illustration of the prince and the pauper standing back to back with a castle on the prince's side and a low building on the pauper's

The Prince and the Pauper

by Mark Twain

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*England. The novel can be read as an attack on England’s monarchical institutions and hereditary privilege. The book depicts mid-sixteenth century England as a grim place in which most people live hard lives under cruel and unjust laws and heedless rulers. The novel forces Edward, Prince of Wales, to live among his meanest subjects; after he is restored to rightful position, he is moved to liberalize England’s laws.


*London. The principal setting for about half the novel, England’s capital city is depicted as existing in two worlds: the unending want of life in places such as Offal Court and the unlimited plenty of the royal court. The pauper boy, Tom Canty, though wise beyond his years, knows nothing about the London outside his slum until the day he wanders to Westminster Palace. Meanwhile, Prince Edward is equally ignorant of the London outside his palace until the accident that causes him to switch places with Tom.

*London Bridge

*London Bridge. A hive of shops, inns, and homes, the oldest bridge across the Thames is a microcosm of London whose denizens include some people who have never even set foot ashore. Touching the river’s north bank near Offal Court, the bridge is the place where John Canty instructs his family to gather after he kills a priest and has to flee London. Prince Edward’s champion, Miles Hendon, takes lodgings on the bridge, which is also the place where he and Edward become separated by a mob after they return from Hendon Hall.

*River Thames

*River Thames (tehmz). River that winds through London. It is introduced early as a playground of Tom Canty and his friends—much like the Mississippi River is a playground to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in other novels by Mark Twain. When Tom Canty tells Prince Edward about the games he plays in the river’s mudbanks, the prince declares he would “forego the crown” if he could but “revel in the mud once.” To Edward, the river represents freedom, but to Tom it becomes a pathway to imprisonment. After he is entrapped in the palace and accepted as the prince, he is reluctantly carried on the river on barges, first to a state occasion at the Guildhall and later on the first stage of his procession to his coronation.

Offal Court

Offal Court. Shabby London neighborhood where Tom Canty, his parents, twin sisters, and an abusive grandmother live in a single upstairs room, in which they sleep on straw on the floor. Though Offal Court is a “foul little pocket,” Tom is reasonably happy—so long as he is not hungry and his father forces him only to beg, not to steal. Taking ideas from romantic books, Tom finds time to join friends in games, which include holding mock royal courts and pretending to be a prince—training that later serves him well.

To the real prince, Offal Court is one of many prisons he endures outside his palace. He goes there hoping to find help to get back to the palace; instead, he is seized by Tom’s father—who thinks he is his son—and is taken to the family lodging, where he is beaten and left to sleep on the floor. Much of the narrative from that moment concerns Edward’s struggle to escape from John Canty’s control after Canty joins up with a band of thieves in the countryside, and Edward goes from one form of imprisonment to another.

*Westminster Palace

*Westminster Palace. Royal palace of King Henry VIII (now home to the Houses of Parliament), located upriver from Offal Court. One day, Tom Canty wanders to the palace...

(This entire section contains 1530 words.)

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and is thrilled to glimpse Prince Edward through a gate. When Edward sees Tom being struck by a guard, he invites him into the palace, feeds him, and asks him about his carefree life in Offal Court. On a whim, the prince suggests they swap clothes, and the boys discover that they could be twins. Mistaken for the beggar boy, the prince is tossed out of the palace, leaving Tom alone inside, deathly afraid of being discovered and executed. Tom’s dream of being a prince is now a nightmare. Even after he ceases to fear exposure, he finds the palace a weary prison and longs to be restored to his rags and rightful place in Offal Court. However, the power and wealth that surround Tom eventually corrupt him. Whereas he is initially appalled by the wasteful expenses of the royal household, he later doubles the number of his servants.

*Tower of London

*Tower of London. Historic castle famous as a prison for traitors and political prisoners. Though not a setting in the novel, the Tower is frequently mentioned as the place where King Henry’s enemy, the duke of Norfolk, awaits execution. In the coronation scene at the climax of the novel, when Edward is finally acknowledged as king, the lord protector suggests flinging Tom Canty “into the Tower.”

*Christ’s Hospital

*Christ’s Hospital. Government-run home in London for orphans and children of indigent parents. When the displaced prince applies for help there, he experiences his first major rebuff. Instead of being recognized as the prince, he is mocked for his pretensions. Despite his disappointment, he vows that when he becomes king, the inmates of the home will be properly educated. He later keeps his pledge when he makes Tom Canty the school’s chief governor.

