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When Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper was published in 1881, the Atlanta Constitution sang its praises in no uncertain terms: “The book comes upon the reading public in the shape of a revelation.” A timeless tale of switched identities, Twain’s story revolves around the miserably poor Tom Canty “of Offal Court,” who is lucky enough to trade his rags for the gilded robes of England’s prince, Edward Tudor. As each boy is mistaken for the other, Tom enters a realm of privilege and pleasure beyond his most delirious dreams, while Edward plunges into a cruel, dangerous world of beggars and thieves, cutthroats and killers. Befriended by the heroic Miles Hendon, Edward struggles to survive on the squalid streets of London, in the process learning about the underside of life in “Merry England.”
With its mixing of high adventure, raucous comedy, and scathing social criticism, presented in a hilarious faux-sixteenth-century vernacular that only Mark Twain could fashion, The Prince and the Pauper remains one of this incomparable humorist’s most popular and oft-dramatized tales.
Robert Tine is the author of six novels, including State of Grace and Black Market. He has written for a variety of periodicals and magazines, from the New York Times to Newsweek.
The story itself—the swapping of identities between Edward Tudor, heir to the throne of England, and one of his lowliest subjects, a certain Tom Canty of Offal Court, London—was a neat conceit and one that no one would have doubted Twain would have immense fun spinning out. However, while there are moments in the book of what the critics called Twain’s “burlesque,” this apparently simple story delves deeply into the baseness of the human condition—and examines it closely at both ends of the social spectrum. It is not difficult to imagine wanton cruelty and pain meted out in the slums and low dens of Tudor London. But Twain did not spare the aristocracy; he accused them of cupidity, treachery, and outright violence. Brutality is no less brutal for having been dealt by a finely attired lord of the realm rather than by a drink-soaked mendicant clad in rags, worried that he will not come up with the two pennies required to pay his rent. One has to admit that to Twain’s contemporaries, and to readers today, The Prince and the Pauper is not a funny book.
But it is an exciting one, almost a thriller. Will the deception succeed? Will Tom Canty take the throne? And will Edward Tudor, Prince of Wales as Twain erroneously styles him, live his life in rags and squalor, raving and raging until his dying day about his own blue blood and the common, ungrateful usurper of the throne? It’s a close thing, and there are times when the reader doubts that Twain will manage to pull off a suitably happy ending.
Then there is the problem with the language Twain employs. The book is filled with archaic and, in the mouths of the noble characters, flowery language. The more base characters speak a guttural if elaborate patois: “‘Gone stark mad as any Tom o’ Bedlam! . . . But mad or no mad, I and thy Gammer Canty will soon find where the soft places in thy bones lie, or I’m no true man!’” p. 24. The aristocrats are no less orotund, even when condemning one of their own to death: “‘Alack, how I have longed for this sweet hour! and lo, too late it commeth, and I am robbed of this so coveted chance. But speed ye, speed ye! let others do this happy office [that is, a beheading] sith ’tis denied to me’” p. 52. This is not the Mark Twain the reading public was used to—we are a long way from Tom, Huck, and Pudd’nhead. But Twain had always been a meticulous and discerning student of the spoken word, and absent a living example of Tudor speech, he readily admitted reading a great deal of Shakespeare to get the language down for both prince and pauper.
At first, the language seems a trifle daunting, but it quickly becomes easy to read and in the end adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the book. To have had his characters speak in the manner of Victorian Londoners of his age would have undercut the profound sense of time and place Twain manages to convey so well.
Having said how much The Prince and the Pauper is not a typical example of Twain’s work, it is worth taking a look at the factors that make it, in fact, a comfortable fit with the rest of the Twain canon. Like Tom Canty, the pauper of the story, Twain knew well the privations of youthful poverty. His father, John Marshall Clemens
1798–1847, was an inept businessman, perennially in debt, sometimes bringing his family to such low financial water as to force the selling of family land, and even the household furniture. At one point in Twain’s youth the family was forced to face the humiliation of having to take in boarders. True, Twain never knew the crushing poverty of the Canty clan, but he grew up knowing the cold sting of want.
