Mark Twain: “The Prince and the Pauper” (1881)

The Prince and the Pauper is the first of three novels (one a quasi-biography) set in Europe in the medieval and early modern period. All three, in good American fashion, stress the hierarchical, aristocratic and brutal nature of European society. The Prince and the Pauper does this by making clear the arbitrariness of aristocratic status and revealing the moral failings of the ruling classes. The novel also shows that class matters in the development or children’s moral order. In this way, it is hard not to set is next to a work like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written around the same time, which suggests a Rousseauian inert morality in the uncivilized. Like Huck, Tom Canty was often left to his own devices and raised by drunks, but much more moral than the society surrounding him. It is not quite an argument that poverty and neglect makes good people. Tom Canty’s father may have been poor and neglected as well, but emerged to be quite a brutal father. What is more clear is that an elite upbringing leads to absurd values and awkward relations with other people.


The Prince and the Pauper is well-known and often retold. It is one of the most well-known tales in American literature, although I suspect it is more known from its derivations than the original. The tale is set in London, right before and after the death of Henry VIII. Prince Edward accidentally switches places with a street kid, Tom Canty. When the king dies, Tom is elevated to king. His odd actions and decisions (he was not prepared for the role of course) are explained away by advisers. Meanwhile, Edward has a series of adventures in the streets, made humorous by his insistence that he is not Tom, but a prince (later King). Normalcy is arrived at when Edward crashes his own coronation. Tom, who does not really want to be king after all, switches places, but Edward grants him some benevolence, making him a ward of the crown.


Much of the class-based brutality of early modern London was institutional. Twain knew as much as incorporated these institutions into his explanation of Tom’s life. Edward will experience these same institutions during his stint at Tom. “Drunkeness, riot and brawling were the order, there, every night and nearly all nights long. Broken heads were a common as hunger in that place. . . . He only begged just enough to save himself, for the laws against mendicancy were stringent, and the penalties heavy.” (13) Later Edward will spend some time in prison. Much of the life of the poor consisted of evading and staying just enough on the right side of the law to avoid the full violence of the state from beating them down. Twain uses Edward’s stint in prison as a change to contemplate the morality of the criminalization of poverty and dissent (such as being a Baptist).

Although poor, Tom liked to replicate the lives of the aristocracy, creating his own royal court. Like Tom Sawyer’s pirate band, it is both a form of place and an attempt to create his own world of autonomy and empowerment. This play prepares him only slightly for his future role as the king. The problem was that he was ill-suited to be a king because he lacked the training in being brutal. We learn little about it, but we imagine Tom Canty’s royal court was benevolent to the people. When he brings that to the court, is is certainly awkward for the real court to watch. He knew little about royal life, as an abused child the concept of a whipping boy was baffling to him (as it should be to all but the totally deranged aristocracy).

The most notable thing about Tom’s time as king is his benevolence to criminals. Perhaps because these are the people he knew, or perhaps because of his own fear of the law, Tom pardoned the people who came before him, regardless of their crimes. While a proper king can think only of the law and justice (at least that is how they justify the brutal application of the law), Tom understood how odious the state’s mechanisms of justice where. “Death–and a violent death–for these poor unfortunates! The thought wrung Tom’s heart-strings. The spirit of compassion took control of him, to the exclusion of all other considerations; he never thought of the offended laws, or of the grief or loss which these criminals had inflicted upon their victims, he could think of nothing but the scaffold and the grisly fate hanging over the heads of the condemned.” (92) Tom never learns to king.

People spend lots of time on their knees in aristocratic societies

People spend lots of time on their knees in aristocratic societies

However, does Edward learn something from his experience as a pauper? He indeed spends much of the novel the butt of jokes because he sustained his princely demeanor and attitude despite living in the gutter. I fail to see a difference between Edward at these moments and the “duke and the king” of Huck Finn, both are meant to be ridiculous. The Duke and the King may be real royalty for all it matters to their situation on a Mississippi River raft. In any case, Edward is certainly exposed to enough of the truth to fuel several Ebenezer Scrooge level transformations. The meeting with a man maned Yokel is maybe the most dramatic. Yokel gives his story while also condemning the reality of English law. “Thank you, mates, one and all. I begged, from house to house–I and the wife–bearing with us the hungry kids–but it was a crime to be hungry in England–so they stripped us and lashed us through three towns. . . . And still I begged again, and was sold for a slave–here on my cheek under this stain, if I washed it off, ye might see the red S that branding iron left there! A SLAVE! Do ye understand that word! An English SLAVE!” (110)

Well, Edward does clean up some of the mess monarchy has created after returning to his privileged position. He gets that guy out of slavery, he redeemed a few criminals, and made Tom a ward. His reforms are highly personal, based on his experiences as a pauper. This is not necessarily bad, but it is not akin to Scrooge focusing his efforts on his clients and employee. Those were the site where he caused harm. As monarch, Edward was the heart of the system. We should expect more than an emotional reaction to his experiences. That is something that Tom and Edward had in common; they both failed to address themselves to the broader need for justice, making reforms at the individual, not systematic level.