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Mark Twain's A Ghost Story: Summary & Analysis

Mark Twain's A Ghost Story: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:03 Mark Twain & the Cardiff Giant
  • 0:19 Summary
  • 2:17 Analysis
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide a brief summary and analysis of Mark Twain's 'A Ghost Story,' with particular attention paid to its inventive commentary on the Cardiff Giant hoax of 1869.

Mark Twain and the Cardiff Giant

Mark Twain is often regarded as America's greatest humorist, so when a giant petrified man was allegedly unearthed in New York in 1869, you can bet he had something to say about it. His commentary took the form of 'A Ghost Story.'

Summary

The story begins with a narrator who has taken a room in a neglected building in Manhattan. As the night wears on, he describes feeling a 'superstitious dread.' He is briefly comforted by his fire, but after it dies down he feels lonely. He falls asleep with a foreboding feeling.

He wakes to something pulling the blankets off him. He pulls them back over his head only to have them pulled back again. This happens again, and he hears a groan. He then hears heavy footsteps moving away from him towards the door and he is relieved.

The narrator decides that this has been a dream, and he feels comforted--until he sees a giant footprint in the ashes near the fire. Once again terrified, the narrator hears slamming doors, more footsteps, and dragging chains in the corridor outside his room. Eventually, the noises make their way back into his room, and the narrator sees three 'spheres' of light above him.

After the 'Thing' leaves, the narrator gets up to light the lamp. As the light lifts his spirits, he again begins to doubt the existence of the Thing. But as the light dims, he hears it approach again and is frightened. He finally sees human features emerge from the gloom, and he recognizes the intruder as the Cardiff Giant.

The narrator is relieved as he regards the giant's friendly face, and he asks why the giant did not simply announce himself in the first place. The gaslights come up.

The narrator warns him not to sit down on the furniture, but he does, destroying two chairs and the bed. The giant begins to cry, and the narrator gives him a pipe and a blanket and stokes the fire. The narrator asks him why he has lesions on his feet and the giant tells him that he got them 'roosting' under Newell's farm. He admits that he is the ghost of the Cardiff Giant and complains that he is tired from haunting what he thinks is the site of his burial.

The narrator tells him that he is mistaken, that his actual body is being displayed in Albany, not Manhattan. The giant is humiliated and hastily departs with the narrator's blanket and pipe.

Analysis

Twain's ghost story begins like many other ghost stories: His narrator is alone in a dark room and he hears and sees odd phenomena that he begins to suspect are supernatural. While he does actually encounter a ghost, Twain uses this particular ghost to mock superstition and expose greed.

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