The Prince and the Pauper is one of those books that part of me always thought I had read because I had seen so many movie adaptations of the book. Some were intended as direct adaptations and others took some significant leeway but they all sort of had a similar vibe. I've always enjoyed Mark Twain but in recent years I've re-realized that I haven't read as many of his novels as I feel I should have. So with that background, I sat down with Prince and the Pauper.
In case there are any people unfamiliar with the story, the basic idea is that we are in ~1600s London and there is a young prince who happens to meet a pauper who has an uncanny twin-like resemblance to the prince. Through some unintended circumstances, the prince ends up kicked out of his own castle while the pauper is set up as the prince in his place. Each boy tries to acclimate to his new surroundings and deal with the extreme change in social class. Further complications arise when the King dies and it is announced that the prince is to be crowned King of England.
The first thing that struck me with this book was the style. Twain has always been one who is noted for his rhetoric and his use of dialect and style in such a way as to portray the era and culture he is trying to represent. As such, he writes this book with a somewhat stilted and formal narration filled with "thy"s and "thou"s and "wherefore"s. I had no problem with the language, I just wasn't expecting it. Whether or not it actually added to the tone and nature of the book, I'm not quite sure. I don't think it painted the scene quite as much as do the dialog of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer but I was still impressed with his use of vocabulary and style to help convey a certain time period.
I also naturally discovered quick differences between the book and the various movie versions. In most of the movie adaptations I've seen, the Prince and Pauper decide to switch places as a sort of game and they are both excited at the idea of swapping roles. In the book, the prince notices their similar appearance and suggests they exchange clothes to see just how similar they might look. The concept of actually exchanging roles never really entered into the discussion and each boy is in fact quite frightened and upset when the exchange occurs.
Not being an avid historian, I can't fully speak to Twain's portrayal either of royalty or poverty of the era, but I did feel both a disgust and a compassion upon the poverty stricken of 16th century London. The squalor they were forced to live in was truly unspeakable. What struck me as interesting was the way Twain presented the reality of the situation. Even though the lifestyle was miserable and unhappy, the people had a sense of acceptance and made the best they could out of bad situations. As the prince tried to fit in and adapt to his new circumstances, each time he complained or worried about the filth and poverty he was chided by those around him and they seemed to be accepting and perhaps even unconsciously ignorant of their plight. It's an interesting social idea and seems to push the idea that those who haven't ever known better never really aspire to better or those who see no opportunity for social mobility are content to stay where they are, no matter how awful. I personally think that mindset may be somewhat true but I think more likely is that those living in poverty were frankly just too exhausted and overwhelmed with trying to survive that they seldom had energy to think about was to escape their situation, let alone to devise a method to climb the social ladder.
I found myself comparing the life of Twain's prince/pauper in lower class London with Dickens's lower class characters in Oliver Twist or some of his other works. In some ways, I felt like the attitudes of Twain's characters felt a little more realistic but in other instances I felt like Dickens had a better handle on the minds, motivations and actions of the English poor. As I thought about it, I decided that Twain's characters had more "modern" thought processes while Dickens's characters were more likely evocative of a real life citizen of lower class London.
The life of the pauper-turned-prince in the palace is interesting but is often treated with much less detail and consideration than our prince-turned-pauper. We see snippets of life in the castle as the pauper tries to understand his new role and become accustomed to being waited on by attendants on all sides. After a variety of worrisome advisement from counselors and even the king, the young pauper finally takes the role upon himself and does his best to pretend at being the prince. Fortunately he has a few trusted advisors. While they don't believe that he is actually a pauper (everyone thinks he's gone mad), they do work to help him carry out his duties with gentle nudges and whispered reminders of proper behavior and etiquette. Once the king dies, the prince is expected to oversee various declarations and judgements and Twain takes this opportunity to provide some "Solomon-like" deliberations in court to showcase the young pauper's compassion as well as his quick thinking and wit.
Meanwhile, the prince-turned-pauper finds himself fighting for survival in lower class London and finally making friends with a man who also doesn't believe the change in roles (he also thinks the boy must be crazy) but he pretends to believe and acts to help the prince in a variety of ways. The prince never tries to adapt himself to the world of the lower class. He continually tries to convince everyone of his royal lineage and rights. Naturally this doesn't help his situation get any better and in most cases it results in ridicule or harassment of some type.
The high level plot is comical and often used throughout drama and literature. Offhand I can't think how many Shakespearean plays have to do with mistaken or switched identity either with twins or disguise or some other form of subterfuge. Twain uses this oft used trope to bring a lot of light hearted comedy to an investigation of the inequality of social classes and the unbalanced nature of cultural distinctions. The story was very entertaining and had plenty of Twain's quick wit and snarky humor. Beyond the simple humor and the fun, cute story, there is a lot of great material to think about both from social standpoints and from the aspect of literary scholarship. I think it would be entertaining some day to compare Twain's London with Dickens's London or to evaluate Twain's social concerns from this book with any of the various social problems of modern society.
I had a lot of fun reading this book and definitely recommend it. The reading, tone and nature of the writing could be very accessible and entertaining to young readers. Some of the language may be harder for elementary school kids but they would likely enjoy having it read to them. Older readers will enjoy the quick wit, nuanced humor and insightful perspectives on social inequality. Overall this is a great book that is definitely overshadowed by Twain's larger works and as such is likely often overlooked. While it may not be quite as rich as Twain's more impactful books, it definitely stands on its own as a solid classic.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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