Strangers and estrangement in Mark Twain's literary imagination

Date of Completion

January 1991


Literature, American




This study traces the roots of Mark Twain's stranger figures in his early life and in the cultural and literary myths of his time. It shows how these figures developed in Twain's work to represent his estrangement from his past, from his literary persona, and from reality itself. Twain's strangers emerge from many sources: Biblical stories of "strangers in a strange land"; Afro-American myths of mysterious strangers in slave narratives; and myths of the Wandering Jew and the Hebrew Liberator. Further sources for Twain's strangers can be seen in his frontier experience.^ During the 1880s and 1890s, Twain became conscious of the stranger as an objectification of his personal estrangement. In response to this recognition, his fiction begins to focus on psychological and philosophical themes. In this period, Twain develops metaphors for his fiction making which depend on the relationship between the self and an inner stranger. Later works possess a metafictional quality as they dramatize aspects of the creative process within the narrative and lead to the conflation of fiction and reality.^ The stranger figure ultimately becomes a spokesman for Mark Twain's existential philosophy. In a Nietzschean formula of self-destruction and self-creation, Twain's mysterious stranger of the final manuscripts teaches his "disciple" how to root out his training, rid himself of institutional beliefs and conventions, and lift the chains of circumstance that bind him to a meaningless universe. The stranger figure orchestrates the dissolution of self and world only to face self-annihilation. In all of the melting and dissolving images that permeate the "Print Shop" version of the Mysterious Stranger, we can see allusions to contemporary philosophical discourse. The stranger figure finally enables Mark Twain to work through his exile and despair and, within the context of a modern sense of estrangement, to affirm the power and authority of the self. ^