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No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger

Mark Twain

Mark Twain's posthumously published story "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger"—a bizarre tale of supernatural and dreamlike events that take place at the dawn of the age of modern printing in Europe—is the last major work of fiction by one of the greatest American authors of the nineteenth century.

"No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" is narrated by August Feldner, a sixteen-year-old printer's apprentice living in a remote Austrian village in the late fifteenth century. The print shop in which he works is located in a run-down old castle, which houses over a dozen people, including the print master, his family, and the various men who work in the shop, as well as a magician. August relates the magical events that occur in the castle after the arrival of a strange boy who says his name is "Number 44, New Series 864,962." Twain's central themes in this story include dreams and the imagination, as well as ideas, knowledge, and thought.

The publishing history of Twain's "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger," subtitled "Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug, and Freely Translated from the Jug," is almost as interesting as the story itself. In 1916, six years after his death, Twain's editors published a story entitled "The Mysterious Stranger," which they attributed to Twain's authorship. However, it was discovered during the 1960s that the story as it was originally published had been significantly altered by the editors in a manner that was clearly not Twain's intent. Thus, the story that passed for "The Mysterious Stranger" for over 50 years is now considered to be illegitimate. In 1969, the authoritative version of the story, "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger," based on Twain's original manuscript, was published for the first time. The following entry is based on a reading of the latter version of the story, which will be referred to in shorthand as "The Mysterious Stranger."

Author Biography

Mark Twain is the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who was born November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, the youngest of six children. The family eventually moved to nearby Hannibal, Missouri, which Twain later described as an ideal place for a boy to grow up. When he was eleven years old, his father died, and Twain was made to find work in order to help support the family. At thirteen, he ended his formal education and became a full time printer's apprentice, an experience that formed the basis of the print shop described in his posthumously published story "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger."

During the early 1850s, Twain worked intermittently for various newspapers founded by his brother Orion, and traveled throughout the United States, contributing humorous travel sketches to popular periodicals. In 1856, Twain met the river-boat pilot Horace Bixby, who inspired him to learn to pilot steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi River. Twain's experiences as a "cub" pilot apprenticed to Bixby, and later as a licensed pilot, are recounted in his autobiographical novel Life on the Mississippi (1877). With the advent of the Civil War, however, river trade between North and South was suspended, and Twain was compelled to find work elsewhere.

During the 1860s, Twain traveled extensively throughout the western United States and Europe, building his reputation as the author of humorous travel sketches published in a variety of journals and newspapers. He first published under the pen name Mark Twain in 1863, at the age of 27, based on the phrase "mark twain" used by riverboat pilots to designate areas of the river deep enough to ensure safe passage. His first great success came with the publication of the tall tale "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in 1865, which brought him critical attention and national recognition.

Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870, and the couple moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they resided for some 20 years. Many of Twain's most highly regarded works were published during the 1870s and 1880s, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), considered to be his masterpiece and a landmark in American fiction.

In his final decades, Twain met with personal tragedy and financial ruin. Despite international success as one of America's preeminent authors, Twain went bankrupt during the early 1890s. He worked diligently giving lecture tours throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, in order to pay off his debts. During this period, the eldest of his three daughters died of meningitis. In 1904 his wife died, and a few years later another one of his daughters died as a result of an epileptic seizure. Not longer after, his one remaining daughter became mentally ill. Twain died in Connecticut, on April 21, 1910.

Plot Summary

"The Mysterious Stranger" is narrated by August Feldner, a sixteen-year-old printer's apprentice. The events of the story take place in 1490, in the small village of Eseldorf, Austria.

August lives and works in a run-down old castle where the print shop is located. Heinrich Stein, a man in his mid-50s and the master of the print shop, is referred to throughout the story as "the master." The master lives in the castle with his wife, Frau Stein, and her seventeen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Marie Vogel. The master's sister, Frau Regen, and her seventeen-year-old daughter Marget Regen also live there. In addition to August, there are six other men who work in the print shop and live in the castle: Adam Binks, Gustav Fischer, Moses Haas, Hans Katzenyammer, Barty Langbein, and Ernest Wasserman. A magician by the name of Balthasar Hoffman lives in the castle as well.

One day, a boy of about sixteen or seventeen shows up at the castle, dressed in rags and begging for food. When he is asked his name, he tells them it is "Number 44, New Series 864,962." On hearing this unusual name, most of the members of the household protest that he should be turned out. However, Katrina, the old cook, comes to his defense, and insists that he be taken in. The master agrees to allow Number 44 to work in the castle doing chores.

Soon, the master offers Number 44 a position as apprentice in the print shop. Most of the men working in the shop take an immediate disliking to Number 44, and do everything they can to overwork and humiliate him. August feels sympathy for Number 44, but knows that if he says anything in Number 44's defense, he will be ostracized by the others. The inhabitants of the castle begin to believe that Number 44 has magical powers, and they assume that the magician, Balthasar, has given him these powers.

Eventually, August secretly befriends Number 44. Number 44 explains that, although Balthasar did give him some magic power, he already had magical powers before he arrived. Number 44 states that he wishes to promote the idea that his powers come from Balthasar, so as to bolster the magician's reputation. Number 44 teaches August to make himself invisible. August also learns that Number 44 can read his thoughts.

The men who work in the print shop demand that Number 44 be turned out, but the master refuses to do so. Finally, they decide to go on strike until Number 44 is gotten rid of. The print shop is supposed to complete the publication of an order of Bibles, but the work cannot get done as long as the men are on strike. Upset by these events, the master becomes ill and takes to his bed.

In the midst of this crisis, the itinerant printer Doangivadam arrives at the castle. Upon learning of the situation, Doangivadam immediately takes sides with Number 44 against the other print shop workers. One night, they all go up to the shop and find that invisible workers are magically printing the Bibles. By morning, the Bible order is complete and the crisis is over, though the men are still on strike.

The men of the shop determine that Balthasar has given Number 44 the magical powers to complete the Bible printing without them. They threaten to have Balthasar burned as a heretic unless he promises to prevent Number 44 from performing any more magic. Balthasar states that, if Number 44 performs any more magic, he will cast a spell that will reduce the young man to ashes.

One night, the men are all eating together, and suddenly each man finds that his Duplicate has appeared in the room. The Duplicates, who look exactly like their Originals, explain that they are willing to work in the print shop, and give their wages over to their Originals, who will be able to get paid without working. Once this is agreed to, the Duplicates and the Originals live together in the castle, the Duplicates doing all the work and the Originals lounging around.

Seeing that Number 44 has performed magic in causing the Duplicates to appear, Balthasar turns him to ashes right before everyone's eyes. They hold a funeral and bury Number 44's remains—but when August returns to his room that night, Number 44 is sitting in a chair, alive and well. No one but August knows that Number 44 is not really dead.

Meanwhile, word has gotten out that Balthasar magically killed Number 44. The local priest, Father Adolf, determines that Balthasar is possessed by the Devil, and orders that he be burned at the stake. However, Balthasar cannot be found anywhere. Father Adolf then determines that the Duplicates are evil spirits, and condemns them to be burned at the stake. But each time he captures one of them, the Duplicate disappears before he is burned, and reappears in the print shop. One day, Number 44 magically disguises himself as Balthasar, and is seen in the town. Father Adolf, believing that he is Balthasar, arranges to have him burned at the stake, but he magically escapes before he is burned.

August realizes that he is in love with Marget, the master's niece. He discovers, however, that she is only in love with him in her dreams, when she is sleeping. August is able to make himself invisible and come to Marget in her dreams, during which her Dream-Self believes that her name is Elisabeth von Arnim and his name is Martin von Giesbach. But when she wakes up, she has no memory of this, and simply ignores August. During her waking hours, when she is her Day-Self or Waking-Self, she is in love with August's Duplicate, who calls himself Emil Schwarz.

