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Mark Twain- Surprise



         Surprise is a feature found in pieces of literature that serves the purpose of twisting the plot and conveying shock. In order for a surprise to work, it “must be convincing as well as unexpected” (Lodge, p.71). Lodge’s chapter on surprise refers to Aristotle’s own definition of the element. Surprise is Peripeteia, defined as “reversal, the sudden shift from one state of affairs to its opposite.” This surprise can also be experienced by the characters (Lodge, p. 71). Within his short stories, Mark Twain uses surprise to counter religious notions, specifically Christian beliefs in predestination. Twain evokes surprise in readers to show discrepancies between religious ideals and the reality of human life.

In “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”, Twain shows readers that reality undermines Christian rules. In the story of the bad boy, Jim goes against the lessons taught in the Sunday books without punishment, as said by the narrator repeatedly (Twain, p. 11). He creates mischief at school, home, and around his community, escaping punishment each time (Twain, p. 11-12). While in Twain’s second story, Jacob is a saintly boy who follows the lessons written in the Sunday books (Twain, p. 30).  The Sunday books are representative of the Christian morals taught to children by the Church. Twain shows through the narrator’s surprise that the expectations of a bad boy being punished and a good boy being rewarded are not met. The idea of the narrator’s surprise is humorous to readers due to its continuity throughout the story.  The reaction proves the extent to which readers accept Jim is the bad boy who is able to commit sin without consequence. The apple tree incident is an instance of Jim’s “luck.” He climbs an apple tree to steal fruit and “came down alright,” escaping the dog that was supposed to serve as the so-called punishment the Sunday books predicted (Twain, p. 11). The narrator’s surprise is shown when he says “Oh! No;” in reaction to the predictions of the Sunday books.

In contrast, Jacob is a good boy who follows the Sunday books, hoping for the reward promised within them. His expectations are repeatedly disappointed. For example, Jacob tries to help a blind man who fell because of some mischievous children, but is whacked instead and is accused of being the wrongdoer (Twain, p. 31). The narrator shows Jacob’s surprise after such incidents where reality does not follow the storyline. “He was perfectly dumbfounded” when the bad boys on the boat came home safely and Jim broke his own arm after stealing from the apple tree (Twain, p. 31).  It is understandable the Twain shows the fallacy of society.  However, it is unclear whether Twain directs his message only to devout followers of Christianity. Each incident the boys encounter challenges their beliefs while others are left unsurprised by the pattern. However, the pattern for unsurprised readers can change when Twain shifts the severity of the incidents.

Twain surprises all readers with grim endings for both children. To show the extent of the corrupt and immoral society brings readers to question how such people in a society could follow the lessons of the Christian books. For Jim, the narrator says that he “brained [his family] with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality.” He additionally ends up as part of the Legislature while being “universally respected” (Twain, p. 13). For Jacob, his attempt at saving puppies in an “Old iron foundry” earned him a “shot” “through the roof” which killed him and scattered his body “around among four townships” (Twain, p. 32). Both these conclusions are extreme versions of the instances that preceded them. As previously stated in Lodge’s chapter, surprise must be convincing and unexpected. Readers at first can understand how every instance would unfold for Jim and Jacob just from reading the title. However, the ending takes the pattern to an extreme such that lives are ended to prove the invalidity of the Sunday books. Twain takes the nature of humanity of society mocks it by showing its hypocrisy through deviation from Sunday books. The Christian stories and morals were created for children to follow so that society could thrive and be fair. Reality shows that those expectations are never fulfilled. This theme of reality undermining religious notions can be seen in other works of Twain. Not only does Twain use the real world to challenge religious stories, but also the behavior of religious figures.

