The Prince and the Pauper: Summary & Theme

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  • 0:04 Switching Places
  • 0:45 Summarizing the Story
  • 4:12 Themes of the Story
  • 4:57 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

What could go wrong when two identical boys, one a future king and one a beggar, trade clothes and end up changing places? In this lesson, which summarizes the story and themes of 'The Prince and the Pauper,' you'll find out!

Switching Places

Have you ever imagined changing places with someone who's in a different position than you? Maybe it's someone you perceive as wealthier, smarter, or who lives in a different location. What would it be like to walk in someone else's shoes for a day?

That's the basic premise behind Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. First published in 1881 in Canada, it was introduced in the United States one year later. The story follows two young boys in 16th-century England who look identical, yet are unrelated and come from very different backgrounds.

Let's take a closer look at this story about switching places, a tale where simple appearances are more than meets the eye.

Summarizing the Story

Meet Edward Tudor. He is a wealthy prince and, in fact, was a real person who lived a long time ago. Also, meet Tom Canty, a pauper, born to a regular family, and a fictitious character created by Mark Twain. The two boys have a couple of things in common. First, they share the same birthday. Second, they look identical, even though they are unrelated. Both of those facts help shape the action in the story.

Both boys grow up in their respective environments. Edward grows in wisdom and wealth in the palace, while Tom lives in London's slums with abusive relatives. All he dreams about is breaking free of his current lifestyle, living large, and meeting real-life royalty.

One day, while out walking, Tom gets in trouble with a Westminster Palace guard for getting too close to the palace gate. Looking on, Edward sees the confrontation and welcomes Tom inside.

The two boys start getting to know each other, talking about their families and the type of life they've been exposed to. The prince, always under the scrutiny of both his family and the public, thinks that an ordinary life sounds grand. And, of course, Tom's already been dreaming of living a lavish and princely lifestyle. The two hatch a plan to pull a switcheroo on their families.

They swap clothes to get an initial taste of life in the other boy's shoes when the prince notices a bruise on the pauper's body from his tussle with the guard. Forgetting he's wearing Tom's clothes, the prince rushes out to confront the guard.

The guard, believing the prince to be the beggar boy, kicks him out of the palace immediately. Now the prince is on the streets and the pauper is safely inside the castle walls.

The prince tries everything to convince the people he sees that he's truly the prince and not a poor Londoner. You can probably guess that most people laughed at him and thought he was crazy. Eventually, he is found by the pauper's father and dragged 'home' where he endures a beating for collecting no money that day and 'lying' about being the prince.

Tom, on the other hand, is at the palace having struggles of his own. He doesn't understand any of the rules about being a prince, cannot speak properly, and finally, attempts to turn himself in as an impostor. For that, he is laughed at and deemed crazy, a fact that no one is to speak of, according to the king.

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