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Roughing It

Mark Twain
Plot Summary

Roughing It

Mark Twain

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1872

Plot Summary
Mark Twain’s “Roughing It” has been called many things since it’s publication; a semi-autobiographical novel, a “somewhat informal travel journal” among other things.  The story takes place in the early 1860s and spans the distance between St. Louis and San Francisco. The mining business in the western part of the country had just begun to take off, and it is these events Twain chooses to serve as the backdrop for much of the narrative. As is indicative of Twain’s writing, “Roughing It” deals as much with the landscape and the events of the time period as do the author’s own experiences.  Much of the country was in the midst of an economic turning point during the time period Twain’s tale begins. It’s effect on the people and the environment fascinated Twain. He includes much of these details - along with the further evolution of the English language and the manner in which nature had been altered by man – in a book that is as comedic as it is informative.  But Twain doesn’t force the funny. Instead he uses the misadventures, mishaps and honest mistakes of his doppelganger as a way of illustrating why he can’t quite seem to achieve the one goal he’s set for himself - finding a quick and easy path to wealth.

Twain’s writing style and extensive vocabulary make his work as relevant today as it was more than a century ago. “Roughing It” is no exception. The story opens with the protagonist deciding to take a journey with his brother to Nevada. He tells everyone his rationale for the trip is to serve as the “Secretary for the Governor of the Territory”.  This is just a rouse.  His real intention is to exploit his position in the hopes of taking advantage of the burgeoning gold and silver mining operation. The payoff would be unimaginable wealth.  The narrator and his brother leave St. Louis by boat. The plan is to disembark at St. Joseph and take a stagecoach from there to Carson, Nevada. As they travel, the narrator familiarizes himself with the terrain and gets to know the people he meets along the way.  Twain conveys these events in descriptive detail, and it such a way that the reader is not inclined to dismiss them as expository filler.

When the duo arrives in Carson, the narrator wastes no time trying to find a seat at the table in the mining business. He connects with a few acquaintances who partner with him in the purchase of mining equipment. The group move to a nearby county to try to get a foot in, but their efforts are a bust.  They tried their hand chasing a few claims in and around the area.  Still nothing. He eventually abandons this group of friends and finds others. Yet another move and a few catastrophic events later, the narrator finally lands a job as a reporter in Virginia.  The gig lasts a few years until, one again, he abandons it and moves to the west coast. Life in San Francisco was no better than it had been anywhere else. Other attempts at mining in the area fail as Twain realizes he simply doesn’t have a knack for the trade.  As a result, the narrator returns to the one thing his is good at; writing.



Twain takes a job with the Sacramento Union requiring that he travel to the Sandwich Islands in Hawaii and write a series of letters for the publication.  The narrator takes advantage of the opportunity, exploring as much of the land as possible, writing about the fascinating beauty he finds here. In his writing he also conveyed as much detail as he could about the natives and their culture. His exploration of the island and its people take him about a year after which he returns to San Francisco, once again struggling to find work enough to scratch out a decent living.  Tired at least of having tried so hard to earn wealth, the narrator tries one last quick fix.  This time, he sets his sites on becoming a lecturer. For a while, it seems his efforts have finally paid off. Eventually, the narrator succumbs to the homesickness had been plaguing him and decides to return home. But he discovers once he arrives that things are not the way he left them.  The people are different, and Twain realizes how much things can change in the space of seen years, and not for the better.

Twain’s moral message to readers is quite simple; something he illustrates many times in the book. “If you are lazy, you should leave home and make your way in the world, for then you will be forced to work and make a good life.” Twain’s novel is about that “leaving home” and how sometimes, stepping out one’s door is a feat of courage in itself. One never knows where they might be swept off to.

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