One night, August sneaks into Marget's bedroom. When Marget, her maid, and her mother, Frau Regen, see him there, they scream and tell him to leave. The women believe it was his Duplicate, Emil, and not August, who snuck into the room. When the master learns of this, he orders that Emil must now marry Marget. Meanwhile, Marget's maid is about to tell one of the other maids about this incident, and thus spread a rumor that will ruin Marget's reputation.

August tries to come up with a scheme to prevent Marget's marriage to Emil, and calls on Number 44 to help him. They decide to magically transform the maid into a cat, so that she cannot spread any rumors about Marget. Once the maid is turned into a cat, Number 44 gives August the power to understand cat language. The cat then explains to them that she much prefers being a cat to being a maid, because as a maid she was constantly having to work and wait on other people. August and the cat agree that she will be his pet, and he names her Mary Florence Fortescue Baker G. Nightingale.

Emil comes to August's room and, much to August's surprise, says that he doesn't care if he marries Marget or not. He explains that he is a Dream-Being from the Empire of Dreams. He explains further that he is August's Dream-Self, the part of him that travels throughout space and time while August is sleeping. Emil hates being trapped in a physical body, in the form of August's Duplicate, and begs to be released from imprisonment in this body. Number 44 arrives, disguised as Balthasar, and grants Emil's wish, causing his physical form to dissolve into thin air so that he may return to the Dream-World.

Meanwhile, Father Adolf, Katrina, and a small army of men from the village have congregated in the castle, threatening to capture Balthasar and have him burned at the stake. Number 44, still disguised as Balthasar, steps into their midst, then suddenly makes himself disappear in a flash of blinding light, while simultaneously causing an eclipse to occur, which darkens the sky outside.

Back in August's room, Number 44 comes to visit August, and congratulates himself on the trick he played on the others. Number 44 decides to make time go backwards twenty-three hours. Then he arranges an Assembly of the Dead who form a Procession of thousands and thousands of skeletons of deceased people from throughout history, including such famous figures as King Arthur, Cleopatra, and Noah.

Number 44 then tries to explain to August who and what he is. He asserts that time and space, as well as life and death, mean nothing to him, and that he is capable of traveling throughout the universe and throughout history at his whim. Number 44 states that his existence is beyond the bounds of what any human being could conceive of. He explains that "Life itself is only a vision, a dream," and that his existence is "pure Thought," without physical matter. Number 44's parting words to August are:

It is true, that which I have revealed to you: there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but You. And you are but a Thought … wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!

In the closing line of the story, August states, "He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true."


Father Adolf

Father Adolf is the presiding priest in Eseldorf. When he learns of the magician Balthasar's magical powers, Father Adolf determines to have him burned at the stake as a heretic. However, he succeeds only in arresting Number 44, who is magically disguised as Balthasar, and who magically escapes before being burned. Father Adolf then declares that the Duplicates are evil spirits, and condemns them to be burned at the stake. However, every time he arrests one of the Duplicates, the Duplicate magically escapes before being burned, and Father Adolf eventually gives up trying. Father Adolf represents a medieval mentality of superstition, which he uses to justify asserting his power over others.

Adam Binks

Adam Binks is a sixty-year-old proofreader who lives in the castle and works in the print shop.


Doangivadam is an itinerant printer. When the men in the print shop go on strike, August prays for Doangivadam to come and help with the situation. A few days later, Doangivadam arrives at the castle, and immediately takes the side of Number 44 against the other print shop workers. Doangivadam expresses his approval of August for befriending Number 44.

August Feldner

August Feldner, also known as Martin von Giesbach in Marget Regen's dreams, is a sixteen-year-old printer's apprentice and the narrator of "The Mysterious Stranger." When Number 44 arrives at the castle, August is immediately sympathetic to him. However, he is afraid to show his sympathy, for fear of being ostracized by the other men who work in the print shop. August manages to secretly befriend Number 44, who teaches him how to make himself invisible. August also learns that Number 44 can hear his thoughts. After the magician Balthasar apparently kills Number 44, August is the only one who knows that Number 44 is still alive. August witnesses many strange and fantastical events in the presence of Number 44, who takes him on various adventures traveling throughout the world and backward in time.

August falls in love with Marget, the master's niece, but finds that she only loves him when she is dreaming and he is invisible. During these dreams, Marget believes that her name is Elisabeth von Arnim and that August's name is Martin von Giesbach. August finds that he has a rival for Marget's love in his Duplicate, Emil Schwarz, whom Marget is in love with during her waking hours. After Number 44 magically dissolves Emil into thin air, August no longer has a rival for Marget's love.

In the end, Number 44 tells August that nothing in the universe exists, except for pure Thought, and that life is all a dream and an illusion. August concludes the story by stating, "I knew, and realized, that all he said was true." This ending implies that the whole story of "The Mysterious Stranger," as well as all of the characters in it, is a creation of August's imagination. Thus, Number 44's magical powers symbolize the extensive powers of August's imagination.

Gustav Fischer

Gustav Fischer is a twenty-seven-year-old printer who lives in the castle and works in the print shop.

Moses Haas

Moses Haas is a twenty-eight-year-old printer who lives in the castle and works in the print shop.

Balthasar Hoffman

Balthasar Hoffman is an astrologist and magician who lives in the castle. When Number 44 arrives and seems to display magical powers, everyone assumes it is Balthasar who has bestowed these powers upon him. Later, Balthasar magically reduces Number 44 to ashes. When Father Adolf learns of this event, he declares Balthasar a heretic and condemns him to be burned at the stake. However, no one is able to find Balthasar after this point. Throughout the rest of the story, Number 44 appears magically disguised as Balthasar. Number 44 tells August that he hopes to promote Balthasar's reputation as a magician by arranging things so that the others attribute various magical events to Balthasar's powers.

Media Adaptations

• "The Mysterious Stranger" was adapted to film and released in 1982. Directed by Peter H. Hunt, this film is a loose adaptation, which portrays Twain's tale as the daydream of a printer's apprentice living in nineteenth-century America.


Katrina is a sixty-year-old cook and housekeeper who lives and works in the castle. When Number 44 first arrives, everyone is ready to throw him out, but Katrina rushes to his defense. Throughout the story, Katrina treats Number 44 as if he were her own son, and does everything she can to prevent others from harming him. When Balthasar reduces Number 44 to ashes, and everyone believes him dead, Katrina is distraught.

Hans Katzenyammer

Hans Katzenyammer is a thirty-six-year-old printer who lives in the castle and works in the print shop.

Barty Langbein

Barty Langbein is a fifteen-year-old assistant who lives in the castle and works in the print shop.

Marget's Maid

Marget's maid is present when August sneaks into Marget's room one night, and the maid believes it was August's Duplicate, Emil Schwarz, who sneaked into the room. The maid intends to inform one of the other maids in the castle about this event, and thus start a rumor that will ruin Marget's reputation. However, Number 44 magically transforms Marget's maid into a cat, so that she cannot tell anyone about what happened. After she is turned into a cat, she tells August in cat language (which Number 44 makes it possible for him to understand) that she actually prefers being a cat to being a maid, because as a maid she always had to wait on people. The cat and August agree that she will be his pet, and he names her Mary Florence Fortescue Baker G. Nightingale.

Mary Florence Fortescue Baker G. Nightingale

See Marget's Maid

The Master

See Heinrich Stein

Number 44

Number 44 gives his full name as "Number 44, New Series 864,962." Everyone is astonished by this unusual name, and many of them assume he must be an escaped convict, and that it is his prison number. Number 44, a boy of about sixteen, appears at the door of the castle one night, dressed in rags and begging for food. Heinrich Stein, the master of the print shop, agrees to put him to work in exchange for food and lodging. Soon, the master gives Number 44 a job as an apprentice in the print shop. Number 44 works tirelessly, but the other men working at the print shop do everything they can to humiliate him, insult him, and increase his work load.