Tom Canty’s father is an ogre, a tyrant, a drunkard, and an abuser. Were he alive today his treatment of his family would, more than likely, land him in jail. Twain’s own father, while no monster, was cold, distant, unaffectionate, and, it seems, uninterested in any of his seven children, still less in his wife Jane Lampton Clemens, 1803–1890, with whom he lived in a loveless marriage. As Twain admits so candidly in a fragment of an autobiography published in 1907: “I had never once seen a member of the Clemens family kiss another one—except once. When my father lay dying in our house in Hannibal he put his arm around my sister’s neck and drew her down and kissed her, saying, ‘Let me die.’” Paine, A. B. Mark Twain: A Biography, Vol. I, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912, p. 73. It is not difficult to imagine that Twain could take his own experiences of poverty and cruelty and amplify them into the truly ghastly conditions of Tom Canty’s early life.
As Twain’s reputation grew he was transformed from lowly newspaper reporter into celebrated author. This celebrity allowed him to hobnob with the Great and Good including the Russian czar, the German kaiser, and the emperor of Austria-Hungary and to develop a keen eye for the doings of the upper classes. The courts of the nineteenth century were at least as grand, perhaps even more so, than those of Tudor England. Mark Twain was a proud American and a republican, and he scoffed at the very notion of aristocracy, as well as at a type of American traveler of a certain class who fawned over the titled and highborn. However, he did admit: “We are all like—on the inside . . . we dearly like to be noticed by a duke. . . . When a returned American is playing the earls he has met I can look on silent and unexcited and never offer to call his hand, although I have three kings and a pair of emperors up my sleeve.” Camfield, p.376. These crowned heads do more than just pump up an awestruck American Grand Tourist: Twain’s travels in the courts, palaces, and lavish country houses of Europe must have provided grist for his mill and found their way into the pages of The Prince and the Pauper.
Posted February 28, 2005
Turn back time; sixteenth century England is where you will be. One will fine oneself in THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER by Mark Twain. England is in chaos; terrors, poverty, plague and filth is everywhere. People are begging to stay alive. Tom Canty ¿the pauper¿ is the main character in the book. Tom is a regular person. He has grown up in the filth of Elizabethan England. Another main character in the book is Edward Tudor ¿the prince.¿ Edward grows up in the gentry of society. Tom¿s dream comes true when Tom switches places with Edward Tudor. One day Tom is by the grounds where Edward is. Edward wants to play with him. By mistake Tom dresses up as the Prince and Edward dresses up as the Pauper and then the Pauper [Edward] is kicked out of the grounds. The Prince observes what the people of England are going through. While the Prince observes he becomes a pheasant: the back bone of society. The Pauper goes through the opposite; he becomes a gentry. There are two reoccurring themes in the book, appearance verses reality and image verses identity. Vibrantly expressed is appearance verses reality. ¿The soldiers presented arms with their halberds, opened the gates, and presented again as the little Prince of Poverty passed in, in his fluttering rags, to join hands with the Prince of Limitless Plenty¿ (19.) The reader will see that language device used frequently in the book. Image verses identity can be seen within the quote. The description of Tom and Edward show image of their identity. The sole of the reader will know Tom will always be the beggar and Edward the elite class. Image verses identity is another reoccurring theme in the book. Edward¿s image is of high royal status. Edward¿s identity changes as the reader observes what he goes through. This theme makes the book better then if nothing changed in the mood of the society. The reader might think of the hero¿s journey. Tom¿s transformation is the one and only dream. It is achieved which is the main reason to read the book. The reader will vision the lowest class of Elizabethan society reach its upper limit. The vision of escape and exile is what Edward witnesses with the reader. His story isn¿t the best. Edward is thrown back into the throbbing jungle of Elizabethan society. This book has a very bizarre language which one might not enjoy. Imagine the beginning of modern English that is used in Shakespeare and then mix it with our flamboyant English of the present. That might be scary territory for people anyway but it is not my main recommendation. My number one recommendation is because of the two reoccurring themes in the book appearance verses reality and image verses identity. The reader has a phantasmagoric experience between the two characters. The reader will be able to vividly see the prince and the pauper in their two new and different words.