Peasant barn

Peasant barn. Place in which the prince is accidentally imprisoned. After wandering alone in the woods, Edward is relieved to find shelter inside this barn but is dismayed when its doors are locked behind him. Inside the pitch-black barn, he has a terrifying encounter with an unknown creature that brushes against him but relaxes when he realizes it is merely a calf’s tail. In the morning he awakens to find a rat sleeping on his chest. He regards this as a good omen that means he can fall no lower.

Hermit’s hut

Hermit’s hut. Woodland home of a former priest who takes Edward in, accepts his claim to be king, feeds him, and tucks him into bed. Relieved to escape his pursuers and find shelter, Edward thinks that he has found safety until the priest reveals himself as a madman, a self-styled “archangel” who believes that he would be the pope, had not King Henry abolished England’s Roman Catholic monasteries, destroying his religious vocation. Edwards awakens from his sleep to find himself tied to the bed, with the priest about to stab him with a butcher knife, when Miles Hendon suddenly appears at the hut’s door. The hermit’s hut thus proves to be yet another prison, instead of a sanctuary. “Would God I were with the outlaws again,” says the prince, “for lo, now am I the prisoner of a madman!”


Courtroom. Court of a justice of the peace before whom Edward is taken after being arrested for stealing a pig. Innocent of the charge, Edward is inclined to resist arrest until Hendon challenges him to show the same respect for the law that he, as king, would expect from his subjects. Edward’s brief trial is an eye-opener for him when he learns that the penalty for theft could be death. The kindly judge manages to reduce the charge, and Edward escapes formal imprisonment only through a trick Hendon plays on the constable leading him to jail.

*Hendon Hall

*Hendon Hall. Ancestral home of Miles Hendon, near Monk’s Holm, in southeastern England’s Kent region. Getting back to the home from which he has been away for many years is Hendon’s supreme goal, and he expects to dazzle Edward with his family’s wealth and hospitality. However, after overcoming many obstacles to reach Hendon Hall, his fondest hopes are dashed: His beloved father and older brother are dead; his true love, Edith, is married to his greedy and cruel younger brother, Hugh; and all the faithful family servants are gone. Like Edward, Hendon can find no one who will acknowledge who he is. Instead of the warm welcome and comfort he expects, he and Edward are thrown into a dungeon. For Edward, Hendon Hall proves to be yet another false sanctuary that leads to another prison, this time a true prison and one in which he is indelibly scarred when he witnesses women who have befriended him being burned at the stake for the crime of being Anabaptists.

*Westminster Abbey

*Westminster Abbey. Historic church, nearly adjacent to the palace, in which England’s monarchs are traditionally crowned. The night before Tom’s coronation, Edward sneaks into the abbey and hides in Edward the Confessor’s tomb. The next day, at the moment Tom is about to be crowned, Edward appears, proclaims himself the rightful king, and throws the coronation officials and assemblage into total confusion. The assemblage’s uncertainty about which boy is the true king is manifested in the physical movements of people being careful not to make a move that might be interpreted as disloyalty to whichever boy proves to be the rightful king.


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Baetzhold, Howard G. Mark Twain and John Bull. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. Includes a twenty-page chapter that documents Mark Twain’s British sources for historical details in the novel.

Cummings, Sherwood. Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. Cummings examines the often overlooked influence of Mark Twain’s reading of French history on many details in the novel. Summarizes the novel’s flaws, but notes that an important theme in the work is the power of training.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 1995. An indispensable reference on Mark Twain’s life and works. Contains a detailed analytical plot synopsis, background and publishing history, essays on major characters and places, and other topics, including dramatic adaptations of The Prince and the Pauper.

Stahl, John Daniel. “American Myth in European Disguise: Fathers and Sons in The Prince and the Pauper.” American Literature 58, no. 2 (May, 1986): 203-216. Analyzes symbolic father-son relationships in the novel. Notes similarities to other orphaned sons in Twain’s works.

Twain, Mark. The Prince and the Pauper. Edited by Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. The most authoritative edition available. Corrected text restores the book as Mark Twain intended it to be published. Includes a twenty-five-page historical introduction, the author’s extensive working notes, a chapter that was removed from the first edition, and all 192 original illustrations.




Critical Essays