Lessons from The Prince and the Pauper

I have just finished reading the first book on the September 2013 Reading List: The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain. And honestly, I liked it a great deal more than I imagined I would. The book was easy to read, with a simple yet interesting plot that quickly gained the sympathy of Twain’s audience.

Thus far, my only association with this great American writer is through the first few pages of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I forced myself to read. The man is a lot cooler than than book would make him appear. Before we get into the book, here is a brief biography.

About Mark Twain:


Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens in 1835 shortly after a sighting of Halley’s Comet. This seemingly minor coincidence truly impacted him, as he believed it a sign that he was somehow connected to the greater universe and its ongoings. Later in his life Clemens reported said “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” This quote proved to be prophetic, as he died the same week that Halley’s Comet next appeared. Spooky!

He is frequently referred to as “the Father of the American novel” due to the fact that so many of his stories take place on the banks of the Mississippi and highlight the innovation and culture surrounding the all-American steamboat. This inspiration came from the fact that he himself was a Steamboat captain for much of his life. He was forced to stop his work due to the outbreak of the Civil War (much like the other September 2013 author, Walt Whitman). Out of work, he headed West, hoping to find success in the gold and silver industries. When this failed he took up job writing stories for a local paper under the pen-name “Mark Twain”. His intimate knowledge of the steamboat culture of the Mississippi made him quickly famous. And so we get one of the most celebrated American writers of all time.

(Biographical info courtesy of http://www.biography.com/people/mark-twain-9512564)

The Prince and the Pauper

This classic story revolves around two young English boys born at the same instant: the dirt-poor Tom Canty of the slum Offal Court, and Prince Edward son of the notorious King Henry VIII. Tom spends his days (when he isn’t begging or being beaten for not begging enough) dreaming of how life would be if he were “a real prince”. Perchance on day Edward sees Tom observing him through the palace gates, and seeing that they are the same age, invites him inside. The Prince quickly learns of Tom’s impoverished life, but rather than turning his nose up at such conditions, longs to be a part of it:

“Oh, prithee, say no more, ’tis glorious! If that I could but clothe me in raiment like to thine, and strip my feet, and revel in the mud once, just once, with none to rebuke me or forbid, meseemeth I could forego the crown!” (pp. 17)

Naturally Tom agrees, seeing the opportunity to have his dreams realized.

But not all goes according to plan. For nobody believes the rag-clad Prince of England when he goes to Offal Court and claims to be royal. And even more disturbing, when poor Tom Canty denies his crown and claims to be a penniless begger in front of the royal court, the King thinks him to be mad. Being slighly stuck in the other’s shoes, Tom has learns the tricky ettiquette of the palace and discovers that his dreams are not what they appear. On one particular amusing occation he is so befuddled by the delicate manners of the dinner table that he completely breaks down when he has an itch on his nose and doesn’t know what to do about it:

“‘I crave your indulgence; my nose itcheth cruelly. What is the custom and usage in this emergence? Prithee speed, for ’tis but a little time that I can bear it.’ None smiled; but all were sore perplexed, and looked one to the other in deep tribulation for counsel. But behold, here was a dead wall, and nothing in English history to tell how to get over it. The Master of Ceremonies was not present; there was no one who felt safe to venture upon this uncharted sea, or risk the attempt to solve this solemn problem. Alas! there was no Hereditary Scratcher. Meantime the tears had overflowed their banks, and begun to trickle down Tom’s cheeks. His twitching nose was pleading more urgently than ever for relief. At last nature broke down the barriers of etiquette; Tom lifted up an inward prayer for pardon if he was doing wrong, and brought relief to the burdened hearts of his court by scratching his nose himself.” (pp. 49)

Meanwhile, Prince Edward makes the acquaintance of one Miles Henton, who feigns to belive that the Prince is actual the heir to the throne, thinking him but a lunatic street child abandoned by his parents. And while he must endure hunger, cold, and shabby clothing, Edward becomes much more acquainted with his kindgom and learns the wayward practiced of his evil father, the King. On one occasion he overhear some drunk beggars mourning their late companion:

“My good old blameless mother strove to earn bread by nursing the sick; one of these died, the doctors knew not how, so my mother was burned for a witch, whilst my babes looked on and wailed. English law! — up, all, with your cups! — now altogether and with a cheer! — drink to the merciful English law that delivered her from the English hell!” (pp. 150)

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say this. The plot is simple and, yes, a little predictable, but the themes are true and still relevant today.


There are several more modern stories that reflect themes of class and identity in much the same way as The Prince and the Pauper.

One of my favorite examples is the Classic Disney movie Aladdin. We all know the story: Aladdin is poor beggar who discovers magic lamp and wishes to be a Prince to win the heart of the princess. Princess Jasmine longs for a more meaningful life where she isn’t treated as an object to be married off. When Aladdin first meets Jasmine, they exchange the following words:

Aladdin: Wow. The palace looks pretty amazing, huh?
Princess Jasmine: [disappointed] Oh, it’s wonderful.
Aladdin: I wonder what it’d be like to live there, and have servants, and valets.
Princess Jasmine: Oh, sure. People who tell you where to go and how to dress.
Aladdin: That’s better than here. You’re always scraping for food and ducking the guards.
Princess Jasmine: You’re not free to make your own choices.
Aladdin: Sometimes you feel so…
Princess Jasmine: You’re just…
Aladdin, Princess Jasmine: …trapped.

Aladdin Quote: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103639/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu
A slightly more modern (and real) example is the reality show “Secret Millionaire” in which millionaire business owners pose as blue-collar or impoverished laborers to see how difficult life is on minimum wage and how badly these workers get treated. (Secret Millionaire:

Even more recently is this true story, about the Panera CEO who decided to live off of food stamps and an income of $4.50 per day.




If there is one thing that I look away from this book it is this: that walking in someone else’s shoes, literally and physically, has enormous potential. In a time where money seems to be an enormous problem in politics, whether it be the Federal Deficit or the income gap or the sequester (yay America!), the true solution will not come through locking Congress up in a room without food until they fix themselves (a girl can dream though). It will come from people understanding various dispositions. The Wealthy must understand the challenges that the poor face in order to make an informed decision, rather than just blaming them. And the working class must not assume that all millionaire and billionaires are out for themselves. There are a lot of business owners who legitimately care about the world are are eager to help. Shoveling money at a problem does not solve it. When compassion is added and ignorance is removed, then only can we expect real progress.


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