August secretly befriends Number 44, and Number 44 slowly reveals to August more and more of his magical powers. Number 44 teaches August to make himself invisible and to fly, as well as demonstrating other magical feats. He states that, while he acquired some of his magical powers from Balthasar, he already had magical powers before he arrived at the castle. Number 44 explains that he wants everyone to think his magic comes from Balthasar, so as to promote the magician's reputation. One night, Balthasar magically reduces Number 44 to ashes. However, the next day August finds Number 44 still alive and well. For the remainder of the story, Number 44 usually appears to August and others disguised as Balthasar. When Father Adolf declares Balthasar a heretic and sentences him to be burned at the stake, Number 44 magically disguises himself as Balthasar, and is arrested and prepared to be burned at the stake. However, he magically escapes before being burned.

In the end, Number 44 does his best to explain to August what he is and where he comes from. In the final lines of the story, he tells August that life is all a dream and that nothing in the universe really exists, except for pure Thought. Number 44 thus implies that he himself is nothing more than a dream or illusion, created by August's imagination.

Frau Regen

Frau Regen is the sister of Heinrich Stein, the print shop master, and lives in the castle.

Marget Regen

Marget Regen, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Frau Regen and niece of Heinrich Stein, lives in the castle. Although August is in love with Marget, Marget only loves August when she is sleeping and he appears in her dreams (which he does by making himself invisible). In these dreams, Marget thinks that her own name is Elisabeth von Arnim, and that August's name is Martin von Giesbach. During her waking hours, Marget is in love with August's Duplicate, who calls himself Emil Schwarz. After Emil proposes to Marget's Waking-Self, and she accepts, August/Martin proposes to Marget's Dream-Self (Elisabeth), and they conduct a marriage ceremony in her dream. Later, after Emil is believed to have entered Marget's bedroom at night, Heinrich Stein commands that he marry Marget. However, Emil is soon afterward dissolved into thin air by Number 44, so August no longer has a rival for Marget's love.

Emil Schwarz

Emil Schwarz is the Duplicate of August Feldner and looks exactly like him. While Marget falls in love with the August who appears in her dreams, during her waking hours she is in love with Emil. August thus regards Emil as his rival for Marget's love. When the master commands that Emil must marry Marget, August hopes to prevent the marriage. However, Emil discusses the situation with August, and admits that he really doesn't care if he marries Marget or not. Emil states that he is August's Dream-Self, and normally roams freely throughout time and space while August is asleep. Emil begs to be released from the physical body of August's Duplicate, in which he is trapped. Number 44 arrives, disguised as Balthasar the magician, and grants Emil's wish by magically dissolving his body into thin air, so that he can return to the Dream-World.

Frau Stein

Frau Stein is the wife of Heinrich Stein, the print shop master. She has a mean disposition.

Heinrich Stein

Heinrich Stein, a man in his mid-50s, is the master of the print shop. He is referred to throughout the story as "the master." The master is described as "a scholar and a dreamer or a thinker," who loves learning and study. He has a kindly disposition, but is not very effective in asserting himself with his family and employees. The master decides to take Number 44 into the castle and employ him as an apprentice in the print shop. Despite the complaints of the other print shop workers, Stein refuses to send Number 44 away. When the men go on strike just before a large Bible publishing order is due, the master becomes so distraught that he falls ill and takes to his bed. After the Bibles are magically published on time, Stein immediately recovers his health.

Marie Vogel

Marie Vogel is the seventeen-year-old daughter of Frau Stein from a previous marriage, and lives in the castle. Like her mother, she has a mean disposition.

Elisabeth von Arnim

See Marget Regen

Martin von Giesbach

See August Feldner

Ernest Wasserman

Ernest Wasserman is a seventeen-year-old apprentice who lives in the castle and works in the print shop.


Dreams and the Imagination

In "The Mysterious Stranger," Twain uses magic as an allegory for the realm of dreams and the imagination. In the Dream-World of our imaginations, he suggests, we can do and be anything, as if by magic.

Twain fills his tale with numerous magical occurrences. Some of the magical elements of "The Mysterious Stranger" are directly associated with the realm of dreams. The Duplicates who appear in the castle one night turn out to be the embodiment of the Dream-Selves of the men they resemble. August's Duplicate, who calls himself Emil Schwarz, explains that he is August's Dream-Self, and that he comes from the Dream-World. Emil further explains that the Dream-Self comes alive only when the Waking-Self is asleep. The Dream-Self normally has no physical existence, and so is free to roam throughout time and space at will. However, the Dream-Self is dependent on the physical existence of the Waking-Self—it is born with the individual and dies with the individual. Twain thus makes a distinction between the Waking-Self, or Day-Self, which is the physical being who goes to work each day, and the Dream-Self, which emerges when we are sleeping and is free from the constraints of physical existence.

Number 44 performs such magical feats as mind-reading, flying, becoming invisible, time travel, and many other wondrous things. Number 44's extensive magical powers represent the possibilities of the human imagination, the powers of which reach far beyond what humans are capable of in their waking or conscious lives. August is introduced to Number 44's way of perceiving reality, and so his mind is expanded to encompass a greater range of possibilities than he had previously imagined. In the conclusion to the story, Number 44 asserts that everything in the universe is a dream, a creation of the human imagination: "Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream."


Thought is also a central theme of "The Mysterious Stranger." The story takes place in a print shop at the dawn of the age of printing in medieval Europe. Historians regard the dawning of the print age as an extremely important development in the history of modern thought. New developments that made mass-publishing possible meant that books could be made available to a much broader segment of the population than ever before. This increased availability of books meant that the spread of knowledge and ideas throughout Europe increased tremendously.

The print shop where August works is a very small operation located in a remote Austrian village, yet it represents a bastion of enlightenment within a community steeped in superstition and ignorance. As August explains, in 1490 printing was still a new art, and "almost unknown in Austria."

Very few persons in our secluded region had ever seen a printed page, few had any very clear idea about the art of printing, and perhaps still fewer had any curiosity concerning it or felt any interest in it.

August thus stands on the cusp of two different eras in the history of human thought. On the one hand, he was raised in the village and shares the traditional, medieval superstitions and limited viewpoint of the townspeople. On the other hand, working in the print shop, publishing books on a variety of subjects, including math, science, and philosophy, he is exposed to cutting edge advances in knowledge and ideas.

Topics for Further Study

  • "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" is based in part on Twain's experiences as a printer's apprentice during his youth. Write a research paper on technological developments in the printing process during the nineteenth century.
  • Read another short story by Mark Twain, which can be found in collections such as The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867). Write an essay discussing the ways in which Twain uses humor in this story to comment on American society.
  • The setting of "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" in fifteenth-century Austria is based in part on Twain's experiences traveling in Austria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, during the reign of the emperor Franz Joseph. Write a research paper on the political and social conditions of Austria during this period.
  • "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" is a fantastical tale in which magical and supernatural events occur. Write your own short story involving fantastic, magical, or supernatural occurrences.

The appearance of Number 44 further expands August's knowledge and understanding of the world. Number 44 frequently makes references to the future, and often offers food to August that comes from time periods and cultures that don't yet exist. Number 44 also takes August back in time, exposing him to a broad-sweeping perspective on human history. August's newly acquired perspective on human civilization helps to expand his mind and further enlighten him to ideas beyond the confines of his remote and backward little village.

Toward the end of the story, Number 44 tells August that he is nothing more than pure Thought, and that Thought is the true essence of human existence.


