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Chuck Stanion <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 2 Apr 2003 09:35:55 -0500
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Connie Lenderman wrote:

>My son is a senior and his senior paper is to include a comparison of
>satire and irony of "The Californian's Tale" to other Twain writings.
>We are having a problem finding either in the story.  Does anyone have
>any suggestions?

Hi Connie,
That's certainly an unusual assignment. "The Californian's Tale" is
generally considered a sentimental piece rather than satire, but you
might have some good results by comparing Henry's madness to the similar
but more ironic madnesses of other characters in other works. Henry
finds happiness in madness, as does Father Peter in "The Chronicle of
Young Satan," in which, ironically, characters are helped out of
difficulties by Satan and made happy mainly by being drowned or burned
or driven mad. "Cannibalism in the Cars" is a brilliant satire that also
features a protagonist driven mad by circumstances. "The Californian's
Tale," features secondary characters who play along with the
protagonist's strange accommodation of his grief; "Cannibalism in the
Cars" has a conductor in the frame of the story who is familiar with and
tacitly plays along with the seemingly harmless rantings of the
cannibalistic narrator. Both stories provide secondary characters who
reveal the madness of the protagonists at the stories' conclusions.
    There is plenty of irony in "The Californian's Tale," especially on
a second reading. For example, the narrator's internal comment:  "I was
feeling a deep, strong longing to see her--a longing so supplicating, so
insistent, that it made me afraid. I said to myself: 'I will go straight
away from this place, for my peace of mind's sake.'" The thought is made
before knowing the woman he wants to meet is dead, so he little knows
how true it is that his peace of mind is in danger. Another ironic
moment is when the visiting miner, Tom, begins to cry upon the reading
of the lost woman's letter--the emotion is seemingly caused by the
temporary absence of Henry's wife, but it seems odd for a hardened miner
to cry over a letter and we find out later that it is because the woman
is long dead (or "worse") and perhaps even moreso because Henry's
situation is so sad. Later, another visiting miner says "Lord, we miss
her so!" and the scope of that emotion is revealed only at the end of
the story, when all such comments are subsequently magnified by the
reality of the woman's disappearance.
    The main irony is the difference between what the characters know
and what the reader knows. In _Huck Finn_ for example, Huck's perception
of his behavior is much different from the reader's. In the famous "All
right then, I'll *go* to hell" scene, Huck believes he has damned
himself with an evil decision, but the reader knows that he has reached
a glorious moral victory. That irony is reversed in "The Californian's
Tale."  In _Huck Finn_, the reader knows more than the characters but in
"The Californian's Tale" the characters know the details that the reader
discovers only at the end. Many of Mark Twain's works capitalize on the
dynamic differences in the readers' perceptions as opposed to the
    I don't see "The Californian's Tale" as a satire at all (but would
enjoy learning otherwise if anyone knows better) but you have some good
potential discussion in terms of irony. It sure seems like a tough
assignment for a senior. I hope your son can find some satisfaction in
the challenge.
Best regards,
Chuck Stanion