The Prince and the Pauper is Mark Twain’s first attempt at writing historical fiction. Stylistically, the novel is very different from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). It combines his fascination with Europe’s romantic past with his natural bent for satirizing the injustices and social conventions of his own age. He was to do the same later, to far better effect, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) and, with less success, in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).
In The Prince and the Pauper, Twain begins by challenging authority, but in the end, he submits to it. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he also challenges authority. The earlier book is also more optimistic, because it reflects Twain’s belief in progress.
Although twenty-first century readers think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as children’s books, The Prince and the Pauper is the only novel Twain ever wrote specifically for children, especially his two young daughters. He aims the other two books at general audiences of all ages. Except for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), children’s literature was very didactic up to this time, and contemporary reviewers did not know what to make of it. Carroll and Twain introduced the then-radical concept that children’s literature should be entertaining, which is one reason why their books are still being read in the twenty-first century.
One recurring theme in the children’s literature of the nineteenth century was children’s obedience—or lack of—to authority; books in which children obey authority figures always have happy endings, and those books in which children disobey have unhappy ones (if these characters lived long enough). Twain mercilessly parodies these stories with “Story of the Bad Little Boy” (1865) and “The Story of the Good Little Boy” (1875), in which exactly the opposite happens: the good-boy story has an unhappy ending, and the bad-boy story has a happy ending.
In The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Canty is much better off if he stays away from his abusive, alcoholic, controlling father, who is both a thief and a murderer. Twain was one of the first authors of children’s literature to recognize the concept of parental abuse and to make the father the principal villain of the story. However, Twain had been quite naïve to think that Tom would not have been affected. By this time, Tom would have suffered significant psychological damage, even if he were able to avoid the cycle of the children of abuse becoming abusive parents themselves. In Twain’s defense, the psychology of abuse was not well understood during his lifetime.
Twain begins to contrast and compare Edward and Tom as early as the novel’s opening paragraph. They are born on the same day, but Tom is poor and not wanted by his parents; Edward is incredibly wealthy and is much desired by his parents and his country. Edward dreams about being free, and Tom wonders what it would be like to be a prince. After they inadvertently exchange places, Tom has an easier time of it, because from his reading and tutoring by the kindly Father Andrew he has a rough idea of what it means to be a prince and is willing to ask Humphrey Marlow, Prince Edward’s whipping boy, for help. Tom’s intelligence and sense of fairness lead him to make humane decisions. Edward is used to being protected and to having his commands obeyed instantly, so he has a rude awakening when he finds himself in danger and when no one pays attention to his orders. Except for Miles Hendon, all react with laughter.
In this novel, Twain employs many themes and devices, which he learned so expertly as a teller of tall tales. These themes and devices include tongue-in-cheek irony, ridiculous understatement , exaggeration, coincidence, and exchange of identities. He also uses the occasion to underscore some of the social follies, hypocrisies, and...
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