Mark Twain's The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Pureterrah Witcher

Pureterrah teaches high school and college English. She holds two master's degrees, one in Teaching and another in Newspaper, Magazine and Online Journalism.

In this lesson, we will summarize the main points of the short story, ''The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg''. Then we will look for deeper meaning by analyzing three major themes found throughout this ironic tale of how a town's good name is put to the ultimate test.

'The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg'

Written by Mark Twain in 1898, 'The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg', is a story centered around the very public destruction of a small town's reputation for honesty. It takes place at the turn of the 19th century in a fictional, small, American town named Hadleyburg. The story was first published in 1899, in Harper's Monthly magazine. This lesson will outline the story's major events and analyze its most dominate themes.

Summary of The Story

Let's first take a look at a summary of the story before looking at the prominent themes.

The Exposition

The town of Hadleyburg is known for its incorruptible honesty - tThe people do not steal, cheat or lie. Their children are taught this as babies, and temptations are intentionally kept away from adolescents to ensure this honesty takes root. The conflict doesn't start until someone in the town offends a passing-through stranger. The slighted man believes that not one man in the town is truly honest and devises a master plan to corrupt the entire town. All of this is told through the narrator, Jack Halliday. Jack especially takes note of the citizens reactions to the mysterious bag of gold as they invent lies, and plan to spend, spend, spend.

The Rising Action

The stranger's plan goes into effect when he delivers a mysterious bag of gold with a letter attached to the Richards, one of the 19 most trusted families in town. The stranger's letter states that once when he was a gambler down on his luck, he found himself begging in the streets of Hadleyburg and a kind townsman gave him $20 and a piece of advice. From this small act of kindness, the stranger was able to find riches again and quit his betting all together. As a show of gratitude, the stranger's letter went on to direct that the mysterious bag of gold be given to this man in repayment for his kind act. But exactly who the generous citizen is, is also a mystery. The town goes into a frenzy when it learns that the fortune will be publicly given to the correct heir in 30-days, if he can correctly answer one specific question: what was the piece of advice?

The Climax

The story reaches a major turning point when the money is to be dispersed, and more than one person claims they are due the reward. This was because the stranger sent a letter to each of the 19 families providing them with the piece of advice. Each family submits the same advice as proof that they are the heirs. This is shameful considering all the town's people and newspapers are present. It soon becomes apparent that the town's wealthiest and most prominent people have fallen to the temptation. They could not all be the generous citizen. The town had been corrupted!

The Falling Action and Resolution

From this point, things go down hill quickly. When the gold coins are revealed to be merely gilded lead disks, the town decides to auction off the fool's gold for Mr. Richards - the only man who did not submit the advice given to him. Ironically, Mr. Richards did submit a letter with the same advice, but the town's minister chose to hide his letter. The stranger fools the town's wealthiest citizen to purchase it for $40,000. In the end, Mr. Richards is able to escape public humiliation; however, he is tormented by guilt and dishonesty. His guilt only intensifies when he receives a note from the stranger. It explains that there never was a generous person - but Richards was given the money because he proved that there was still an honest, good person in Hadleyburg. Soon after, both Mr. Richards and his wife fall ill and die, but not before admitting his guilt. Because of humiliation, the town changes its name, though Twain never reveals what it is. Now, let's take a deeper look at these various parts for deeper meaning.

Analysis of The Story

We will look at three major themes that dominant throughout the story: frailty of appearances, the power of a guilty conscience, and that a virtuous man is hard to find.

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