Mark Twain’s short story “The Invalid’s Story” concerns a pine box mistaken for a coffin and the narrator’s ensuing attempts to escape what he imagines to be the odor of the corpse polluting his railcar. Twain’s friend William Dean Howells, dubbed “The Dean of American Letters,” discouraged him from publishing the story, arguing that it was too indelicate for public consumption. Despite Howell’s advice, Twain included the story in his 1882 collection, The Stolen White Elephant, Etc.
Many critics have sided with Howells’s assessment, calling the story “repulsive” and “grotesquely awful,” but others have appreciated its dark “humor of the frontier.”
Before the unnamed narrator launches into his tale, he notes he is afflicted with an illness that makes him appear twenty years older than his forty-one years. He attributes his infirmity to a train journey he took two years before and the pine box he traveled with. While his health decline was caused by his belief that the box contained a ripe corpse, he acknowledges now that it was really filled with rifles.
“One winter’s night, two years ago,” the narrator begins, he returned (from parts unknown) to his home in Cleveland, Ohio to discover his dear friend, John B. Hackett, had died the day before. Determined to honor his friend’s deathbed wish that his remains be returned to his parents in Wisconsin, the narrator departs again for the train station. After locating a long, white box matching the description he’s received of Hackett’s coffin, he tags it with the Wisconsin address and ensures it’s stowed in the express car.
The narrator then runs off to purchase food and cigars for the train ride, but when he returns, he sees a man with the white box, tagging a Peoria, Illinois address to it. Astonished, the narrator hurries to the express car and is relieved to see his own identical box where he left it. At this point, the narrator parenthetically notes that the boxes have been wrongly identified: the one containing Hackett is going to Peoria, while the one he is transporting contains rifles.
The narrator settles himself into the express car. A stranger quickly darts in and out of the car, leaving a parcel on top of the pine box. Once again, the narrator notes what he didn’t know at the time, namely that inside the stranger’s parcel is a block of mature Limburger cheese.
Thompson, the expressman, seals the windows of the car against the winter storm outside, and the train starts its westward trek. The narrator soon detects an “evil” odor creeping about the car, but Thompson doesn’t seem to notice. While Thompson hums and lights a fire in the stove, the narrator grows increasingly uneasy. As the car warms, the smell intensifies and the humming stops. Thompson points at the pine box, declaring that the narrator’s friend is “pretty ripe.”
After a few awkward minutes, Thompson tries to put a positive spin on the stench. He tells the narrator that, in the past, he has transported coffins and feared the individuals inside, not dead but in a trance, would suddenly sit up. He assures the narrator that his fetid friend “ain’t in no trance!”
Thompson then attempts to dignify the situation by referencing “Scriptur,” but the smell interrupts him. He breaks a windowpane, and as the two take turns gulping fresh air, Thompson asks how long the narrator’s friend has been dead. The narrator, feeling compelled to give an answer commensurate with the stink, replies, “Two or three days.” However, Thompson considers this a gross under-estimate and then dispenses his thoughts on the importance of timely burials.
The “fragrance” becomes smothering. As Thompson’s face turns gray, the narrator suggests they smoke cigars to create a more pleasing aroma. When this seems to only strengthen the foul smell from the box, Thompson concludes that the cigar smog seems to “stir up” the corpse’s spirit of competition. The narrator remarks that Thompson uses various military and civil titles when referring to their deceased traveling companion, and as the latter’s pungency grows, Thompson promotes his rank – giving “him a bigger title.”
After trying to move the box to the other end of the car without success, Thompson and the narrator burst out the door onto the car’s platform, gasping. The frigid weather soon forces them back inside the sour atmosphere of the car. They take turns at the broken window once again until the train makes a brief stop.
At the station, Thompson exits the car and returns with carbolic acid. Congratulating himself on countering the offensive body with stuff “that’ll take the tuck out of him,” Thompson sprinkles the acid everywhere. However, the spirited pine box strikes back with even more overpowering vapors. It is impossible to remain inside the car, so Thompson and the narrator spend the following hour stepping from the suffocating interior onto the freezing platform and back again.
When the train stops again, Thompson produces a bizarre assortment of items: chicken feathers, dried apples, tobacco, rags, old shoes, sulfur, and asafetida. These he piles on an iron sheet and ignites them in a final attempt to rout the truculent odor. Nevertheless, once again, the stench from the box rises above all the others, and the two choking men are driven out to the platform where they remain, defeated. Thompson prophesies that “Typhoid fever is what’s going to come of” their extended exposure to the winter weather. At the next station, they are removed from the platform, “frozen and insensible,” and the narrator succumbs to a fever for the next three weeks.
Although the fever subsides, and the narrator learns they shared the train car with only a “harmless box of rifles” and “innocent cheese,” he says it’s too late. His health has been entirely undone by the work of his imagination. Two years after that fateful train ride, he resigns himself to imminent death.
In “The Invalid’s Story,” Twain uses dramatic irony
to create humor. Dramatic irony operates in a work when the reader (or audience) knows that the situation the characters are involved in is different from what they believe it to be. In this case, the story’s humor comes from the fact that, while the narrator panics over what he presumes is the smell of a corpse, the reader knows it’s just Limburger cheese.