Mark Twain

The Mysterious Stranger

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The Mysterious Stranger Summary

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The Mysterious Stranger was the novel that Mark Twain was working on before his death. He never finished it, though critics and his publisher have used the different versions to put the story together. It’s a story of good and evil that takes place in the middle ages. Three boys, Theodor, Seppi, and Nikolaus, live in a remote Austrian village called Eseldorf. The name of village is German for “donkey town.” The year is 1590, and the story is narrated by Theodor.

One day, a handsome teenager comes into town. His name is Philipp Traum, and he claims to be an angel; not only that, but he claims to be the nephew of the fallen angel whose name sparks fear in humanity, Satan. To prove his claim, he performs several magical feats.

For example, he has the children create small people from clay, which he brings to life. As the tiny people interact with each other, they begin to show signs of cruelty and violence. When their noise irritates him, he squashes them all, destroys their village with an earthquake, and has the grass cover over what remains, to show the children that their human lives are futile in the face of time.

Traum plays cruel tricks on the townspeople. He hides a wallet with gold for the priest to find, but it is the exact amount of gold lost by an Astrologer. Father Peter is put on trial for theft and only narrowly exonerated. He gives a housekeeper a cat that magically produces money, causing housekeeper’s mistress to be suspicious of her.

He can see the future and foresees several unfortunate events. The boys refuse to believe him until one of his predictions comes true. Terrified, they beg him to intercede in other events that will befall their friends and loved ones. He agrees, but instead of saving one of their sick friends, he causes that friend to die quickly, instead of lingering in pain.

Traum then magically transports the boys to see other parts of the world. He shows them people in the throes of religious fanaticism, villages that are burning and hanging people as a result of mass hysteria. He attempts to convert Theodor to his nihilistic, anti-Christian world view, but Theodor is horrified, both by the visions Traum shows him and by Traum’s casual amorality.

Traum vanishes afterwards, telling them that there is no god, no universe, no heaven or hell. It is all just a futile imagining, a grotesque dream. Nothing exists but humanity wandering in an empty eternity. He admonishes them to find another, better dream.

The story is an examination of solipsism, but it goes several steps further than this philosophy. Solipsism states that the only thing that can be known for certain is the self. Your experiences are the only reliable thing that you can truly know. Twain goes one step further by allowing his main character to realize that even the self that he knows is an illusion. There is nothing beyond himself and nothing to himself. It isn’t that he can’t confirm the existence of anything beyond himself. It’s that his own self doesn’t exist at all.

This nihilism reflected Twain’s outlook towards the end of his life. Only two things in the book are worthy of praise, animals, and laughter, but there is very little laughter in the story. The malevolent being here is without morality or conscience and exists only to undermine Theodor’s sense of security. By the end of the story, Theodor is left with no hope at all.

Twain also touches on the idea that our dream selves are magical. If our perceptions of our “self” mean that we exist in a dream state somewhere outside of reality, then it is possible for beings like Traum to exist. Twain uses Traum and the “dream self” to highlight the failings of humanity.

It was difficult for Twain to put into words his later, radical philosophy, but the concepts of morality and religious thought disturbed him enough that he tried in three different drafts of this unfinished novel. The village of Eseldorf is a pious community that believes  in the Bible and the teachings of the church, as well as the pronouncements of the local astrologer. Their piety does not help them, however, as Traum continually shows the boys the inhumanity of the village’s search for morality.

Even under the dictates of the church, people were dying. Theodor’s grandmother was burned at the stake as a witch, and as Traum shows them the horror of mass hysteria, Theodor slowly loses his blind faith that there is a benevolent presence in the universe to give life meaning.

Twain died before finishing the story, but we have a working copy thanks to his publisher. It is his most audacious story and one that offers his familiar sly humor, along with the musings of a man considering the end of his life.