Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As a story within a story, “A True Story” exemplifies the frame-story technique in which the first narrator (Misto C——) provides the “frame” within which the second narrator (Aunt Rachel) tells the main story. By alternating the voices of his two narrators here, Twain tells two different stories simultaneously. While Aunt Rachel relates the dramatic story of her family, the frame-narrator’s occasional remarks quietly reveal the shifting relationship between Aunt Rachel and himself.

When the frame-narrator begins his narrative, he is sitting on a high porch, while Aunt Rachel sits “respectfully below our level, on the steps.” As Aunt Rachel unfolds her story, her position gradually becomes dominant. By the time she recalls the slave auction, “she towered above me, black against the stars.” Although no more is said on this subject, it is clear that the relative moral positions of the characters are reversed, with Aunt Rachel clearly in the superior position at the story’s end.

The most obvious stylistic technique employed in this story is the use of realistic African American dialect. Most of the story is narrated in Aunt Rachel’s own, unaffected voice. One of Twain’s great strengths as a writer was his ear for language and ability to render it accurately. Here again, “A True Story” anticipates Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which also makes heavy use of southern black dialects—especially for the character Jim.

In 1992, publicity surrounding the recent rediscovery of a comparatively obscure article (“Sociable Jimmy”) that Twain published in The New York Times in 1874 focused national attention on the extent to which the language of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is “black.” Recalling the delightfully natural and artless conversation of a young black boy whom he had met during a stop on a lecture tour, Twain’s article resembles “A True Story” in attempting to re-create a conversation word for word. Twain wrote the Times article around the same time that he wrote “A True Story” and addressed similar questions about African American dialects in both.