Narrative Point of View

"The Mysterious Stranger" is narrated in the first-person voice by August Feldner, a sixteen-year-old printer's apprentice. Thus, all of the events of the story are related solely from August's point-of-view. This limited first-person narrative point-of-view is central to the story. Toward the end, Number 44 asserts that everything in August's universe is a creation of his own imagination. Because the story is told from August's perspective, it is entirely possible that he has merely imagined these people, places, and events, or even that the entire story is a dream from which he will soon awaken.

Local Color Fiction

"Local color" fiction was a new development in American literature in the post-Civil-War era, when much of Twain's writing was published. Local color fiction is characterized by a focus on small communities existing within a specific region of the United States, and exhibiting habits, customs, and cultural practices specific to that region. Twain's fiction often takes place in the American South, among small communities along the Mississippi River. Although "The Mysterious Stranger" takes place in Austria, it shares some characteristics of local color fiction, in that it is set in a small, remote village community in which the inhabitants share many superstitions and many qualities of regional quaintness. Many critics have noted that Twain based his fictional town of Eseldorf, Austria, on his own experiences growing up in the small town of Hannibal, Missouri.

The Fantastical in Fiction

"The Mysterious Stranger" is a fantastical tale, meaning that it includes elements of magic and supernatural occurrences. By setting his story in a remote time and place, and by infusing it with elements of magic and fantasy, Twain is able to explore themes of dreams and the imagination without limiting himself to the requirements of realist fiction. Through the fantastical character of Number 44, Twain ultimately postulates that the realm of dreams, fantasy, and the imagination are more relevant to human experience than are the experiences we associate with concrete, physical reality.

Historical Context

Austria in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries

For many centuries, Austria was not a nation, but a duchy within the Roman Empire. Beginning in the thirteenth century, the Austrian region was ruled by the hereditary House of Habsburg, which lasted until the early twentieth century. The history of Austria in the fifteenth century, when Twain's story takes place, was dominated by the Habsburg ruler Frederik III. Frederik inherited the position of arch-duke of the Austrian lands in 1424. In 1440 he was elected king of Germany, and in 1452 he was crowned Roman Emperor. Like the magician in Twain's story, Frederik had a strong interest in studying astrology and magic, as well as alchemy.

Upon his death in 1493, Frederik was succeeded by his son, Maximilian I. Like his father, Maximilian I eventually ruled as emperor of Rome, king of Germany, and archduke of Austria. During the sixteenth century, under Maximilian I, the Habsburg dynasty reached the height of its powers, becoming a major European force. By various means, including marriage, military pressure, and treaties, Maximilian added to the Austrian territories the Netherlands, Hungary, Bohemia, Burgundy, Spain, and the Spanish empire, including colonial holdings in the Americas.

The Dawn of Modern Printing

"No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" takes place in a printing shop in late fifteenth century Austria, and is based in part on Twain's experiences as a printer's apprentice in mid-nineteenth century America.

The process of modern book printing first developed in Europe over the course of the fifteenth century. Twain thus sets his story at a time when printing was still a relatively new process, and represented a significant advance in the intellectual history of Europe. The development of the printing press made it possible for greater numbers of people to have access to knowledge and ideas through the dissemination of larger quantities of books at lower prices.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1490s: Austria is a duchy within the Roman Empire, ruled by the hereditary Habsburg dynasty. Frederik III is archduke of Austria until his death in 1493, when his son, Maximilian I, succeeds him.

    1900s: Austria is a part of the Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy, ruled by Franz Joseph, a descendent of the Habsburg dynasty.

    Today: Austria is an independent democratic nation with a parliamentary system of government, based on the constitution of 1920 (revised in 1929).

  • 1490s: The continents now known as the Americas have been inhabited for centuries by many different peoples with many different languages. After Christopher Columbus's venture to the "New World" is completed in 1492, western European cultures begin to establish settlements in the Americas.

    1900s: The United States of America is a democratic nation, based on the Constitution of 1776. All adult males have the right to vote. Due to the aggressive policies of the United States government, Native Americans have become a small minority in America, most of them living on reservations.

    Today: The United States remains a democratic nation. All adults, both men and women, have the right to vote. Most Native Americans still live on reservations, although, since the 1970s, Native Americans have organized to achieve equal civil rights.

  • 1490s: Modern book printing techniques are still new to European culture. Printing methods using movable type, developed by Johannes Gutenberg, represent the most advanced printing technology.

    1900s: Many innovations developed throughout the nineteenth century have resulted in significant advances in the printing process. Among these new technologies are the use of steam engines to mechanize the printing press, advances in the reproduction of multi-color illustrations, the use of cylindrical devices for transferring ink to paper, and the integration of photographic processes. A significant advance made in 1904 is the development of a technique known as "offset" printing. Some aspects of the printing process once performed by individual craftsmen have now been mechanized.

    Today: Advances in computer technology have significantly altered many aspects of book-printing. Many steps in the printing process once performed by individual craftsmen or mechanical machines are now accomplished through computer technology. Books can even be purchased from retailers on the Internet and printed at home by the consumer.

The innovation that inaugurated modern printing methods was the invention of moveable type. Moveable type involves individual letters or characters carved or molded out of wood, clay, or metal, which can be arranged to create a text. When ink is applied to these letters, they can be impressed upon a piece of paper in order to reproduce the text. In Asia, various methods of movable type were developed between the 11th and 14th centuries. However, this knowledge did not find its way to Europe, and so European methods of print developed later and along different lines.

The innovations of the German printer Johannes Gutenberg advanced European printing methods by creating a moveable type, inventing a mechanized printing press, and developing an ink compatible with this process. Gutenberg's printing process is dated from the 1450s; his most significant achievement was the publication of the bible now known as the Gutenberg Bible, the first complete book to be printed in Europe using moveable type. Gutenberg's inventions are regarded as a watershed in European intellectual history, ushering in the dawn of the modern printing age. The printing methods he invented remained essentially unchanged until the nineteenth century, when a number of significant improvements were made to the process.

Critical Overview

"The Mysterious Stranger," Twain's last major work of fiction, was not published until after his death. In order to appreciate critical reactions to "The Mysterious Stranger," it is important to understand the problems that have arisen regarding the manuscripts on which published versions of the story have been based. Upon his death, Twain left behind three different unpublished manuscripts of three different stories sharing a number of similarities. These manuscripts were entitled, "The Chronicle of Young Satan,""Schoolhouse Hill," and "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger."

The first published version of a story entitled "The Mysterious Stranger" became available in 1916. However, during the 1960s, scholars came to the conclusion that this version of the story had been significantly tampered with by editors and was not true to Twain's intentions. The editors of this first version, which is now referred to as the "Paine-Duneka text," were Albert Bigelow Paine and Frederick A. Duneka of Harper & Brothers publishing company. Paine and Duneka created this illegitimate text by grafting the ending of one story ("No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger") onto the body of another story Twain had left unfinished ("The Chronicle of Young Satan"), editing out material which they deemed controversial, deleting about one quarter of Twain's words, altering and importing a character from one story into another, and adding several paragraphs of their own writing—all of which they combined into a story which they attributed to Twain without informing the public of the radical changes they had made to his original manuscripts.

In 1969, Twain's original manuscript entitled "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" was published for the first time as the authoritative text of the story. Scholars have since agreed that the "Paine-Duneka text" should no longer be regarded as a legitimate work, and that this more recent version is the only one which should be presented to readers as "The Mysterious Stranger," by Mark Twain. William M. Gibson, in an "Introduction" to Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1969), referred to the Paine-Duneka text as "an editorial fraud," based on a version of the story which was "cut, cobbled-together, partially falsified." Gibson asserted that Paine, "altered the manuscript of the book in a fashion that almost certainly would have enraged Clemens [Twain]." Sholom J. Kahn, in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger: A Study of the Manuscript Texts (1978), somewhat more charitably remarked, "Paine's arrogant procedure, however sincere, muddied the waters of Mark Twain scholarship for two generations." Because of this long-running confusion over the text of "The Mysterious Stranger," critical responses to the earlier, "Paine-Duneka text" are no longer applicable to Twain's story.

