Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

The Deconstruction of Self and State in the Prince and the Pauper

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

The Deconstruction of Self and State in the Prince and the Pauper

Article excerpt

Introduction

Twain's critics have sought to infer from The Prince and the Pauper Twain's views of adolescent development, English political institutions, the traits of the ideal monarch, and so forth. (1) However, these attributions assume that the novel's pompous, incompetent narrator is to be identified with Samuel Clemens as the originator of such views. This hermeneutic tendency can obscure the way The Prince and the Pauper may expose it as illusory, by allegorizing a split in selfhood--like the one between Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain--that makes determination of true authors impossible. (2) Twain's works were not unusual among those of other nineteenth-century writers in allegorizing unrecoverable identity; in one way or another that theme animates books by Thomas Carlyle, Soren Kierkegaard, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and others. (3) In Twain's case, unfounded selfhood is often linked to an analogous illegitimacy in the state, to the public fiction that arrogates to itself the power to define selves, whether as subjects or citizens. Deconstructive approaches that describe these allegories can provide an alternative to hermeneutics for respecting the fiction and enigma of Twain. (4) They can be helpful in accounting for the novel's front-matter, its peripeteia, its narrator's idiosyncrasies, and its odd, concluding "General Note on the Blue Laws." Finally, they can suggest how the text's social and political themes may be less easy to determine than has been so far been the case in hermeneutic criticism.

Relation to Earlier Works

Twain's works can be read as linking the inauthenticity of self and state from the beginning. The Innocents Abroad (1869) depicted the impossibility of a touristic self escaping national prejudices. A Burlesque Autobiography (1871) narrated arbitrariness in self and state: Clemens depicted Twain as the offspring of a wholly imaginary geneology including a scholar who was a forger and an admiral who was a pirate. Roughing It (1872) exploited puns on "mining" and "claims" to align imperialist expansion with the narrative construction of a self. Complementary manifestations of violence in the state and the adolescent self shaped the plot of Tom Sawyer (1876). A Tramp Abroad (1880) scrutinized Europe for cultural signs of this modern American aggression, discovering them immediately in the Heidelberg Five Corps, German student organizations whose members dueled with each other on behalf of colors. These fraternal societies attested to the thriving of medieval delusion in the contemporary world; they contextualized the depiction of its Anglo-American apotheosis in the novels of Scott or in Tom Sawyer's attack on Alfred Temple because of his clothes. A Tramp Abroad traced European insanity back to seeming Ur-sources like Rhine legends; its modern counterpart appeared in the Swiss adulation of such "heroes" as Alpine climbers, surrogates for Twain, who undertook irrational expeditions that jeopardized themselves and others. In these books the Twain who satirizes spectacles of human folly is not the same as the historical Samuel Clemens; on the contrary, he is just as much an artifice or orphan, just as irrevocably cut off from the real, as any of the benighted figures he describes.

In The Prince and the Pauper Twain's two main themes, the fraudulence of self and state, become joined: the arbitrary nature of both is allegorized in the search for the right "mark" that might establish them as valid or true. This mark turns out to be the Great Seal of England, whose recovery becomes the peripeteia of the novel; its arbitrariness is revealed when Tom Canty explains he couldn't find it because he thought it was a nut-cracker. The events leading up to its discovery reveal the suffering caused by humans' blind belief in the validity of its referents, self and state. Like Tom Sawyer this novel is supposedly aimed at children; if so, perhaps its hope is that if children read it properly, they might question these two founding illusions of western civilization and thereby begin to eliminate the human misery the novel depicts them as having caused. …

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