The Mysterious Stranger: Summary, Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: Damon Barta

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

This lesson will provide a summary of Mark Twain's ''The Mysterious Stranger''. We will then provide an analysis of its unusual characterization and its particularly harsh conclusions about human existence.

Mark Twain and The Mysterious Stranger

Mark Twain was well-known as a realist writer by the time he wrote The Mysterious Stranger, so a story with a supernatural main character named Satan may have been surprising. However, he was also a famous satirist, and he used this character to make a particularly harsh critique of human nature. Let's take a look.

Mark Twain
Angry Twain

Summary

The story begins in a fictional village, Eseldorf, in Austria in 1590. Theodore Fischer, along with his friends, Nikolaus and Seppi, encounter a well-dressed youth 'with a winning face and a pleasant voice' who lights a pipe with only his breath. He assures them that he is harmless and can furnish them with anything they want. He tells them he is an angel named 'Satan.'

Satan creates a tiny village of miniature people and toys with it as he explains to the boys that he is named after his famous uncle, and that he can travel instantly across time and space. Furthermore, he is unable to commit a sin or do wrong because he does not know what 'wrong' is. He then crushes the tiny people who have begun to curse and fight one another. The boys are disturbed by this 'wanton murder' but they continue to love him. Satan insists that he is interested in people, and wishes them no harm even though they are 'dull and ignorant and trivial and conceited and rickety, and such a shabby, poor, worthless lot all around.'

Theodore asks Satan why he sees such a difference between his kind and man. Satan explains that he cannot be compared to humans because they possess the Moral Sense, the ability to discern right and wrong. Theodore has 'but a dim idea of what the Moral Sense' is but he feels 'proud of having it.' Satan disappears, and a virtuous priest named Father Peter approaches the boys to ask about his missing wallet. They know nothing, but Father Peter finds the wallet where Satan had been standing. Father Peter is confused because it contains much more money than he had.

The village's astrologer accuses Father Peter of stealing the money from him and Peter goes to jail. The villagers shun his niece Marget and his housekeeper, Ursula, but Satan provides them with a 'lucky cat' that produces money. Satan then shows Theodore prisoners being tortured at the jail, which Theodore calls 'a brutal thing.' Satan argues that it is simply a 'human thing' and proves it by taking Theodore to various places where humans are being cruel to each other, themselves, and animals.

Satan explains that humans cannot see what is good for them, and that every action they take is already determined by their previous action. However, he can 'free' man from this chain and alter any of these actions, thereby changing the course of lives, what he calls their 'Careers.' He changes the careers of a young girl named Lisa and Theodore's friend Nikolaus to make their lives 'better.' They both will die much sooner, but avoid long years of misery that had been ahead of them. Nikolaus's mother curses god at this and is convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Satan notes that this is a much better fate than the 29 years of misery she would have endured.

Soon after, Father Peter is tried for theft, and the astrologer gives a damning testimony. However, Satan possesses Peter's lawyer and debunks the astrologer's story. When Theodore goes to the prison, he finds that Satan has told Peter that he lost the case. Peter has gone mad, and believes he is an emperor. Satan insists that he has improved a life that would have otherwise been miserable. He tells Theodore that humans have only one good 'weapon,' laughter, but lack the sense and courage to use it. They 'travel' to other places where Satan demonstrates again the cruelty of humans.

After that, Satan begins appearing less frequently, and Theodore misses him. On his final visit, Satan tells him that 'Life itself is only a vision, dream' and that 'nothing exists' and that once he realizes this is true he will 'banish' Satan from his 'visions' and that he will 'dissolve into the nothingness' out of which Theodore has created him. He indeed vanishes as Theo realizes that what Satan said is true.

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