by Twain’s biographer and executor, Albert Paine, and editor Frederick Duneka of Harper and Brothers. Mark Twain clearly attempted at least four versions of The Mysterious Stranger. None of the first three was completed; the fourth version was intended as a conclusion to be added to the first version. It is now clear that the text reviewed here is the first version, cut and censored (possibly by Paine), the Astrologer borrowed from the third version and given a more extensive role, and the final section of the fourth version grafted onto the broken-off end of the first manuscript.

Nevertheless, what results is an extraordinarily charming and engrossing philosophy lesson. The whole story, style, incident, and excitement become electric every time Satan appears. Life is indeed dull in between. The boys adore him, pleading with him to stay, worshiping him, ecstatic in his presence. Satan is the beautiful, powerful mentor all boys seek, and the reader is convinced that Satan likes them.

Theodor is so honest and easily troubled, at one and the same time so adoring and questioning, that one identifies easily with the boy, no matter what one’s age. During the Socratic dialogue that ensues between the sixteen-thousand-year-old immortal and the simple youth, the reader shares the youth’s wonder and squirms with his discomfort. At the end, when he is left absolutely alone in space, the reader must be poignantly saddened and reaches out with the friendship for which Theodor longs and which Satan claims he can never have.