In this lesson we will examine the plot and characters of one of Twain's most imitated stories, 'The Million Pound Bank Note.' Find out how this story challenged socioeconomic beliefs and remains an interesting story even today.
The Million Pound Bank Note: Introduction
'The Million Pound Bank Note' is a short story that Mark Twain published towards the end of his writing career. Having already gained fame in the literary Realism movement in the United States as a writer who highlighted aspects of region, class and socioeconomics, Twain departed from his earlier work by setting 'The Million Pound Bank Note' in London rather than in the United States. Twain still, however, highlights simplicity in his basic plotline, while focusing once more on his characters and their specific socioeconomic situation, social history and, in a larger sense, country of origin.
Published in 1893, this short story wasn't as immediately popular as 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,' and it didn't feature the same kind of flair for capturing regional life in the United States. Instead, he places an American abroad in a situation where money is both an object and a prize, and the characters must prove their worth beyond material possessions. By setting up a 'what would you do' scenario, Twain creates a kind of fantasy story that, at the time, was a fun read and an easy escape for many average American readers.
Twain decided to set this story in London instead of the United States.
The Million Pound Bank Note: Background and Characters
The story begins with Henry Adams. Henry is an American who is swept out to sea on a Saturday sail near San Francisco, and is picked up by a London-bound brig. He arrives in London penniless and without food or shelter. Brother A and Brother B (as they are referred to in the story) are two very wealthy and odd brothers who wonder what would happen if they gave the hungry, poor stranger a million pound banknote. Essentially this would be paper money - like a dollar bill - but in a million pound denomination. Seeing as how there were only two million pound banknotes ever created (and one had already been used in a giant business deal), if someone tried to cash in the banknote, interrogation or jail would most likely result. So in walks Henry, who is given the banknote by these brothers. These questions remain:
- Would the stranger (Henry) end up in jail or starving as Brother A believes?
- Would Henry be more resourceful and use the money to his advantage, surviving at least 30 days and staying out of jail as Brother B believed?
The Million Pound Bank Note: Plot
So Henry is given an envelope with the banknote and a letter that explains the terms of the bet. He realizes just how much money is in there when he tries to pay for a meal, and the restaurant can't give him change (obviously). But it doesn't matter - there is prestige and respect attached to possessing this banknote, and Henry is given a pass by the restaurant. Immediately, Henry attempts to return the banknote to the two brothers, operating under the assumption that they probably made a mistake. But he is told that the brothers have just left for a month and that, in fact, there is no mistake. After finally reading the enclosed letter, Henry decides to keep the banknote for thirty days and help Brother B win the bet. If he does this, Henry has been promised a job and a salary at the end of the month.
The brothers give Henry the banknote and bet on the outcome.
What ensues is a series of events in which Henry earns respect and admiration because he is the possessor of this banknote. He gets a suit for free because it is assumed he is a rich, rich man. The restaurant where Henry ate becomes famous. Most of London is abuzz with the news of this American in possession of this very valuable piece of paper. He meets the American ambassador and is invited to a fancy dinner party at his house.
This dinner party is important because it is where Henry meets his future love, a Londoner named Portia. He also meets a fellow American friend, Lloyd Hastings. Henry is thinking about Portia the entire time and listening to Lloyd talk about his difficulties selling his shares to the Gould and Curry Mine. Finally, Henry is able to concentrate on Lloyd and his issues. Lloyd asks for help.
Henry decides to help both himself and Lloyd by drumming up interest in the shares. They agree that both men will split the earnings if anything were to sell. Henry uses his fame in this case; people hear Henry talk about the shares and they listen. Ultimately, the shares do sell and Henry sits pretty with a million of his own dollars in a bank account at the end of the month. And in the end, the only thing that matters to Henry is Portia.
Henry helps Lloyd sell his shares of a mine and makes a small fortune.
Henry goes to see Brother A and Brother B at the end of the month. Portia comes along. Henry hands over the banknote, which makes Brother B very happy. He has helped Brother B win the bet. Henry also tells him that he does not want the job in the end because he was able to make his own money. Portia reveals, with a good sense of humor, that she knew what was going on the entire time because Brother B is actually her beloved stepfather.
Henry and Portia marry. The brothers take the banknote to the bank to get it cashed in and voided. The framed banknote is given to the happy couple as a wedding gift.
Again, Twain ventures here into a world where a commentary on socioeconomics underscores an interesting story. Really, two eccentric, wealthy brothers want to see if a poor and hungry soul will be able to last a month without cashing in a banknote. Brother A will win the bet if Henry ends up in jail. Not the greatest or kindest of human experiments, no? One could argue that the brothers are portrayed as insensitive and cruel, dangling money in front of someone who needs it. Henry, though, decides to wait it out. Through various interactions, he's able to figure out ways in which this banknote can work for him. He not only comes out victorious in the end with the girl and quite a bit of cash of his own, he's able to tell the brothers that he doesn't want their help anyway. The poor, hungry soul was actually a thoughtful and resourceful man who truly understood how to survive with the power that this money brought. Interestingly enough, his actions and rejection of a job brought him a different kind of respect in the end from the brothers. When Henry and Portia marry, they are able to do so on their own terms. Henry's money does come from the experiment, but he says that the best thing that banknote ever gave him was the love of his life.
Another thing you have to examine closely when you read Twain is geography and region. The two not-so-sensitive, wealthy men are from upper-crust old London society. The poor, seafaring wanderer is from the West Coast of the United States. You have to wonder if maybe Twain is, once again, calling into question the moral foundation of the old moneyed in London. And who is victorious in the end? Henry, Lloyd (the other American) and Brother B who believed that the stranger they chose could handle the task. The story itself gained a great readership and has become a plot repeated over and over in modern film and television adaptations - most notably in the 1954 film The Million Pound Note, with Gregory Peck. Elements of this work also appear in the 1983 film Trading Places, featuring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. All of this proves that in the end, the story idea itself serves as an interesting concept and thought-provoking fantasy for most working class readers, past and present.
Once you have completed this lesson, you should be able to summarize the plot, characters and setting of Mark Twain's 'The Million Pound Bank Note.'