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Roughing It by Mark Twain Major Themes

Instructor: Crystal Hall

Crystal has a bachelor's degree in English, a certification in General Studies, experience as an Educational Services Editor, and has assisted in teaching both middle and high school English.

''Roughing It'' by Mark Twain is a written account of his excursion to the West with Orion Clemens, his brother. In this lesson, we'll examine the book's numerous themes that are typical of Twain's work: humor, travel, adventure, and growth.

Go West, Young Men

In July of 1861, Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens, sets off on a journey to the West with his brother, Orion Clemens. In Roughing It, he writes of the years between 1861-1866 with his trademark wit and wisdom, as well as many major themes that are consistently present in the majority of Mark Twain's writings.

A Lengthy Expedition

During this extended trip, Mark Twain's experiences and observations involve crossing the Rocky Mountains and visiting Carson City, Nevada, and the Sandwich Islands. During this journey, he both experienced and observed the true meaning of ''roughing it.''

Illustration from Roughing It
Illustration from Roughing It

Major Themes


Most of Mark Twain's stories contain humor, whether the characters and situations are funny to begin with or they are made comedic by his own special sense of humor. In Roughing It, Twain describes what he sees with a flair for creating laughter among ordinary life, using both metaphors and imagination.

''The cayote is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. . . . The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want.''

Twain is describing the animal, sympathizing with him, and poking fun at him simultaneously. He goes on to continue the exaggerated woe of the coyote.

''He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede.''

In other words, the fleas prefer a bicycle to a coyote as a mode of transport.


Mark Twain, with a fondness for travel, crosses both plains and the Rocky Mountains to reach his destination of Carson City, Nevada. From there, Twain travels to San Francisco and to the Sandwich Islands of what is now known as Hawaii.

During his travels, Mark Twain is descriptive in his observations of geography, culture, and environment. ''It was another glad awakening to fresh breezes, vast expanses of level greensward, bright sunlight, an impressive solitude utterly without visible human beings or human habitations, and an atmosphere of such amazing magnifying properties that trees that seemed close at hand were more than three mile away.''

Personal Growth

Mark Twain often includes life lessons that he learns through his travels. To examine what he personally took from his journeys is reflective of Twain's desire for his own personal development, as well as that of his literary audience.

''I was home again, in San Francisco, without means and without employment. I tortured my brain for a saving scheme of some kind, and at last a public lecture occurred to me! I sat down and wrote one, in a fever of hopeful anticipation. I showed it to several friends, but they all shook their heads. They said nobody would come to hear me, and I would make a humiliating failure of it.''

However, Mark Twain successfully presented his lecture to the public, receiving positive newspaper reviews and a substantial financial profit for his efforts, proving to himself that he was a capable, articulate speaker.


Mark Twain delights in the simplest of experiences, such as eating a meal. His ability to locate and to embrace the adventure in even the most ordinary of routines is a quality that Twain possesses in spades.

''A couple of hours out, dinner was announced--an 'event' to those of us who had yet to experience what it is to eat in one of Pullman's hotels on wheels. . . . Upon tables covered with snowy linen, and garnished with services of solid silver, Ethiop waiters, flitting about in spotless white, placed as by magic a repast at which Delmonico himself could have had no occasion to blush...''

Informal Cultural Exploration

The ability to easily adapt to his surroundings allows Mark Twain to narrate his stories with authenticity. His reference to the way the market merchants sit, his mention of their ''hams,'' and his curiosity about the origination of ham sandwiches are things that the average person may notice and wonder about.

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