Academic | Essay Contest
The Prince and the Pauper: Looking Down Upon and Up To Royalty
Ernest Hemingway once said, "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain." That book was not The Prince and the Pauper. However, The Prince and the Pauper illustrates, just as well as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that Mark Twain embodies the quintessential American writer, and it exemplifies how candidly he knew the American people. Just as the latter book employs Huck Finn's idiosyncratic narration, so, too, the former employs a distinct, American perspective. Twain's narrative adopts the American attitude towards the English monarchy, an attitude that was nothing novel in Twain's time and remains prevalent today: an attitude of ambivalence, characterized on the one hand by a self-righteous disdain for royalty, on the other by a childlike fascination with the same.
Ever since Thomas Jefferson declared King George "unfit to be the ruler of a free people," Americans have superciliously condemned monarchies and their intrinsic injustice. Twain indicates the barbarity of kings numerous times, describing the "livid and decaying heads" displayed on London Bridge or John Canty's downtrodden gang derisively drinking "to the merciful English law!" By Twain's day, however, the English monarch had no ruling power and was merely a titular head of state. In spite, or perhaps because, of this fact Twain still mocks the monarchy and all of the tradition and ceremony surrounding it. For example, when Tom Canty, as the prince, says his nose itches, it creates a tense moment for the royal court:
Alas! There was no Hereditary Scratcher... [Tom's] twitching nose was pleading more urgently than ever for relief. At last nature broke down the barriers of etiquette: Tom lifted up an inward prayer for pardon if he was doing wrong and brought relief to the burdened hearts of his court by scratching his nose himself.(47)Proud of his American ideal of individuality, Twain humorously describes a life in which scratching one's own nose is risking impropriety, and getting dressed is a solemn ceremony, performed for the king by the First Lord of the Bedchamber, the Hereditary Grand Diaperer, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to name a few. Twain further ridicules royalty by juxtaposing its superfluities with Tom's common pragmatism. While dining, Tom notices his expensive napkin and solemnly orders, "Prithee take it away, lest in mine unheedfulness it be soiled"(46). And after eating, he drinks from the bowl of rose water meant to cleanse his fingers, complaining, "...it hath a pretty flavor, but it wanteth strength"(47). Indeed, Twain mocks every aspect of royal life, but in doing so, he betrays the other half of the American attitude towards royalty: that of fascination.
The United States has never had a monarch, nor the tradition that accompanies one, and this deprivation has led to a peculiar interest in England's aristocracy. In Twain's day, it was common for a wealthy American heiress to marry a bankrupt English noble. In a country where, supposedly, anyone can be successful, the exclusiveness of nobility tantalizes Americans with its insurmountable superiority. Today this attraction manifests itself in the American media's obsession with the British royal family. The marriage of Prince Charles and Diana, their subsequent divorce, and her ultimate death received a disproportionate amount of coverage in the United States. In fact, today's newspaper covered Prince Charles's second marriage and included one whole article detailing the bride's attire. The AP's Ed Johnson reports:
The new duchess' coat, in oyster silk basket weave, featured subtle herringbone embroidery while the silk chiffon-dress, hemmed with vertical rows of appliqued woven disks made in Switzerland, peeped out beneath.
This report is not unlike Twain's description, written more than one hundred years before:
[The king] was magnificently habited in a doublet of white satin, with a frontpiece of purple cloth of tissue, powdered with diamonds, and edged with ermine. Over this he wore a mantle of white cloth of gold pounced with the triple-feather crest, lined with blue satin, set with pearls and precious stones, and fastened with a clasp of brilliants.(54)
Near the end of the book, Twain perfectly evokes this infatuation with royalty when he describes the enchanting crowd of aristocrats gathering for the Coronation Ceremony, writing, "...and we tingle to our fingertips with the electric thrill that is shot through us by the surprise and the beauty of the spectacle!"(186)
The Prince and the Pauper examines the dichotomy between this beautiful spectacle of affluence and the abysmal spectacle of poverty. In developing this examination, Twain's attitude towards the monarchy represents that of many Americans; it is defined by two contradicting sentiments of disdain and of awe. This book provides a picture of royalty through eyes that are simultaneously irreverent and enchanted. In doing so, The Prince and the Pauper characterizes Twain's America and ours.