4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 2, 2012
I had to write a 7th grade book report on it and it was simple. Even with the writing it was very easy to understand. And if you already did reasch for another project on crimes and punishments back then, then you know what to expect. Great book for book reports.
3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2012
Posted December 26, 2011
I love mark twain and i was reading this book in class and i needed to read it but i hate reading from pages so this was the same version i was reading in class and i recomend it to all kids and adults
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2011
"The Prince and the Pauper"'s strengths reside mostly in its author's wonderful writing and its creative and humurous "comedy of errors" style involving wild mix-ups and misunderstandings. Mark Twain is an amazingly skillful author and he presents his topic in a wonderful way. However, the story cannot compare to Twain's other work and is not as memorable or spirited. Some of the plot turns feel slightly unnecessary and the titular pauper is underdeveloped as compared to the prince when he could have had a lot of potential. I think the setting was somewhat stifling as well, seeing as Mark Twain has a definite American flavor to his writing style, and his dialogue shines when filled with 19th-century dialects. Although I would absolutely reccomend "The Prince and the Pauper," it would not be at the top of my list.
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Posted April 2, 2012
Mark Twain is hailed as one of the greatest writers of his time and not for no reason. While The Prince and the Pauper is not my favorite book by Twain it is definitely a great book to read. It has a lot of interesting characters and a glance from the future to the past attitude that makes this story a great read even to modern day readers. It's a coming of age story with plot twists and some new techniques tried out by Twain. There are growing aches in which any one could relate to both of the protagonists and can easily see the both sides of the mirror.
While, it won't be easy to figure out Twain's syntax and diction, therefore eliminating many younger readers who would other wise immensely enjoy this book, it is a book that can be enjoyed by children and their parents, or their adults and some young adults as well who are willing to put the time into this book.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 15, 2015
Posted August 3, 2014
Posted June 6, 2014
Our local Next Chapter Book Clubs are having fun reading this book out loud to each other and imagining what it would be like to trade places with a prince. Check out our clubs on the web and Facebook.
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Posted December 9, 2013
Posted July 9, 2013
A really interesting book about two boys, a prince and a pauper, that switched places. The prince found himself an outcast and the pauper became a king. Very entertaining.
Posted April 24, 2013
Posted September 4, 2011
Posted March 14, 2010
What a wonderful book! I recall having to read it in my youth and loving it then as well. Several movies have been made of this material. The plot is ingenious and the settings are great. Also of value is the history you learn from the book and the characters in it, especially "The Prince". I loved the descriptions of the inside of the Prince's apartments in his castle and I loved also the description of the hovels where the poor people dwelt. A lot of new laws were enacted during the true lifetime of this young Prince and it is good to see how they helped the people of England. It is a one-of-a kind American classic that everyone should read and keep on his library as I have.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2010
The Prince and the Pauper is a fabulous story. But the conversations are writen in (old English) which I had a little hard time understanding. If you feel up to it, you should read this book becasue it is a great classic and a fun story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 10, 2009
I liked the basic storyline, the characters, and the social commentary about the world at that time. The ending is a bit too "Deus Ex Machina" in how everything just turns out for the better, but the overall plot and characters are interesting and it made me feel like I had a bit of a snapshot of what life in the mid 1500s was like in London. Like Dickens, Twain could write interesting stories that take a surprisingly deep look at the world. Both of them have had their stories turned into cheap cartoons that strip out a lot of the meat, but that's why you need to read the original books. So quit reading this and pick up a book already.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 1, 2008
This story has much to say about two people who look exactly alike but have very different fortunes. Their paths cross and they change places. As a result both learn a great deal about social injustice.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2007
Posted May 17, 2007
This book is a drama and a comedy, and an adventure of two boys who believe, like the old saying, 'The grass is always greener.' Like the title, a prince and a pauper switch identities to live the other's life as a break from their own. The book is that simple but it's filled with danger and intrigue as well as laughs and two quite talented boys, one of formal education and the other of street education, and both learn quickly the environment of the other. The book is so good that a movie starring Errol Flynn was made in 1937 and it is fantastic. In 1977 Charlton Heston did a remake that I regret I've never seen, but if it's true to the book it must be very good.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.