Understandably, much of the critical discussion of "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger," since the authoritative text came to light in the 1960s, has focused on ongoing issues and questions regarding the various unpublished manuscripts Twain left upon his death. Critical discussion of the story itself has tended to focus on two central questions: Who is Number 44?; and, What is the meaning of the final chapter?

Critics agreed that the identity of the supernatural character Number 44 is ambiguous. Kahn observed, "the mystery of the stranger's identity is one of the chief cruxes of the plot in 'No. 44."' Derek Parker Royal, in "Terrible Dreams of Creative Power" (1999) observed:

What is the nature of No. 44? .… the figure refuses neat critical categorization and eludes the grasp of even the most careful examination. He is simultaneously an impish prankster, a satanic figure, a benevolent fatalist, a childlike innocent, a philosophical pragmatist, a social determinist, a showman and performer, dream substance, and, perhaps most important, an artist and creator.

Critics have explored the implications of the final chapter of "The Mysterious Stranger" from several different perspectives. Many have asserted that the story's conclusion is a celebration of the imaginative mind and the process of artistic creation. Others have examined the philosophical implications of the conclusion, suggesting that it resonates with the philosophy of Plato or Descartes.

Kahn summed up Twain's achievement in commenting that "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" represents "the fruits of a truly creative imagination exploring many corners of the human condition in a fresh and profound way."


Liz Brent

Brent holds a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan. In this essay, Brent discusses Twain's use of print shop terminology in "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger."

August Feldner, the narrator of Mark Twain's "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger," works as an apprentice in a print shop. August often describes events, situations, and characters in terms familiar to the printing trade. Thus, throughout the story, he expresses himself through metaphors drawn from printing terminology.

In comparing the personality of Marie Vogel, the step-daughter of the print master, to that of Marget Regen, the niece of the print master, August makes extensive use of metaphors drawn from the printer's trade. He describes Marie Vogel in the following terms:

She was a second edition of her mother—just plain galley-proof, neither revised nor corrected, full of turned letters, wrong fonts, outs and doubles, as we say in the printing-shop—in a word pi.

In stating that Marie was "a second edition of her mother," August indicates that, just as the second edition of a published book is almost exactly the same as the first edition, so Marie resembles her mother almost exactly. In describing her as "just plain galley-proof, neither revised nor corrected," August is referring to a preliminary stage in the printing of a book before it has been edited, revised, and corrected. He then lists a variety of errors that can occur in a print text at this stage in the process: "turned letters" are letters that are upside down; "wrong fonts" are letters in the wrong size or design; "outs" are letters that have been accidentally left out of a text; and "doubles" are words that have been accidentally repeated. August sums up his description of Marie in describing her as "pi," which is a printer's term referring to a hodge-podge of mixed-up type, such as may result from dropping a form filled with individual letters of movable type. In other words, Marie has an extremely flawed personality, similar to the flawed text of a galley-proof, which contains many errors, or a jumble of individual letters of print type, without order or significance.

In contrast to his description of Marie Vogel, whom he doesn't like, August uses print terminology to express his admiration for Marget Regen, whom he is in love with. He states, "She was a second edition of what her mother had been at her age; but struck from the standing forms and needing no revising, as one says in the printing-shop."

Like Marie, Marget is described as a "second edition" of her mother. However, while Marie is compared to a text that is full of flaws and errors, Marget is compared to a text that is perfect and flawless. Standing forms are trays of type that have already been set and corrected, and can be made available for printing subsequent editions of a book. Thus, in describing Marget as "struck from the standing forms" he implies that, as her mother was also flawless, she in turn inherited her mother's perfect character without alteration. That Marget "needs no revising" means that, like a text that is without errors, she is without flaws and perfect as is.

Later in the story, Doangivadam, an itinerant printer, also uses terminology from the printing trade to express himself metaphorically. When Doangivadam asks Number 44's name, and Number 44 replies, "No. 44, New Series 864,962," Doangivadam asserts: "My—word, but it's a daisy! In the hurry of going to press, let's dock it to Forty-Four and put the rest on the standing-galley and let it go for left-over at half rates."

What Do I Read Next?

  • The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867) is a collection of early short stories by Twain, considered among his best.
  • Life on the Mississippi (1883) is an autobiographical novel based on Twain's experiences as a river boat pilot when he was a young man.
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) is regarded as Twain's masterpiece and as one of the greatest American novels of the nineteenth century. Huck Finn runs away from home along with Jim, an escaped slave, with whom he travels down the Mississippi River on a raft.
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), by Twain, is a fantastical novel in which a nineteenth-century American finds himself transported to the royal court of King Arthur in Medieval England.
  • Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870) is a collection of short stories by Bret Harte, a "local color" author and contemporary of Twain. Harte's tales, set in California mining camps, are both humorous and sentimental.
  • The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) is a novel by Sarah Orne Jewett, another of Twain's contemporaries and also a "local color" author. Jewett writes of community life in a small maritime village on the coast of Maine.

Doangivadam is responding to the fact that Number 44's full name is rather long, and a mouthful to pronounce. He suggests that "in the hurry of going to press," meaning to save time, they shorten his name to Forty-Four. A standing-galley is a place where units of type are stored for reuse; thus he suggests the extraneous letters and digits in Number 44's name ("New Series, 864,962"), be set aside as extraneous material. Further, he jokingly implies that these extraneous elements of Number 44's name could be sold off at half-price for reuse by someone else.

At another point in the story, August tells the old cook Katrina of his experience of Ernest, a fellow printer, exposing him to ridicule and anger from the other men working in the shop. Ernest had found out that August had secretly become friends with Number 44, and he had announced this fact to the other men. August comments that Katrina, who sides with Number 44, "was full of pity for me and maledictions for Ernest, and promised him a piece of her mind, with foot-notes and illustrations."

Here, August uses the book printing concepts of foot-notes and illustrations as a metaphor to indicate that Katrina expressed in graphic terms with detailed explanations her desire to punish Ernest for threatening to harm him.

Through the narration of August, Twain further employs metaphors drawn from printing technology in the introduction of the characters referred to as Duplicates, who are magical copies of the print shop workers, referred to as the Originals. An original in printing refers to an original piece of text, whereas duplicate refers to a printed copy of the original. As in print an original version of a text is regarded as more authentic, so the men referred to as Originals in the story regard themselves as the authentic versions of their bodily forms, while the Duplicates are seen as mere copies.

When, toward the end of the story, Number 44 creates an eclipse to darken the sky, then disappears in a blinding flash of light before the eyes of a crowd of people, August states that the effect of the eclipse made Number 44's dramatic display of magic "grand and stunning—just letter-perfect, as it seemed to me." In printing, a text that is letter-perfect has been type set without a single letter out of place. So August expresses his awe and wonder at the spectacle Number 44 has created, regarding it as a magnificent event that was carried off to perfection.

With the stylistic device of employing terminology from the printing process as a basis for metaphorical descriptions in "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger," Twain skillfully demonstrates that August's perspective and vocabulary are influenced by his trade, thus creating a narrative voice unique to his story.


Liz Brent, Critical Essay on "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Derek Parker Royal

In the following essay, Royal examines the enigmatic nature of the character of No. 44, finding him "neither ominous nor upbeat, but an unstable mixture of both that is representative of many of Twain's later figures."

