The Mysterious Stranger Themes
by Mark Twain

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The best way to approach this posthumous novella is to define “solipsism”—solus meaning “alone,” ipse denoting “self,” in Latin. The psychology of solipsism contends that the self can be aware of nothing but its own experiences and states. The philosophy of solipsism argues that, therefore, the only existence of which one can be absolutely sure is the self.

In this remarkably radical story, Mark Twain actually goes beyond the philosophy of solipsism. He does not simply say that nothing but the self can be known by the self. He says that nothing but the self exists. Thus, at the end, Theodor finds himself—and this discovery of self is customary in the Bildungsroman (psychological novel)—but at a staggering price. The self he discovers is only a thought, and the universe with which he was dealing is only his imaginative dream.

In addition to this major argument of the novella, there are several minor themes. Satan was an angel before his fall, but since God figures nowhere in the narrative, Satan rules the world of the story. Satan is immortal and as different from Theodor as an elephant from a small red spider; he is indifferent to the plight of humanity and totally without moral scruples.

The negative summary of human history was achieved before in the Genesis story of the Flood and in William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793). Absolutely no Utopian dreams such as those in Plato’s Republic (fourth century B.C.), Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), or Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872) are offered here by Twain. Indeed,this savage diatribe has only two objects of praise: animals and laughter.


(Short Stories for Students)

Dreams and the Imagination
In ‘‘The Mysterious Stranger,’’ Twain uses magic as an allegory for the realm of dreams and the imagination. In the Dream-World of our imaginations, he suggests, we can do and be anything, as if by magic.

Twain fills his tale with numerous magical occurrences. Some of the magical elements of ‘‘The Mysterious Stranger’’ are directly associated with the realm of dreams. The Duplicates who appear in the castle one night turn out to be the embodiment of the Dream-Selves of the men they resemble. August’s Duplicate, who calls himself Emil Schwarz, explains that he is August’s Dream-Self, and that he comes from the Dream-World. Emil further explains that the Dream-Self comes alive only when the Waking-Self is asleep. The Dream-Self normally has no physical existence, and so is free to roam throughout time and space at will. However, the Dream-Self is dependent on the physical existence of the Waking-Self—it is born with the individual and dies with the individual. Twain thus makes a distinction between the Waking-Self, or Day-Self, which is the physical being who goes to work each day, and the Dream-Self, which emerges when we are sleeping and is free from the constraints of physical existence.

Number 44 performs such magical feats as mind-reading, flying, becoming invisible, time travel, and many other wondrous things. Number 44’s extensive magical powers represent the possibilities of the human imagination, the powers of which reach far beyond what humans are capable of in their waking or conscious lives. August is introduced to Number 44’s way of perceiving reality, and so his mind is expanded to encompass a greater range of possibilities than he had previously imagined. In the conclusion to the story, Number 44 asserts that everything in the universe is a dream, a creation of the human imagination: ‘‘Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world, —the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream.’’

Thought is also a central theme of ‘‘The Mysterious Stranger.’’ The story takes place in a print shop at the dawn of the age of printing in medieval Europe....

(The entire section is 964 words.)