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Mark Twain’s “The Mysterious Stranger”: Commentary

bkstwainmyst1916 I recently read Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger.  This 90-page novella was Twain’s last fictional work (with the presumed final chapter found in his papers after his death in 1910).  The book was first published in 1916.  For its insight into human foibles, it could have been written today.

The introduction and afterword say Twain (Samuel Clemens) achieved early and enduring fame, married well, and was accepted by the social elite in the Northeast.  However, toward the end of his life, he suffered repeated hardship, with the successive deaths a number of people close to him, including a favorite daughter and his wife.  He was a victim of embezzlement and had to go back on the lecture circuit to pay debts.  His writing became increasingly bitter and cynical.

I did not see The Mysterious Stranger as bitter and cynical, unless I am.  It seemed realistic, and while I don’t believe in pre-destination, I can relate to much of Twain’s philosophy about the Moral Sense, war, and the value of humor, as well as the illusory nature of time and the dream-like quality of life.  The final message, to “dream better!” offered hope.

The story is set in an idyllic hamlet in Eseldorf [Jackassville], Austria in 1590.  Three boys, best friends from the cradle, meet a stranger on a woody hilltop, where they have gone to have a smoke.  They’ve discovered they don’t have the flint and steel needed to light their tobacco, but the stranger blows on their pipes and lights them.

He tells the boys–Theodur, the narrator, Nikolaus, and Seppi–that his name is Satan, not “the” Satan, but a favored nephew.  He has superhuman powers but is incapable of sin, because he has not been cursed with a Moral Sense.  He is vivacious and charming, can perform wonderful tricks, and demonstrates by creating a tiny village with living miniature people, then crushes them all without a sign of remorse.  He says they are nothing to him, that he can make anything out of thin air.  Human beings are paltry, pitiful creatures.  Animals, which have no Moral Sense, are far superior.

As the story unfolds, the boys witness the marvelous but disturbing breadth and depth of Satan’s talents, including reading minds, predicting the future, changing destinies by changing simple acts, like having Nikolaus get up to close a window during a storm, thus changing his entire future.  Instead of the long, miserable life he would have lived, that act would lead to his drowning in twelve days.  Satan claimed this was merciful.

He bestows seeming gifts that bring ultimate despair to those so favored, like placing over 1,100 gold ducats in Father Peter’s lost wallet.  Father Peter was then jailed as a thief when the town astrologer claimed the priest stole the money from him.  Satan said Father Peter would be acquitted, but he would never know his name was cleared.  Still, he would be happy the rest of his life

Throughout, Satan is contemptuous of the human race.  He claims wars are never started for any clean purpose.  “’You perceive,’ he said, ‘that you have made continual progress.  Cain did his murder with a club; the Hebrews did their murders with javelins and swords; the Greeks and Romans added protective armor and the fine arts of military organization and generalship; the Christian has added guns and gunpowder; a few centuries from now he will have so greatly improved the deadly effectiveness of his weapons of slaughter that all men will confess that without Christian civilization war must have remained a poor and trifling thing to the end of time’

“Then he began to laugh in the most unfeeling way, and made fun of the human race, although he knew that what he had been saying shamed us and wounded us.  No one but an angel could have acted so; but suffering is nothing to them; they do not know what it is, except by hearsay.”

And “It was wonderful, the mastery Satan had over time and distance.  For him they did not exist.  He called them human inventions, and said they were artificialities.”

Father Peter went mad in his jail cell before learning he had been exonerated.  He imagined he was an emperor.  Satan told Theodur that only mad people can be happy.  “I have taken from this man that trumpery thing which the race regards as Mind . . .”

Theodur comments Satan “didn’t seem to know any way to do a persona a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him.  I apologized, as well as I could; but privately I did not think much of his processes—at that time.”

Satan continues to denounce man’s failings, claiming man prides himself on fine qualities he does not possess.  His only saving grace is a sense of humor, which he doesn’t really have but only a mongrel notion of it.  The human race has only one effective weapon—laughter.  “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”

Eventually, Satan comes to bid Theodur goodbye.  He has been called to another corner of the universe.   “Life itself is only a vision, a dream,” he says.  ”And you are not you—you have no body, no blood, you are but a thought . . . you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature indistinguishable, indestructible.  But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free.  Dream other dreams, and better!”

“He vanished, and left me appalled, for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.”

I wondered why this book made such a strong impression on me.  Maybe, with all the dystopic visions clouding today’s events, The Mysterious Stranger offered some hope of a reprieve, by dreaming “other dreams, and better!”