In his later fiction Twain most fully explores the dynamics of authority and its relationship to the culture of his time. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Pudd'nhead Wilson, and the Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, he wrestles with larger troubling issues in ways that he had not, or could not, in his earlier works, and invests these ongoing dialogues in three of the most dominating characters in his canon. Whereas most of their predecessors were either two-dimensional or exceedingly forthright representations, Hank Morgan, David Wilson, and No. 44 are all problematic and highly enigmatic figures of authority who resist any sense of critical closure. This Twainian power figure is given full, and often disturbing, expression in his completed works, A Connecticut Yankee and Pudd'nhead Wilson. Control lies at the heart of Hank Morgan's sojourn at Camelot. He plans from the very beginning to "boss the whole country inside of three months," and fulfills his desire by erecting a technological nightmare of death and destruction. Pudd'nhead Wilson, although less obviously power-hungry than Hank, nevertheless falls into the same mold. His power is of a more subtle and clandestine nature. Through his hobby of fingerprinting, he holds in his hand the identity of Dawson's Landing, and reveals this information to great effect in the dramatic courtroom scene. Much like Tom Sawyer and Hank Morgan, Wilson manipulates the dissemination of knowledge in order to give him the edge- and the reputation-in the community. All of these later characters live by the adage "knowledge is power." However, with Pudd'nhead Wilson there arises an interesting question: what exactly is his game? Although we know his parentage, his birthplace, and his desired trade, he nonetheless remains an enigmatic character aloof from both the town and the reader. There is a dearth of information on the psychology of Wilson. What is to be made of this freethinking young lawyer with a taste for irony, fingerprinting, and palm reading? Just as Hank Morgan is to Camelot, David Wilson is, in his own way, a mysterious stranger to Dawson's Landing.

What further confounds an unambiguous reading of Hank Morgan and David Wilson is an almost equal amount of benevolence that stands alongside their less attractive sides. If, in their more problematic moments—their desire for control, their need for attention, and their propensity (either intentionally or not) for mischievousness—Hank and Wilson embody the spirit of Tom Sawyer, then their compassionate and selfless side would tend to suggest strains of Huck Finn. Although not necessarily diametrically opposed, Tom and Huck are nonetheless two distinct types whose traits intermingle uncomfortably in many of Twain's later protagonists. While Hank Morgan does set out to "boss" Camelot through a highly staged and condescending series of manipulations, at the same time he voices his desire for a democratic inclusiveness that will uphold the dignity of even the most disenfranchised individual. Even though David Wilson uses courtroom dramatics to establish his reputation and popularity (and in the process relegitimizes racial delineations), he nonmaliciously does so in the name of justice. Depending on where you are in A Connecticut Yakee and Pudd'nhead Wilson, Hank and Wilson will read as either a devil or an angel, as either a selfish manipulating showman or an innocent pensive ethicist.

The enigmatic stranger returns with full dramatic force in the guise of Young Satan or No. 44. This character is the literary descendent of Twain's collection of manipulative pranksters and outsiders, embodied previously in the guise of Hank Morgan and David Wilson. All three—Hank, Wilson, and 44—are mysterious outsiders who come into a foreign world and, through a series of manipulative games, profoundly alter the course of events. All are performers—much in the mold of Tom Sawyer—whose feats are a mystery to their audience, but whose secrets are merely commonplace to their authors. All manipulate their audiences by controlling knowledge and information. All are revealers of truths that expose societal shams, individual hypocrisy, and illegitimate sources of power. All three are able to make life-and-death decisions with relatively little moral effort. All possess a fatal and even apocalyptic power that seems to have fascinated their creator. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, all three embody a series of oppositions that constantly vie for dominance, yet none of whose possibilities ever attain a privileged position within the text.

"Indeed, it is Twain's own intentional and grand ambiguity, this mystery that rests at the very heart of 44, that dogged him throughout his project and ultimately rendered it unfinished."

Yet, the question remains, what is No. 44? Much more than was the case with Hank Morgan and David Wilson, 44's identity seems purposefully clouded in a dreamlike ambiguity. Indeed, it is Twain's own intentional and grand ambiguity, this mystery that rests at the very heart of 44, that dogged him throughout his project and ultimately rendered it unfinished. From 1897 to 1908, Twain worked on four different versions of his mysterious stranger narrative, each one revealing a different angle, and in some cases a profound twist, on the nature of No. 44. An obvious, but nonetheless highly pertinent, example of this is 44's metaphysical origin. Is he an angel or is he a devil? And if he is an uncertain mixture of the two, is he more devil than angel, or is it the other way around? The answers vacillate both between and within the various texts. In "The Chronicle of Young Satan," he seems to be an amalgamation of both possibilities. As Young Satan reveals relatively early in the narrative, any investigations into the motives behind his actions will offer no answers, for his actions are beyond the human scope of the terms "good" and "evil." Those designations, he tells Theodor, are the result of man's degrading "Moral Sense" and are therefore alien to the young stranger. "We cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is." In one significant passage, the creation of his clay people, Young Satan reveals characteristics that suggest both the devil and Christ. Immediately after telling the boys his name, "Satan" (Twain italicizes the name for emphasis) then "held out a chip and caught a little woman on it who was falling from the scaffolding and put her back where she belonged." Although he possesses his uncle's name, he nonetheless plays the savior figure by snatching the woman from her death. But the possible significance of this action is undermined in Satan's next statement, when he says "she is an idiot to step backward like that and not notice what she is about," and later when he crushes with his fingers two men for fighting. Reproachment and condemnation have taken the place of forgiveness. Certainly, in a Judeo-Christian sense, Young Satan is an unambiguous expression of neither supreme deity.

Other signs in the text are mixed. Young Satan has taken his uncle's name, but he is nonetheless a self-professed angel. "It is a good family-ours," Satan tells the boys, "there is not a better. [My uncle] is the only member of it that has ever sinned." This last word is significant because it suggests some type of implied morality, an ethical dimension that Satan had previously strongly denied. Satan, in essence, begins to deconstruct himself. He possesses—in human terms—angelic qualities, such as a propensity for music and poetry, yet cryptically states that "it was from [his] uncle that he drew his support." By the end of the fragment, the reader knows no more about Young Satan than he did at the beginning. He is as insubstantial as a blank screen or transparent film, seemingly nothing more than a collection of each reader's projections. This characterization of Young Satan as transparent film is not just metaphorical, as Theodor describes it during one of Satan's more memorable exits:

He thinned away and thinned away until he was a soap-bubble, except that he kept his shape. You could see the bushes through him as clearly as you see the delicate iridescent colors of the bubble .… He sprang—touched the grass—bounded—floated along—touched again—and so on, and presently exploded,—puff! and in his place was vacancy.

The reader, in a critical act of deciphering Young Satan, can indeed empathize with Theodor's experience. Not only is the figure elusive, but his construction is precarious enough to where even the most careful of inquiries will—puff!—leave the critic empty-handed.

In "Schoolhouse Hill," 44's nature is less problematic. He seems, in the fullest sense, to be angelic. "I am not a devil," he tells Oliver Hotchkiss. Yet, although his father is indeed Satan (a familial holdover from "Young Satan"), he states emphatically, "I don't admire him." At his own admission, he was raised "partly in heaven, partly in hell," but this seems nothing more than a playful trope employed to convey his fallen parentage, for, just a few pages later, 44 tells Hotchkiss "I was in heaven; I had always lived in heaven, of course."

