Nineteenth-Century Historical Romance
The Prince and the Pauper was labeled upon publication a ‘‘historical romance.’’ As a genre, nineteenth-century historical romances did not necessarily feature a romantic relationship between two individuals. Rather, the term historical romance was used to characterize books that looked back to an earlier time in European history and focused on the adventurous aspects of that earlier time period. These books featured knights and kings, princes and peasants. The genre was popularized in England before crossing the Atlantic to become a significant literary genre in America as well. Twain’s foray into this genre— The Prince and the Pauper—was seen by many critics as serious and well mannered, as opposed to Twain’s more overtly humorous and boisterous tales, such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (which is a combination of several genres, featuring aspects of the coming-of-age novel, the American frontier novel, and the satirical novel).
Although The Prince and the Pauper is not an overtly humorous tale of the type Twain was known for, the work is one in which the author employs adventure and more subtle humor to entertain young readers. Yet this story is also filled with social commentary, and the author’s lighthearted tone may be seen as somewhat deceptive, for the entertaining story also highlights certain negative aspects of both sixteenth-century English society and nineteenth-century American society. Satire is a means by which humor is used to subtly criticize, in this case to criticize the inequalities in the society in which Edward and Tom live. Twain depicts the enormous disparities between the prince’s way of life and that of the pauper.
Tom’s foibles are often a source of humor in the book, and they frequently disguise deeper issues. For example, when Tom meets Edward’s whipping boy, his instinct is to protect the boy from further harm, but the whipping boy insists that taking the prince’s beatings is how he earns his living. (As the prince’s body is viewed as sacred, he is not allowed to physically receive such a degrading punishment on his own. Hence the need for a whipping boy.) Tom therefore assures him that he will ‘‘study so ill’’ that the whipping boy’s wages will have to be tripled. The whipping boy is grateful, and the incident can easily be taken as a source of humor, until one considers that for the boy’s wages to be tripled, he will have to endure three times the number of beatings; the greater sadness is that he is grateful to Tom for promising this. The humor disguises the wretchedness of a society in which a boy’s wages are earned for being beaten, and the fact that his body is viewed as somehow less valuable or more disposable than that of another, simply because the other was born to a higher station.
This incident also highlights the social issues of Twain’s day; the book was written in the aftermath of the Civil War. The United States was still rife with social and racial injustices and Twain’s social satire was just as applicable to the contemporary society of the United States as it was to the society of sixteenth-century England.
Third-Person Narration with First-Person Commentary
Twain relates most of the story of The Prince and the Pauper in the past tense and in the third person (in which the author uses ‘‘he’’ or ‘‘she’’ in reference to the characters). Yet he additionally intersperses commentary in the first person plural (using ‘‘us’’ and ‘‘we’’ instead of ‘‘I’’ as one would do in the first person singular). By using this method, Twain lends a sense of immediacy to his storytelling. Readers hear the related tale interrupted by a narrator saying such things as, ‘‘Let us skip a number of years’’ or ‘‘We left John Canty dragging the rightful prince into Offal Court.’’ Twain’s purpose in interrupting his narrative in this way is to subtly remind the reader of the presence of the storyteller. The method lends the story a casual, comfortable nature that stands in contrast to the affected, sixteenth-century speech of the characters, perhaps making the tale more approachable for the younger audience to whom it was originally directed.
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.