Cause & Effect in the Prince and the Pauper

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Mark Twain's ''The Prince and the Pauper'' studies the effects brought about by the smallest of causes. This lesson looks at how the plot develops through cause and effect and how to avoid faulty assumptions.

Historical Background

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain was first published in Canada in 1881 and in the United States the following year. The novel is Twain's first example of historical fiction, or a story that is set in the historical past. Factual events often become a part of the fictional story.

King Henry VIII
King Henry VIII

In The Prince and the Pauper, Twain takes us to London in 1547, which happens to be the year of King Henry VIII's death. He is succeeded by his son Edward VI, who is the prince (and then king) in Twain's narrative. Many of the names in the royal court are historically accurate which is important in lending authenticity to historical fiction.

The Boys Exchange Places

The story begins as Edward VI and Tom Canty, a pauper his same age, each wish to escape their way of life. Edward is so tired of the official duties and formality required of him; he longs for freedom and anonymity to walk freely about the city.

On the other hand, Tom Canty would do anything to escape his mean and violent life of begging, thievery, and beatings from his father and grandmother. In fact, he has set up a mock court in his neighborhood where he is king.

One day, as Edward is looking out in the street, Tom is hanging about trying to get a glimpse of royal life. When Edward sees a guard treating Tom roughly, he brings him in to find out how ''the other side'' lives. The boys discover that they look very much alike, and exchange clothing. Tom is more educated than most of his sort, and has been so fascinated with royalty that he knows many phrases and customs. Edward escapes the palace, leaving Tom little choice but to try to live up to the role of prince.

Here is a true example of cause and effect at work. If the guard had ignored him, Tom may never have had the conversation that allowed him to assume Edward's role.

Analyzing Cause and Effect

A cause and effect relationship can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. Think about what the words actually mean. A cause is some event or circumstance that creates or sets up some future circumstance, or effect.

Role Switching

Tom Canty is able to assume the role of prince, and then king, due to two main causes:

  • He knows much more about book learning and royal life than the average poor beggar boy
  • He is very intelligent

These two causes work in Tom's favor. He knows just enough to make his royal guardians think he is Prince Edward.

On the other end of the situation, the real Edward knows almost nothing about the dangers of London street life in these violent times. The effect of his ignorance is that he falls into bad circumstances, especially when he loudly and forcefully declares himself to be the actual prince. Moving in reverse, we can see that the cause in this example is that royalty, especially a royal child, in sixteenth century England would never mix with commoners. Prince Edward would be unacquainted with most of his subjects' lives.

Poverty and Hardship of English Subjects
Hard Life of Poor Subjects

Post Hoc Fallacy

Sometimes, the post hoc fallacy comes up when we try to determine cause and effect--both in literature and in life. The term comes from the Latin for ''after this, therefore because of this'': post hoc ergo proctor hoc. Think about what this phrase means. Just because one event follows another in time, we shouldn't assume that the first event caused the second. It might have, but we must take a closer look.

Here is an example. Let's say that every morning you have a toaster pastry for breakfast. One morning you forget your pastry because you need to get to school early, and on the way your bicycle has a flat tire. Did you get a flat because you didn't have your usual breakfast?

Certainly you're now thinking: ''Of course not - that's ridiculous.''

And you are right to think the logic is faulty. It was simply an unfortunate coincidence.

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