In this, a lighter and more humorous version of Twain's mysterious stranger, No. 44 is not so much an enigma as he is a metaphysical Tom Sawyer. He may be impish, but his heart is in the right place. Similarly, the servant devils that No. 44 summons from hell are not imposing demons, but cute "velvety little red fellows." More important, the "School-house Hill" 44 is an angel with a mission: "The fundamental change wrought in man's nature by my father's conduct must remain—it is permanent; but a part of its burden of evil consequences can be lifted from your race, and I will undertake it. Will you help?" There is little difference in tone between 44 asking Hotchkiss to assist in this Promethean task and Tom Sawyer encouraging Jim and Huck to join in on one of his adventures. Furthermore, in "Schoolhouse Hill," 44 takes on the obvious role of a savior figure—quite a departure from the amoral and shadowy figures of the other two manuscripts.

But if Twain casts a fog around the stranger in the "Young Satan" manuscript, he remains almost silent in the last version, "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger." Indeed, silence thematically permeates the text. Every time August or his duplicate Emile attempts to raise the question of his origin, No. 44 holds his tongue with "that mysterious check which had so often shut off a question which I wanted to ask." When August asks No. 44 the question that we all want to ask, "what are you?", he replies "Ah … now we have arrived at a point where words are useless."

More significantly, No. 44's ghostly effects function in a similar manner. On three notable occasions, each accompanying one of 44's demonstrations, August is stricken by an awful silence. First, when he sees the printing press working by itself, he is shaken by "a soundless emptiness, a ghostly hush":

all the different kinds of work were racing along like Sam Hill—and all in a sepulchral stillness. The way the press was carrying on, you would think it was making noise enough for an insurrection, but in a minute you would find it was only your fancy, it wasn't producing a sound … abundance of movement, you see, plenty of tramping to and fro, yet you couldn't hear a footfall; there wasn't a spoken word, there wasn't a whisper, there wasn't a sigh—oh, the saddest, uncanniest silence that ever was.

In each of the two other cases, the silence anticipates the ghostly performance. Immediately before the one-man minstrel show, August feels the profound silence of his solitude as he awaits No. 44: "It was awfully still and solemn and midnighty, and this made me feel creepy and shivery and afraid of ghosts." Then when he hears the dry, bony noise of the skeleton creeping up on him in the murky moonlit hall, "it shriveled me up like a spider in a candle-flame." Later, immediately prior to the Assembly of the Dead procession, August feels "the thickest and solidest and blackest darkness" surrounding him, with "a silence which was so still it was as if the world was holding its breath."

These scenes are strikingly similar to the ghostly stillness that Huck experiences at the end of chapter one of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Up in his room, awaiting the arrival of Tom Sawyer to provide some relief from his stifling life at the widow's, Huck notices a series of lonely, mournful sounds that spark his superstitious interests. Along with an owl, a whippoorwill, and crying dog—powerfully forbidding omens to the superstitious—he listens closely as:

the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful … and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn't make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me … Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood … Pretty soon a spider went crawling up my shoulder, and I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge it was all shriveled up.

Similar to the dark stillness that August experiences, the sounds that Huck hears outside his window all arouse dread. Significantly, these are noises that produce little sound. The leaves rustle mournfully the wind speaks in a whisper that he cannot comprehend, and, most telling of Huck's spooked disposition, a ghost cannot make itself understood. As is the case with August, the distressful portent of it all is encapsulated in the image of a spider in a flame, an indication for the superstitious that trouble is near at hand.

Forrest Robinson argues that such scenes in Huckleberry Finn reveal the fears, death wishes, and superstitious dread of Huck that emerge naturally from the text of the young boy's account; and that, further, these awful feelings spring from two psychological vulnerabilities that plague him throughout the novel: guilt over the safety of Jim and a mortal dread of solitude. Robinson asserts that "Huck Finn is not a very happy person," and that from the superstitious reveries of the first chapter to the false hopes of "the Territory ahead" in the last, Huck's plight is a depressing one:

At no point are we inclined to view Huck's narrative as a humorous riot of naive superstition; the acceleration of his terror is too immediate and authentic for release into comedy. Rather, we come away impressed with the vague but nearly palpable dread which emerges from Huck's solitude. Left to himself, he is at once fearful that his life will continue, and that it will end.

The silences in Huck's world, and all of the terrors that they betray, are similar to those of August's. The only difference between the two is the source from which these silences spring. In Huck's case, the dread arises because of a neutral silence in the world over which no one has any control. The silence is out there in Huck's world regardless of whether he experiences it, and it is only because of the psychological predisposition that he himself nurtures that he falls prey to his feelings of guilt and loneliness. Indeed, were it not for these psychological influences, Huck's life throughout the novel might resemble the Edenic life he experiences with Tom and Joe on Jackson's Island in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or the two or three idyllic days and nights he shares with Jim prior to the arrival of the King and the Duke. In fact, the language of this section of Huckleberry Finn bears the point. At the beginning of their self-imposed isolation, Jim and Huck waste their days away watching "the lonesomeness of the river," and "listening to the stillness." These moments of "just solid lonesomeness" do not frighten Huck, nor do they trigger any adverse feelings. This is one of the only sections of the book where the predominance of silence and stillness commingle with feelings of happiness.

In contrast to Huck's, August's silences and the mortal dread they produce are not natural to his world, but artificially constructed by the impish No. 44 (and by association, as August learns during No. 44's final revelation, constructed by himself). In each of the three cases cited above—the scenes at the printing press, the one-man minstrel show, and the Assembly of the Dead—August's fears spring from this metaphysical influence. It is important to remember that prior to the arrival of No. 44, August's life resembled the Eden of Jackson's Island. "Austria was far away from the world," as he recalls, and the town of Eseldorf "was a paradise for us boys." Even with the oppressive fear of the Church and Father Adolf looming in the background, August's life apparently holds no major difficulty. It is not until No. 44 comes along and "enlightens" August that he begins to set himself off from the others and feel the effects of his silent world.

This arrival of No. 44 brings about a bittersweet change over August (and Theodor); much like the silence underlying 44's metaphysical origins, his influence is likewise problematic. In the final chapter that Twain intended for The Mysterious Stranger, 44 is nothing more than a vision, a dream. "I am but a dream," he tells August, "your dream, creature of your imagination." Therefore, if No. 44 is a dream, the product of thought, then the nature of that dream—August's creative imagination—is of an unsteady power. It can both enlighten and emancipate as well as bind and manipulate. As the textualized embodiment of August's own mind, No. 44 bestows upon the child a magnificent creative ability, yet it is this same ability that reveals to him the darker underside of such powers, that of solitude and destruction. Then, August Feldner joins the ranks of the other powerful figures in Twain's later fiction, Hank Morgan and Pudd'nhead Wilson. The power that August creates—the power that he authors—is as frightening as it is liberating.

Three key passages from the final version of the Mysterious Stranger manuscript illustrate this point, and each one focuses on annihilation and August's ever-increasing solitude. Similar to the passages on silence cited above, the references to solitude and lonesomeness all come at significant points in the narrative and signal to the reader the awesome influence this tragic solitude has on him. As with the silences, all feelings of solitude have as their source the power of No. 44. The first instance of this comes soon after 44 and August witness Johann Brinker's elderly mother being burnt at the stake for being a witch. When August pities her for being given a cruel entrance to heaven, 44 shocks him by showing him otherwise. No. 44 produces before him the depths of hell, and "Before I could beg him to spare me, the red billows were sweeping by, and she was there among the lost. The next moment the crimson sea was gone, with its evoker, and I was alone" (emphasis added). August's last short and abrupt clause, "and I was alone," demonstrates the sheer force of this phenomenon.

Another such moment comes immediately after the Assembly of the Dead. Witnessing the almost endless procession of historic personages, "a kind of pathetic spectacle" as he notes, August is stricken by an emptiness similar to that he experienced at the ghostly printing press: "For hours and hours the dead passed by in continental masses, and the bone-clacking was so deafening you could hardly hear yourself think. Then, all of a sudden 44 waved his hand and we stood in an empty and soundless world." Although August is left standing with 44, as he learns in the next important passage, he is actually the source of 44, and therefore is entirely alone.

