The Mysterious Stranger

The Mysterious Stranger
The Mysterious Stranger  
Frontispiece of 1st edition "Eseldorf was a paradise for us boys"
Author(s) Mark Twain
Illustrator N.C. Wyeth
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Novel
Publisher Harper & Brothers
Publication date 1916,[1] posthumously
Media type Print
Pages 176 pp
Preceded by Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Followed by -

The Mysterious Stranger is the final novel attempted by the American author Mark Twain. It was worked on periodically from roughly 1890 up until 1910. The body of work is a serious social commentary by Twain addressing his ideas of the Moral Sense and the "damned human race".

Twain wrote multiple versions of the story, each unfinished and involving the character of "Satan". The first substantial version is commonly referred to as The Chronicle of Young Satan and tells of the adventures of Satan, the sinless nephew of the biblical Satan, in an Austrian village in the Middle Ages. The story ends abruptly in the middle of a scene involving Satan entertaining a prince in India, suggesting Twain died before he finished writing it.

The second substantial version Twain attempted to write is known as Schoolhouse Hill which involves the familiar characters of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and their adventures with Satan, referred to in this version as "No. 44, New Series 864962", and is set in America. Schoolhouse Hill is the shortest of the three versions.

The third version, called No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug and Freely Translated from the Jug, returns to Medieval Austria and tells of No. 44's mysterious appearance at the door of a print shop and his use of heavenly powers to expose the futility of mankind's existence. This version also introduces an idea Twain was toying with at the end of his life involving a duality of the "self", one being the "Waking Self" and the other being the "Dream Self". Twain explores these ideas through the use of "Duplicates", copies of the print shop workers made by No. 44. This version contains an actual ending; however, the version is not considered as complete as Twain would have intended.

The edition published in 1916 is composed mainly of a heavily edited Chronicle of Young Satan with a slightly altered version of the ending from No. 44 tacked on. Albert Bigelow Paine, who had sole possession of Twain's unfinished work after Twain's death and kept them private, searched through Twain's manuscripts and found the proper intended ending for The Mysterious Stranger. After Paine's death in 1937, Bernard DeVoto became possessor of Twain's manuscripts and released them to the public. Beginning in the 1960s, critics studied the original copies of the story and found that the ending Paine chose for The Mysterious Stranger referred to the characters from different versions of the story (e.g. No. 44 instead of Satan) and that the original names had been crossed out and written over in Paine's handwriting.

The book version that was published nonetheless maintains Twain's criticisms on what he believed to be the hypocrisy of organized religion that is the subject of much of Twain's later writings.

In 1969, The University of California Press published, as part of The Mark Twain Papers Series, a scholarly edition of all three unaltered manuscripts. According to the "Mark Twain Project" editors of this series, No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger is the definitive version of the text as close as possible to what Twain would have published had he lived to do so. In addition to omitting a quarter of the original text, Paine's version invents the character of an astrologer who is made responsible for the villainies of Father Adolf.[2] It was republished in 2005.


Summary of Paine's version

In 1590 a few boys are living happy sheltered lives in a remote Austrian village named Eseldorf. (Esel means "donkey" in German and can refer to a stupid or ignorant person, and "dorf" means village, so in essence it is a village of stupid people.) The story is narrated by one of the boys—Theodor, the village organist's son—in a first-person narrative. One day, a handsome teenage boy named Satan appears in the village. He explains that he is an angel and the nephew of the fallen angel Satan. Young Satan performs several magical feats. He claims to be able to foresee the future and informs the group of unfortunate events that will soon befall those they care about. The boys don't believe Satan's claims until one of his predictions comes true. Satan proceeds to describe further tragedies that will befall their friends. The boys beg Satan to intercede. Satan agrees, but operates under the technical definition of mercy. For instance, instead of a lingering death due to illness, Satan simply causes one of Theodor's friends to die immediately.

Mayhem ensues — witch trials, burnings, hangings, deaths and mass hysteria. Satan vanishes with a brief explanation:

"In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever--for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!"

"Strange! that you should not have suspected years ago - centuries, ages, eons, ago! - for you have existed, companionless, through all the eternities."

"Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane - like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell - mouths mercy and invented hell - mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him!" . . .

"You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks - in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it. The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier."

"It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream - a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought - a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!"

Characters in "The Mysterious Stranger"

  • Theodore, the protagonist
  • Satan, an angel named after his uncle, the fallen Satan.
  • Seppi, a friend of Theodore's and Nikolaus'. One of the boys who Satan reveals his true self to.
  • Nikolaus, a friend of Theodore's and Seppi's.

Other central characters include Father Peter, his niece Marget, and the Astrologer.

Film versions

According to the IMDb, a film version of #44, The Mysterious Stranger, was shot by The Great Amwell Company and shown in the United States on PBS, later running on Home Box Office. The role of 44 was played by Lance Kerwin, with August played by Chris Makepeace.

Another movie adaptation of this book was shot in the Soviet Union by Igor Maslennikov and released under the name Filip Traum. It was shown in the cinemas only once in 1991, and up until 2007, when a remastered DVD-version was released, the general public mostly did not know anything about this film.

A scene about this story also appears in the 1986 claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain, where Satan gets Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher to construct small clay people to bring to life and live in a small kingdom together before Satan destroys them through fighting, plagues and natural disasters, depicting the futility of mankind. The scene also quotes Satan's last line from the book. In this version, Satan appears playful and friendly when he constructs the small kingdom, slowly revealing himself as cruel and hateful as he destroys it. He appears as a robed noble, with a mask where his head would be. As his true nature is revealed, the mask changes from appearing kind to demonic, and finally to a grinning skull.


  1. ^ Facsimile of the original 1st edition.
  2. ^ Twain, Mark (1969). Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. California: University of California Press. 

External links and references

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