Friday, March 8, 2013

Reviewing Mark Twain's "The Mysterious Stranger"

It was 1590—winter.  Austria was far away from the world, and asleep; it was still the Middle Ages in Austria, and promised to remain so forever.”
~Opening lines of The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Theodor and his two friends, Nikolaus and Seppi, live in a small village in Medieval Austria.   One day they meet a mysterious stranger, a youth named Satan. This Stranger makes comments that lead one to suspect he is an angel—or something like an angel, as he admits he was named after his “uncle” the Devil—and he has special powers over the forces of nature, such as generating fire or constructing tiny people. 

At first the boys think he is great fun, and Theodor introduces Satan to the villagers under the name Philip Traum. The word “Traum” is like the German verb traumen, “to dream,” which is interesting since Theodor has made clear in the opening of his story that the whole of Austria is asleep. There is something dreamlike, surreal, and unsettling about the storyline and the writing itself. 

What started off as a friendship with an extraordinary being soon starts to decay as Satan’s disregard of human life begins to manifest itself in cruelty. He creates tiny humans and then destroys them because he can. He constantly points out the utter depravity and tarnished state of the human race. He maligns the idea that humans might have a purpose other than to be controlled, manipulated, and killed.

Finally, Satan tells Theodor that what seems like a dream—this entire reality, Theodor’s whole life, in fact—is a dream.  There is no life, death, afterlife.  There are no other people, no such thing as time, no such confinements as bodies: it is all a dream.  Theodor’s dream.  He is the only thing that exists, and as it is, he is asleep:

“You perceive, now, that these things are all impossible except in a dream.  You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word, that they are a dream, and you the maker of it.  The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.”
~ Chapter 11

This is what is horrifying about this story, and this is why I have grouped it with other tales of terror. Philosophy can more blood-curdling than the latest Halloween chainsaw flick. The Mysterious Stranger is Twain’s following through on what Descartes concluded in his cognito ergo sum philosophy: that all I can be sure of is that I exist. And even then, I don’t know the true nature of my existence. Everything else that I “know” must be taken on faith. 

Recommended Reading Age: High School

Parental Notes: Traumer may be Satan. Otherwise it's general thematic creepiness and pessimism. Not your average Adventures of Tom Sawyer here, that's for sure. 
Available: Free on Kindle or available for purchase in paperback. Since it's a short story, it may also be included in the majority of Twain anthologies. 
Adaptations: Yet again there is a cinematic version I didn’t find out about until I searched it on the all-knowing interwebs. Although frankly it looks above my fear grade.

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