Academic | Essay Contest

Albert Li

Albert Li Though a majority of books in the literary canon convey a serious theme, there is the misconception that as a result, excessively humorous books are of a lower literary merit. Such a generalization holds true in many cases because oftentimes humor is accompanied by a sense of levity, which detracts from any purpose that the book might have. Reflecting on this norm, Mark Twain humbly describes his work, saying: "I have a call to literature of a low order—i.e., humorous. It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit." Despite this fact that his books trigger laughter, literary critics look back and agree that American writer Mark Twain is among the greatest authors whose works have stood the test of time. The Prince and the Pauper serves as an antithesis to the idea that a humorous novel cannot express a serious theme effectively. Twain's skill at humor enables him to manipulate it as a literary tool that does not hinder but rather enhances the message of his work. In fact, in The Prince and the Pauper, humor is the main method by which Twain presents his social satire of the stratification of English society. Twain uses his gift of humor to reach readers of all ages, while effectively creating a novel of canonical caliber.

At the onset of the novel, Twain presents several key events, facts, and coincidences that form the basis for the rest of the plot; the exposition is crucial to the development of the plot, much more so than in another book. Twain's humor is founded on these initial details that describe two characters who are different in every aspect, except in physical appearance, setting up the plot for a later exchange of roles that goes undetected. In a chance meeting, Twain juxtaposes Edward Tudor, the Prince of Wales, and Tom Canty, a poor beggar, both of whom want to exchange their clothes just to have a small experience of the other's life. Edward is royalty yet pines for true freedom, and Tom lives a casual, carefree life, while longing to be royalty. After hearing Tom's description of his life, the prince exclaims, "If that I could but clothe me in raiment like to thine, and strip my feet, and revel in the mud once," and Tom replies, "And if I could clothe me once, sweet sir, as thou art clad," expressing his dream to be a prince (16). Their strikingly similar features enable Twain to grant both their wishes easily, yet ironically, in their newfound dream roles, both boys still cling to their former identities. As both Edward and Tom try to assert their true identity in the other's role, they appear insane to those around them. The plot revolves around the dramatic irony that though there is a preponderance of evidence proving Edward is not Tom and vice versa, each child's acquaintances dismiss the proof on the grounds that there is no physical discrepancy between the two "versions." When Tom, who is dressed as the Prince of Wales, acts normally according to his upbringing, the king and his subjects believe the prince is mad, rationalizing the results that cast doubt on his authenticity to be a result of "overstudy...and too much of confinement" (30). Similarly, although Mrs. Canty realizes that Edward is not like her son, the Canty family does not doubt the identity of Tom, believing instead that Tom is crazy. Tom tries to convince the king and the court that he is a pauper, while Edward tries to convince the Cantys that he is the Prince of Wales. Hidden in this ironic humor is a serious observation on which Twain expounds as the novel progresses. Notwithstanding the fact that the boys share the same face, Twain emphasizes that people extol outward appearance as opposed to inward essence. This is proven by the fact that though Edward and Tom look alike, the evidence that suggests they have switched places is ignored by their families who supposedly knew them best.

Through humor, Twain continues to analyze the disparity between these two different social classes, especially highlighting the overly extravagant aura of royalty. Tom, as the king, is pampered excessively, with his dressing in the morning transformed into an unnecessarily and preposterously cumbersome affair. "The weighty business of dressing began, and one courtier after another knelt and paid his court and offered to the little king his condolences upon his heavy loss, while the dressing proceeded" (99). This leads into a long listing of the officers and their function in this elaborate ceremony, in addition to a demonstration of what happens when something goes wrong. By showing the ludicrousness of excessive pampering for the king, Twain creates a comical portrayal of the trappings of royalty and effectively satirizes the ostentatious manner with which the monarch treats his subordinates. The criticism reaches its climax when after immersion in such a setting, Tom Canty begins to exhibit such attitudes; it is apparent during the coronation parade when Mrs. Canty tries to embrace her son but instead receives Tom's cold response, "I do not know you, woman!" (242). Even Tom, who comes from a humble background, begins to display signs of arrogance, demonstrating the characteristics of members of the elite. Complementing Tom's experience as king, Twain includes examples of the expectations of a royal through Edward's interactions with his "caretaker," Miles Hendon. After Hendon rescues the true prince, Edward then haughtily expects to be waited on by Hendon, utterly surprising him. Hendon takes the responsibility of caring for Edward only as an act of kindness and pity, hoping to cure "the poor lad's madness." Upon entering Hendon's apartment, Edward immediately goes to Hendon's bed, forcing Hendon to guard the bedroom door, while later expecting Hendon to wash him and feed him, demonstrating the daily privileges that Edward had experienced as the prince. Through a humorous exaggeration of royalty, Twain emphasizes the reasons behind the division between the aristocracy and the common folk. By constantly being the center of attention, the king is oblivious to the true situation, making him aloof to reality. In such an environment, the aristocrats thus are shielded from the anxieties, troubles, and chores in life, even from basic life skills such as dressing and personal hygiene. Only after spending some time in prison is Edward aware of not only the daily hassles, but also the extremely unfair treatment of the English citizens by royal law: "The laws that have dishonored [the wrongly imprisoned], and shamed the English name, shall be swept from the statute-books. The world is made wrong, kings should go to school to their own laws at times, and so learn mercy" (224). Edward's short lifetime as a pauper teaches him what he never could have learned as a king; his unique experience gives him a heart and empathy for his people. "When some great dignitary...made argument against his leniency..., the young king...answered: 'What dost thou know of suffering and oppression? I and my people know, but not thou" (274).

When Tom's and Edward's identities are switched and ignored, Twain subtly implies that there exists a tendency for outward appearance to be emphasized over inward essence. This also is the case when Tom evaluates Edward's life and when Edward evaluates Tom's life. In the past, both thought that the other's life would be better, yet as they live that other person's life, they delve into the true essence of the experience. In the end, Tom realizes that when he was a member of royalty, the immense power, privilege, and prestige clouded what he had learned to value when he was younger; he had become numb to what is important in life, such as his family. Tom does not realize it until his conscience condemns him after he rejects his mother, and this becomes an epiphany that confirms what he had learned as a poor child. Likewise, Edward realizes as a pauper that he was not truly free; the freedom for which he had yearned is limited by the unfair laws and excessive punishments of the king. All of Edward's experiences enlighten him to recognize the heavy hand of the aristocracy on the common man, which he had not truly understood since it had never affected him before. The social class gap between Edward and Tom gives them a certain impression of the other class, and not the truth. By using humor to point out that which has been concealed by class differences, Twain highlights this major societal problem due to a misunderstanding, without implying it was the fault of either the aristocrat or the yeoman. As literature of a "low order," humor removes the accusatory, judgmental tone connotatively associated with social criticism, universalizing The Prince and the Pauper to all audiences. At the same time, since humor is Twain's "strongest suit," he is able to use it effectively as a conduit of his important message to his readers, identifying the dilemmatic schism between social classes and calling for a solution to rectify this problem and to unify people regardless of socioeconomic status.


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