Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper contains several instances of mistaken identity, the most obvious cases being those of Prince Edward and Tom Canty. Through the experience of mistaken or lost identity, Twain depicts one’s personal identity as something with a dualistic nature. For Twain, as these characters’ experiences demonstrate, identity exists as a composite of how we view ourselves and how we are viewed by others. Additionally, the author’s creation of his own overtly dual identity—that of Samuel Langhorne Clemens and that of Mark Twain— underscores the significance to Twain of this conception of identity and selfhood.
From the moment Edward realizes that, after he has changed clothes with Tom Canty, no one recognizes him as his true self, he continues to insist on who he truly is. His personal sense of self is strong, as he has been nurtured from the time he was an infant to believe his physical person is sacred. He has been told from the time he was born of his superiority, as heir apparent, to all others. This strong sense of self lends Edward a confidence that never appears to wane. Edward endures nearly constant struggle throughout the novel—he is beaten, pursued relentlessly by John Canty, half-starved, and called a variety of degrading names. Such trials, such certain perception on the part of so many people that he is only a poor pauper and not a prince at all, would seem sufficient to shake even the most confident youth. But Edward does not demur. He does not deny who he is, and he almost defiantly continues to insist upon his true identity. Yet he is humbled enough to enjoy the warmth of a barn stall shared with a calf, and to accept the charity of others, and to willingly perform chores in exchange for the supper and shelter shared with him. His fatigue shows particularly in the ‘‘tears of mortification’’ he sheds when he is insulted and abused by the mob, in his impatience to escape prison, and in his desperation to return to London.
Edward’s clearly weary but persistent confidence is bolstered in two significant ways. Miles Hendon does not truly believe Edward is a Tudor, a prince who becomes a king while in his care. But Hendon, out of a combination of pity and the perceived strength of Edward’s character, treats Edward as royalty. Additionally, Hendon is not the only person on Edward’s side through the course of his trials. The two peasant children—Margery and Prissy—he encounters after escaping John Canty believe Edward is their king, on the strength of his word alone. The value to Edward of their belief in him cannot be overstated. He states that once he has been restored to the throne he will ‘‘always honor little children,’’ and remember the way these girls ‘‘trusted me and believed in me in my time of trouble, whilst they that were older, and thought themselves wiser, mocked at me and held me for a liar.’’ Edward’s notion of who he is becomes strengthened by the true belief the peasant girls have in him, as well as by Hendon’s fealty.
Tom Canty has the opposite experience of Edward in many ways. Tom enters into a more appealing situation than the one Edward finds himself in, and he enters it from a much weaker position than Edward. Having experienced a childhood of having nothing and of being treated as if he were nothing, Tom does not have a strong or confident view of himself. Unlike Edward, Tom is rather quick to stop asserting his true identity once he finds himself being taken for the prince. Before entering the palace, Tom allows other people’s views of him to shape who he is, and that does not change once he arrives at the palace. In his life before he enters the palace, Tom is beaten regularly by his father and his grandmother. From John Canty’s first words to Edward, who he believes is Tom, we learn that Tom is only a source of revenue for John. What little Tom begs, the father takes, and he is beaten whether or not he has acquired any money. It is no wonder Tom fantasizes about life as a prince and possesses almost no sense of identity of his own. However, the noble people who surround him in the palace do not, like Tom’s abusive father and grandmother, belittle him. Rather, they fill him with a sense of selfworth and importance. Despite his initial nervousness and anxiety, Tom relaxes into the role of prince almost with a sense of relief. Tom, with little identity of his own, becomes what others perceive him to be: prince-like. Yet it is clear also that he has some true strength already residing within him, for as king Tom excels; he is decisive and merciful without being coached. The confidence he gains through the nobles’ kindness to him, and through his initial success in masquerading as prince, becomes his own as king.
While the dual nature of personal identity is demonstrated through Tom and Edward’s experiences of mistaken identity, for two other characters, it is demonstrated through their loss of identity. Both Miles Hendon and Tom’s mother are denied, by people whom they love dearly, recognition of who they are. Both Hendon and Mrs. Canty also demonstrate a strong sense of self. Hendon repeatedly asserts his identity when his brother denies knowing him. When Miles’s brother Hugh tries to turn him out of Hendon Hall, Miles says that ‘‘Miles Hendon is master of Hendon Hall and all its belongings. He will remain—doubt it not.’’ When his long-lost love, now married to his brother, refuses also to acknowledge Miles’s identity, he utters his disbelief. Likewise, Mrs. Canty insists that Tom, about to be crowned as King Edward, is her son, that she is his mother. Tom denies knowing her. The effect on both Hendon and Mrs. Canty on being denied recognition by people they love is devastating. Hendon cannot decide if what has happened to him should be considered ‘‘most tragic or most grotesque.’’ He feels both confusion and torment. Mrs. Canty, Tom observes, appears ‘‘wounded’’ and ‘‘broken-hearted’’ by what he has done to her.
When denied the confirmation of identity by others, a confirmation that balances one’s own sense of self, the result is pain and confusion, as in the cases of Hendon and Mrs. Canty. When the balance between what we know of ourselves and what we know of others’ perceptions of us is skewed, a sense of desperation to restore the balance is triggered. Edward is desperate to return to London and make his presence known. While his confidence in his true identity remains strong, the weight of constantly having that identity questioned is wearying for the young king. When Tom allows the truth of his own identity to pervade his thoughts again, after he had so willingly and thoroughly allowed the perception that he was king to take hold, he is shaken to the core. At the coronation, Tom, like Edward, is eager for everyone to take their proper places.
Twain takes pains to show that peoples’ identities are predicated both on who they believe themselves to be and on who others perceive them to be. At the same time, he demonstrates the consequences of these two positions being out of balance. Particularly in the cases of Edward and Tom, there is discomfort and anxiety in the out-of-balance state. But in this state, as when Edward and Tom are living each other’s lives, the weight of what others think of them is suddenly extraordinarily great. In this state there is opportunity for self-improvement. Edward is able to grow in humility by experiencing life as a peasant, while Tom is able to grow in self-worth and confidence by experiencing life as prince. Hendon and Mrs. Canty’s opportunities for growth, however, are cut short when they are once again recognized for who they are. Hendon does not need to contemplate who he is, if not the master of Hendon Hall. Mrs. Canty no longer needs to reshape her identity as someone other than the mother of Tom.
Twain appears to have been intrigued by this notion of identity. The Prince and the Pauper is not his only story in which two unlikely individuals take each other’s place. He uses the same technique in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), in which a slave’s baby and the master’s baby are switched. As a writer, Twain also created for himself a dual identity, adopting the pen name Mark Twain at the age of twenty-eight, just as he began to become well known as an author. His given name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens was reserved for friends and family, for his personal life, for the person he understood himself to be. The public figure, the author, the object of other people’s perceptions, went by the name of Mark Twain.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Catherine Dominic, Critical Essay on The Prince and the Pauper, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.