A True Story Themes
by Mark Twain

A True Story book cover
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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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The essence of this tale is in fact a true story. During one of the many summers that Mark Twain spent near Elmira, New York, he heard the story from Mary Ann (“Auntie”) Cord, a former slave who worked at his sister-in-law’s farm. Aunt Rachel’s “Misto C——” is thus “Mr. Clemens”—Twain himself. In November, 1874, Twain published the story in the Atlantic Monthly. It was his first contribution to that prestigious magazine, as well as one of the earliest stories in which he developed a fully rounded African American character and one of the few stories that he ever wrote featuring a strong woman character.

At its simplest level, “A True Story” concerns human endurance in the face of terrible personal loss. Although raised a slave and violently separated from her loving husband and children, Aunt Rachel has remained strong and exceptionally cheerful. So cheerful is she, in fact, that the narrator, who presumably has known her for years, has no inkling of the troubles that she has endured.

At a deeper level, “A True Story” is a tale of revelation—the revelation to a white person that African Americans—even slaves—can share similar feelings of love and devotion. Early in her narrative, Aunt Rachel tells the narrator that her husbandwas lovin’ an’ kind to me, jist as kind as you is to yo’ own wife. An’ we had chil’en—seven chil’en—an’ we loved dem chil’en jist de same as you loves yo’ chil’en. Dey was black, but de Lord can’t make no chil’en so black but what dey mother loves ’m and wouldn’t give ’m up, no, not for anything dat’s in dis whole world.

The fact that black people have the same emotions as other people was not taken for granted by whites during Twain’s time. He develops the idea more fully in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), in which Huck gradually understands that Jim, his black companion who is fleeing from slavery, is as fully human as himself. During their raft journey, Huck happens to see Jim with his head down, moaning to himself. Sensing that Jim is thinking about his wife and children, Huck confesses, “I do believe he cared just as much for his people as white folks does for their’n. It don’t seem natural, but I reckon it’s so.” The frame-narrator of “A True Story” makes a similar discovery when he hears Aunt Rachel’s story. The common humanity of all peoples is thus a central theme in both stories.