Twain uses surprise in “Extracts From Adam’s Diary” by normalizing a religious figure. He emphasizes the formation of language and abstract concepts rather than focusing on the biblical story. The short story is about the life of Adam and Eve moving from the garden of Eden to Earth. Throughout the story, new words are introduced-relatively to the time of the story, such as the pronoun “We” (Twain, p. 120). Twain chooses diary entries as the format of the story to surprise readers. This is an appropriate way to approach surprise because readers only see the Adam and Eve as symbolic figures. Readers are not used to reading about their thoughts and opinions, let alone accompany them on their discoveries of new concepts. An instance of surprise for readers is when Adam states: “The new creature says its name is Eve” in his 7th entry (Twain, p. 121). At this point, readers discover that the short story is about the two biblical figures, Adam and Eve. Christians and others who believe the story of Adam and Eve are even more surprised to find that Adam had been calling Eve a creature in prior entries because biblical figures are known to be glorified and respected. The idea that Adam calls Eve a creature and needs her to teach him to call her a “she” (Twain, p. 121) shows his unpreparedness in life. Adam’s unpreparedness in life is used to maintain the theme of using the biblical being for introducing new concepts already present in the modern world. However, others may find it offensive and shocking. There are other instances within the short story that readers may be surprised by due to the sacrilegious implications. The discovery of Cain is an instance where religious-minded people may be surprised because the original scripture states that he was born (Twain, p.125). What may keep religiously-minded readers from being offended is the fact that Twain does not dismiss the story as invalid. Therefore, the surprise is limited to the way Twain causes the religious figures to behave.  The major instance that shocks religious readers is the way that Twain introduces the concept of a joke. This is because it takes the original event of Adam and Eve being both responsible for their expulsion from Eden and places the blame completely on Adam. In one of his entries after the expulsion, Eve claims “that the Serpent assured her that the forbidden fruit was not apples, it was chestnuts.” A chestnut was a “figurative term meaning an aged and moldy joke.” Adam recalls in the entry making such type of joke about a waterfall before the disaster where all animals became violent and chaos ensued (Twain, p. 125). To secure a respectable individual in a situation where he is making a joke dishonors the reputation he had in the original story. Therefore, Twain shifts the story of Adam and Eve to such an extent in order to introduce human emotions in a biblical story. No longer is the idea that Adam and Eve disobeyed God the main focus.  Religious themes are ignored as Twain emphasizes the protagonist’s’ thoughts on the creation of abstract concepts prevalent in reality, like jokes and pronouns.

“Eve’s Diary” also ignores the original biblical story of Adam and Eve. The story shows instances which surprise readers and are delivered when displaying femininity. Just like in the “Bad Little Boy”, “Good Little Boy”, and “Adam’s Diary”, Mark uses ignores religion to display reality and basic human nature. Unlike those stories, “Eve’s Diary” includes topics regarding gender identity and the role of spouses in a relationship. This is present at the end of the story when Eve accepts to be loyal to and love Adam due to his masculinity (Twain, p. 212). Such thoughts and ideas make the bible story informal and cause readers to form personalities out of the characters. In the short story, Eve talks about her life in Eden and the struggle to get Adam’s attention due to his adherence to objectivity as a male. She is often found to be admiring the beauty of nature and making names for things. An instance of a relatively new discovery is when Eve creates fire and shows interest in it by clapping her hands and laughing, while Adam simply asked about it and “went away” (Twain, p. 206). Such instances of Eve’s wonder may be perceived as child-like to readers, surprising readers because it does not glorify the religious figure. Twain additionally provides Eve’s character with dislikes and problems that do not pertain to the idea of sin and disobedience to God. Eve often is upset with Adam because he does share excitement in her interests, like the incident with fire. Readers are shocked with the vast amount of personality Eve has. Unlike Adam, who is objective and keeps his mind focused on certain tasks like building shelters and traveling, Eve’s diary is packed with emotions, thoughts, regrets, and other human characteristics not provided in the original story.

Twain brings into his stories messages about of real gender roles, origin of abstract concepts, and reality when one adheres to or deviates from morals. The scenarios that Twain places his characters into are provoking, yet the purpose is for his readers to think about reality and how it can be applied to religious books. Twain shows the moral corruptness of society in “The Bad Little Boy” and “Good Little Boy” to show the irony of how other expect society to work based on Christian books. In the diaries of Adam and Eve, Twain does not focus on the origin of sin and instead surprises readers by writing about their helplessness and confusion in life. Overall, Twain surprises his readers by using religion in his stories to show the immoral nature of society and true human emotion.



Works Cited

Lodge, David. The art of fiction. Vintage, 2011.

Twain, Mark. The best short stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove, Modern Library,  2004.



1 Comment

  1. fatmahalamoudi says:

    Super insightful explanation of the element you have. Everything related to “Surprise” and revolved around it, using relevant examples. I really enjoyed reading it, and if one did not know about Mark Twains short stories, they would know from this well written blogpost!

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