In the third significant passage, the most critically discussed section of any among the unfinished manuscripts, August's fears of solitude become a solipsistic dream/nightmare. This is in the last chapter of the book, where No. 44 reveals to him that "Life itself is only a vision, a dream." August calls this revelation "electrical," suggesting that it is as terrifying as it is invigorating: "Nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world,—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you!" August is once again alone, but this time it is for good and is accompanied by words of redemption.

August is definitely delivered at the end, but the question remains, delivered into what? The "optimistic" critics describe 44 as a positive figure, and view his final words as some sort of salvific message. But there is a problem with this approach. "Salvation" is a problematic word, for No. 44's revelation is as much a nightmare as it is a dream. Even solipsistic hope seems utterly dampened by 44's last words: "Nothing exists but You. And You are but a Thought—a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!" Earlier, August discovers just how forlorn this empty eternity actually is when he speaks with his duplicate, Emile Schwarz. Emile talks of an almost aimless wandering that echoes that of Hank Morgan's "plodding sad pilgrimage, this pathetic drift between the eternities," and suggests an endless progression between hope and despair. In an extended passage, Emile describes to August the existence of his disembodied self in terms of "general space," and describes it this way:

that sea of ether which has no shores, and stretches on, and on, and arrives nowhere; which is a waste of black gloom and thick darkness through which you may rush forever at thought-speed, encountering at weary long intervals spirit-cheering archipelagoes of suns which rise sparkling far in front of you in glories of light, apparently measureless in extent, but you plunge through and in a moment they are far behind, a twinkling archipelago again, and in another moment they are blotted out in darkness.

Here we have a key passage, curiously overlooked by many critics, that sheds much light on the troublesome ending of the novel, and likewise gives us a solid clue into the enigmatic nature of No. 44. Twain's "Conclusion of the book" is neither a condemnation of life—either in the existential or social sense—nor a salvific escape hatch. The ending does lapse into solipsism, but nevertheless portrays this solipsism as a nihilistic prison. The creative imagination, if it is an answer, is much like Emile's mystifying yet tragically solitary out-of-body experiences, a Sisyphean journey through endless darkness to transitory twinkling archipelagos.

This final creative expression emanates from a tragic Mark Twain who is unhappy with the world in which he lives but who is equally depressed by the more hopeful alternatives he might envision. Perhaps it is too simple to view what has become known as Twain's darkening literary vision as a result of the increasing tragedy that plagued his life. Certainly it is reasonable to assume that a part of the pessimistic side of the mysterious stranger could be due to the writer's series of losses during the early twilight of his life: the death of Suzy, the terminal illness and subsequent death of Livy, financial worries, and the ever-present fear that his creative powers had dried up. Yet if this is the case, it nonetheless contributed to an already-present literary predisposition that was there from his early years as a writer. Instead of reading Twain's oeuvre as a linear progression from light-hearted humor to an ever-increasing pessimism, perhaps it would be more fruitful to see in his entire output a constant negotiation between alternate possibilities, and that the seeds for his nihilistic No. 44 were sewn from the very beginning. From his earliest works he had attempted to give voice to the uncomfortable twin feelings of hope and despair. The jocular attitudes in The Innocents Abroad often give way to images of destruction and futility. The idyllic boyhood reveries in Huckleberry Finn are everywhere undermined by the abuse and helplessness that Huck and Jim encounter. These twin feelings are perhaps most vividly expressed in Roughing It, where the narrator Sam seeks to ascend the heights of the Dead Volcano of Haleakala, "which means, translated, 'the house of the sun."' Inside the crater of the dead volcano, Sam soon becomes enveloped by white clouds:

a ghostly procession of wanderers from the filmy hosts without had drifted through a chasm in the crater wall and filed round and round, and gathered and sung and blended together till the abyss was stored to the brim with a fleecy fog … Thus banked, motion ceased, and silence reigned.

In a passage that foreshadows the powerful light and dark imagery of Emile Schwarz's journey between twinkling archipelagos, Sam tells us that while standing within this shrouded crater, "I felt like the Last Man, neglected of the judgment, and left pinnacled in mid-heaven, a forgotten relic of a vanished world." Yet immediately after this dark reverie, he notices the bright rays of the rising sun, "the messengers of the coming resurrection." The power of these two juxtaposed experiences, the dour and the redemptive, strikes Sam as "the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always." Apparently, the two experiences that so struck Sam the narrator left Mark Twain the writer with a poignant dialectic that he was never able to fuse satisfactorily. No. 44 and the creative power of the imagination presented another in a series of ways out. But even through solipsistic playfulness, he could not escape the double-edged nature of No. 44 and his message, for as Emile tells August, every progression from darkness into dazzling light leads invariably back into the still gloom of darkness. The nature of No. 44, read in this way, is neither ominous nor upbeat, but an unstable mixture of both that is representative of many of Twain's later figures. In this sense, we can read the last words of August as an ambiguous and frustrating admonition of creative realization: "He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true." Twain, in an attempt to work through his last major narrative, was left standing on the edge of his own dead volcano, awaiting the dawn of an uncertain possibility.


Derek Parker Royal, "Terrible Dreams of Creative Power: The Question of 'No. 44,"' in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring 1999, p. 44.

Sholom J. Kahn

In the following essay excerpt, Kahn uses the ideas of seventeenth-century, French philosopher René Descartes to explicate the meaning of Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger" manuscripts.

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"The achievement of 'No. 44' is that Mark Twain managed to weave so much of his dream of life, his vision of man and the universe, so skillfully into this text."

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Sholom J. Kahn, "Epilogue: The Dream of Mark Twain," in Mark Twain's "Mysterious Stranger": A Study of the Manuscript Texts, University of Missouri Press, 1978, pp. 191–99.


Gibson, William M., "Introduction," in Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, edited by William M. Gibson, University of California Press, 1969, pp. 1–34.

Kahn, Sholom, Jr., Mark Twain's "Mysterious Stranger": A Study of the Manuscript Texts, University of Missouri Press, 1978, pp. 4–25, 199.

Royal, Derek Parker, "Terrible Dreams of Creative Power: The Question of No. 44," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring 1999, pp. 44–59.

Twain, Mark, No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, University of California Press, 2004.

Further Reading

Dolmetsch, Carl, "Our Famous Guest": Mark Twain in Vienna, University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Dolmetsch provides an account of Mark Twain's travels in Austria, discussed in the social and cultural context of Austrian history.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L., The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Eisenstein discusses the impact of advances in print technology on social, intellectual, and cultural life in early modern Europe.

Emerson, Everett, Mark Twain: A Literary Life, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Emerson offers a critical biography of Twain's life and work.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture, Oxford University Press, 1997.

Fishkin provides a collection of essays on the significance of Mark Twain to nineteenth-century American literature, culture, and society.

Hindman, Sandra, ed., Printing the Written Word: The Social History of Books, circa 1450–1520, Cornell University Press, 1991.

Hindman discusses the impact of advances in print technology and book publishing on fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European culture and society.

Lause, Mark A., Some Degree of Power: From Hired Hand to Union Craftsman in the Pre-industrial American Printing Trades, 1778–1815, University of Arkansas Press, 1991.

Lause discusses developments in the working conditions of print shop employees in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America.

Steinberg, S. H., Five Hundred Years of Printing, Oak Knoll Press, 1996.

Steinberg provides a concise historical overview of the history of printing and book publishing from the fifteenth century through the twentieth century.

Ward, Geoffrey C., and Dayton Duncan, Mark Twain, Knopf, 2001.

Ward and Duncan offer a pictorial biography of Twain, based on the documentary film biography directed by Ken Burns.

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