The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

The Mysterious Stranger book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Mysterious Stranger Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Austria in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries
For many centuries, Austria was not a nation, but a duchy within the Roman Empire. Beginning in the thirteenth century, the Austrian region was ruled by the hereditary House of Habsburg, which lasted until the early twentieth century. The history of Austria in the fifteenth century, when Twain’s story takes place, was dominated by the Habsburg ruler Frederik III. Frederik inherited the position of archduke of the Austrian lands in 1424. In 1440 he was elected king of Germany, and in 1452 he was crowned Roman Emperor. Like the magician in Twain’s story, Frederik had a strong interest in studying astrology and magic, as well as alchemy.

Upon his death in 1493, Frederik was succeeded by his son, Maximilian I. Like his father, Maximilian I eventually ruled as emperor of Rome, king of Germany, and archduke of Austria. During the sixteenth century, under Maximilian I, the Habsburg dynasty reached the height of its powers, becoming a major European force. By various means, including marriage, military pressure, and treaties, Maximilian added to the Austrian territories the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia, Burgundy, Spain, and the Spanish empire, including colonial holdings in the Americas.

The Dawn of Modern Printing
‘‘No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger’’ takes place in a printing shop in late fifteenth century Austria, and is based in part on Twain’s experiences as a printer’s apprentice in mid-nineteenth century America.

The process of modern book printing first developed in Europe over the course of the fifteenth century. Twain thus sets his story at a time when printing was still a relatively new process, and represented a significant advance in the intellectual history of Europe. The development of the printing press made it possible for greater numbers of people to have access to knowledge and ideas through the dissemination of larger quantities of books at lower prices.

The innovation that inaugurated modern printing methods was the invention of moveable type. Moveable type involves individual letters or characters carved or molded out of wood, clay, or metal, which can be arranged to create a text....

(The entire section is 2,063 words.)