Mark Twain’s Humor and Wisdom: The Prince and the Pauper

Captain Mark Twain
“Against the assault of laughter, nothing stands.” Mark Twain

I just finished leading a series of eight classes on Mark Twain’s books, The Prince and the Pauper, and Tom Sawyer at the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia. In discussing The Prince and the Pauper, which Twain wrote in 1882, our students marveled at his knowledge of the history of English Royalty, going back to the fifteenth century. We were also impressed that Twain, who had been known as the master of Southern American dialect, was also able to write about the two boy’s adventures using a credible version of Shakespearean-like dialogue.

Underscoring a major theme of the story, Twain once said, “Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.” The premise is that Tom wished that he was a prince, and the prince felt constrained by the restrictions and obligations of royalty; he longed for the freedom to experience the world of an ordinary boy in England. The premise was made believable because of the strong resemblance that each boy had to the other. Of course, both boys found out that what they had imagined they would experience living in each other’s shoes was far different from the reality.

The king is convinced that his son is just having a temporary memory issue. He will go to great lengths to protect the reputation of his only male heir. He rules that anyone who even talks about the prince’s apparent insanity will have his head chopped off. Tom, then, has no choice. He must give his best imitation of the prince; no one, at least officially, can doubt that he is the rightful heir. As Tom tries to learn how to act like he is the prince, he has a fistful of hilarious adventures. These antics involve Tom: trying to understand the role of his whipping boy; cracking nuts with the Royal Seal; and struggling to remember Greek that he never learned. Perhaps the phrase, “It’s all Greek to me,” came from this story. Just as Tom is getting used to the role and the rightful use of the power of a prince, the king dies. Tom is then faced with the dilemma of what to do about his impending coronation. He still can’t convince anyone that he is not the real prince. So, should he go ahead with the coronation under false pretenses? Fortunately, the actual prince shows up before Tom Canty can be falsely installed as the king. At first, the royal family and the attendants are confused. Who is the rightful heir to the throne? The pauper is wearing king’s robes and the true prince is wearing rags and the street clothes that Tom would have worn. By illustrating this confusion, Twain brings out the adage that “clothes makes the man.” Our students also discussed the question of whether “What looks like a duck and quacks like a duck is really a duck?” Usually, most people would agree with that statement. However, in Twain’s story, he demonstrated that the answer was, “maybe.” The identity issue between the prince and the pauper isn’t finally resolved the end of the story. However, during this romp, readers got to enjoy the hilarious anecdote where Tom helped the actual prince to locate the document that was required to coronate him as the true king. Twain’s fictional story was based on King Edward VI, who was the son of Henry the Eighth and the former Queen, Jane Seymour. In Twain’s tale, King Edward learned a great deal from about the needs of the common man by experiencing the life of a peasant in England. In real life, Edward ruled wisely and brought about many social, legal, and religious reforms. Unfortunately, he had a short reign, living only from 1547 until 1553.

Our students thought that Tom Canty, the Pauper, seemed like the English version Tom Sawyer. Both of Twain’s Toms had a strong desire to seek adventures, a tendency to get into and survive dangerous situations, a high degree of adaptability, a developing sense of conscience, a strong ethical code, a keen sense of humor, and a love for self-learning. The lifelong learners in our class were convinced that Twain must have re-written these two books in the fifty or more years since we had read them last. We were amazed that they contained more profound humor and wisdom than we had remembered in those books as children. Most critics have judged that The Prince and the Pauper wasn’t as important as several of Twain’s other books. However, I would disagree. It has a tightly constructed plot, and readers feel a great deal of empathy for the both boys as they grapple with sixteenth-century problems in realistic historic settings. Their adventures are made even more believable since Tom Canty interacts with and has conversations with several members of the royal family, including Elizabeth, the future Queen of England, and Mary of Scotts, After a summer of discussing the wisdom, irony, biting sarcasm and criticism of two of Twain’s best books, we concluded that he was one of the most influential writers we have studied in our three-year series on classic literature. Ernest Hemingway once said that all American Literature started with Mark Twain. I would also add that American wit, humor, and cynicism also began with Twain. In a future blog, I will discuss Tom Sawyer. Among the other topics our class addressed was the issue of whether Tom Sawyer is a free-standing book, or planned as a prequel to Huckleberry Finn.


 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctiona##l Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray at the Richmond Poe Museum

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