Saturday, July 4, 2009
The Prince and the Pauper
The Prince and the Pauper: A Tale for Young People of All Ages
© 1882 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)
In my youth I read many "classic" works of literature, but I did so through a series of children's books that made the language of works such as Great Expectations easier to read and included plenty of pictures for illustration. In the years since I've read one or two of those books again in their original format -- The Call of the Wild, for instance -- but not many. Since the basic memory of those books is slipping away, and since it seems that I should have read books like Great Expectations by this point, I think I will be trying a few in what remains of this summer. I've been meaning to start with Twain, as I have many memories of reading through works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court with my father late at night. Twain is regarded as one of the quintessential American authors.
It's been many years since I heard the story of The Prince and the Pauper. I still remembered its basics, as I imagine most people do: it is the story of two young boys, one a prince and the other living in a place aptly called "Offal Court". Young Tom Canty, despite his very humble and very unpleasant surroundings, has higher pretensions. He conducts himself in a noble manner, making his family and friends think he really could be royalty. Such is his fascination for royalty that he finds himself at the palace gates one day, peering through the iron bars that protect England's royal family from the rabble. His curiosity does not amuse the palace guards, who begin to rough him up before being stopped by Prince Edward. Edward is curious about the pauper and invites him in. As it it happens, the boys look very much alike and they decide to swap clothes on a lark. As this is tempting fate, Edward is promptly thrown out of the palace by the guards and poor Tom Canty is left to cope with being royalty.
Knowing this as I did, I figured it would be a story about how "the good things in life aren't things", that Tom and Edward would both realize that the love of a family, however poor, is superior to all the wealth in the world. I suppose (in retrospect) that this is too romantic and aesopy for Twain. Tom Canty is in no position to learn about the love of family: his father and grandmother are downright abusive, as Prince Edward will learn when he's picked up by Tom's father. Edward will spend most of the book trying to escape his hateful father's clutches. The book is social criticism: by forcing a child of luxury to live in the streets and view them through alien eyes, and by allowing a child of the streets to see the royal government's operations through an everyman perspective, Twain criticizes the class differences and the uncaring and impotent governments of the time. Twain as narrator is present in the story: his mid-19th century language is far different from the 17th century language his characters use, and he often addresses the reader directly.
Although I enjoyed the story, it took more attention than I expected to get through some of the chapters. I suppose that may caused by when the book was written, but I've read plenty of 19th century texts and find them to be more easily readable than this particular work of Twain's.