Many of Mark Twain’s works are heavily critical of topics such as religion and social divides. He uses satire to depict these appraisals efficiently, and one of the satirical elements he employs is coincidence. Interestingly, Twain utilizes it in a differing way to its traditional usage but still manages to achieve the same effect.
In order to criticize representations of good and bad boys in Sunday school books, Mark Twain wrote two complementary stories: “The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” and “The Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief”. He wrote two separate plots involving two very different boys. One wants to be the perfect embodiment of a good Christian boy while the other is the quintessential ‘bad boy’ that is illustrated in the Sunday school books.
The presumed result of the actions done by both boys is overthrown continuously. Jim, the bad boy, never faces the consequences for his misdeeds while Jacob, the good boy, is continually punished despite his moral behavior. At the end of each story the boys have entirely contrasting fates: Jim “is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.” while Jacob dies a violent death while trying to conduct a heroic deed.
Both “The Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper” and “The Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” are stories that show a lack of coincidence because of how frequently the boy’s lives oppose the Sunday school stories. If Jim were to be ever caught and punished for one of his misdeeds, or if Jacob was rewarded for his honorable conduct, then that would count as coincidence. By having both of the boy’s lives so thoroughly contradict what they learn, Twain drifts into the realm of irony rather than coincidence.
Furthermore, Mark Twain mocks Calvinist ideology and the whole concept of ‘Sunday School boy stories’ by portraying that the plots of these books rely purely on luck. The basis of Calvinist ideas is the belief in fate and, therefore, disbelief in coincidence. Twain heavily critiques this by portraying Sunday school books as dependent on coincidence. Whether that entails the good boy caricature somehow stumbling upon the bad boys up to no good by luck or a boy who is framed for a misdeed is coincidently saved by a passerby who saw the truth.
Another short story that Twain uses to mock religion is “Extracts From Adams Diary.” It is fundamentally a parody of the Genesis creation narrative. It is peppered through with happenstances from Eve coincidentally carrying only the forbidden apples when Adam is hungry to her finding baby Cain in the forest. The presence of coincidence is especially ironic in this case because as previously mentions, one the core beliefs in religion is predestination.
“A True Story, Word for Word as I Heard It” also displays the usage of coincidence. It is a short story that starts off as the narrator listens to his slave—Aunt Rachel—tell the condensed story of her life after he mentions that she seems so joyous and burden-free. Eventually, the voice of the narrator is overtaken by Aunt Rachel as she tells her story of loss at the hands of slave auctions. All seven of her children are separated from her and sold as slaves, and through coincidence, she is somehow able to find one of her sons: Henry.
Usually, authors use coincidence as a plot device to imitate real life symmetries or as a Horatian comedic element. Twain, on the other hand, does the opposite; despite his works being satire, he does not use an excess of coincidence and instead limits it. By doing this, he allows the tone of his compositions to become more Juvenalian which in turn allows the messages he puts in them to be more impactful.
Twain, Mark. The best short stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove, Modern Library, 2004.
Lodge, David. The art of fiction. Vintage, 2011.