BY KAYA DWYER
A wise man once said, “Classic – a book which people praise and don’t read.” This could not be any more true for the wise man himself, Mark Twain. One of the best-known authors of both the reading community and the world. An influential, humorous man of many unrecognized accomplishments.
Twain has written many successful titles such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and of course, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Even with his diverse publications and wit, many of Twain’s best works go unnoticed and forgotten by many, one of those works being The Mysterious Stranger. This is a short story of philosophical adventure and a pessimistic reality that was never actually fully published and had each piece brought together by lovers of Twain after his death. This story has received a lot of criticism ever since its publication in 1916, many of which are more directed at Twain himself rather than the work. So is the aggression and disappointment justified?
The story starts off with a charming man by the name of “Phillip Traum” who comes into a town claiming he is the nephew of a fallen angel by the name of Satan—this early in the story we see Twain’s-realist beliefs—as he claims he has magical abilities that he inherited from his uncle. As he overstays his welcome, he plays tricks on the townspeople and interferes with their day-to-day life. His ability to see and predict the future as well as spawn things into existence begins to take a toll on the townspeople as well as the children he interacts with throughout the story:Theodore, our protagonist, Seppi, and Nikolaus. These children are the ones who end up getting to witness the Mysterious Stranger’s magic first hand. Satan hands the children clay, asking them to make people and creatures to inhabit a kingdom that he builds himself. The castle, its inhabitants, and the nature around them begins to flourish in clay as each one of the children builds homes and progresses society…until a fight breaks out between some of the people of the kingdom, causing a loud argument. Satan becomes irate and crushes the quarreling clay people with his hand and strikes the rest with lightning. Theodore and his friends left in a trance of disbelief. Satan, the self-proclaimed angel, had just killed their own creations.
Each little detail, down to the setting of the story, has significance in representing the author, but the most important are also the most obvious. The connection and interactions between Theodore, Seppi, Niko, and Satan represent Twain’s fallout with religion. Twain made it very clear in many of his works that he was once religious but had grown skeptical of the belief in a god after reading the works of Thomas Paine. At the start of the story, we see appreciation of Satan’s arrival from the children as their curiosity explodes and they admire his claims of having magical abilities. When he proves this, making a small society with the children, their admiration grows﹘until it comes to a halt at the sight of their clay creations crushed. Here, Twain writes in one of the most iconic lines of the story, “Life itself is only a vision… nothing exists but empty space and you, and you are but a thought.” This is Satan’s explanation to the children–and his apology. This interaction in particular is written in a way that makes it seem like Twain is talking to his younger self; why is God considered so powerful, is he real, and, is Mark Twain himself even real or important? The smaller actions of Satan, like his terrorizing of the town, further examplify Twain’s distrust in a god or religion. The idea that, if there were to be a god, why would he allow his people to be tormented by someone so cruel?
Twain is one of the many talented writers in this world, and as every writer, he has his flawed stories and fair share of plot holes, but creativity is expressed in more than one way﹘and this story should not be an exception to that. The bleak pessimism represented in this story gives the reader a brand new perspective on the world of Mark Twain and his vast expression of creativity. The omnipotence the audience experiences, the innocence of Theodore and his friends, and the expression of a meaningless, quick-witted life all give us insight into a mystery deeper than religion: Mr. Mark Twain himself.