Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Heavenly Tales by Mark Twain.

“Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.” —Twain’s last written statement

It is Transcendentalist Month in blogdom, hosted by A Room of One’s Own and so I decided to read my favourite humorist and transcendentalist, Mark Twain. I call him a transcendentalist with some hesitation because Twain never proclaimed himself as such. Also, he was notoriously inconsistent about many of his social, political and religious beliefs so pinning any kind of tag on him is dicey. However, I do believe that some of his works embody the transcendentalist philosophy very clearly. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know. Perhaps those with better knowledge of the movement can analyse this better.

Transcendental or not, Twain was undoubtedly witty and original. This week I read two of his short stories that deal with similar themes of the afterlife, sin and justice. But both stories are as different as can be. You can read both stories here.

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven
“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious”. When a story begins with these words, you know it’s going to be a crazy ride. Captain Stormfield, about whose life nothing is known, is whizzing through space, racing comets and generally enjoying his trip to heaven. But heaven, when he finally finds the right one, is nothing like he imagined it would be. Luckily he runs into an old acquaintance from his earthbound days, who tells him all about this strange new land. Twain paints us a heaven that is split into kingdoms and communities. Moses and Buddha are major celebrities and so are some of the lesser known mortals. Wings and halo’s are mere ornamentation and no soul is denied anything, within reason.  

This story is classic Mark Twain. Humorous, compassionate and imaginative. Twain was born on the day Haley’s comet visited our stratosphere and he died, as he had predicted, when it came around again. Consequently, he was always somewhat obsessed with comets and it shows in the initial passages of this story too. The character of Captain Stromfield is a mere sounding board and Twain uses his cluelessness to thresh out his idea of heaven. This heaven is built on the same principles that Twain valued and sought in this world too. Equality, opportunity and compassion. It’s a funny perspective on the afterlife but not without genuine insight. 

Was it Heaven? Or Hell?
Margaret Leester, a widow, lives with her two maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester, and her sixteen year old daughter Helen. The four of them live in absolute harmony. Hannah and Hester are lovable and kind but their moral standards are ‘uncompromisingly strict’. Margaret and Helen do not mind this until one day Helen commits the worst sin imaginable. She tells a lie. She confesses it to her aunts later and although we are never told what the lie was, it is implied that it was trivial and harmless. The aunts however, insist that she confess to her sick mother as well thereby unknowingly exposing her to the illness. Suddenly, all the lines between good and evil are blurred and the aunts find their version of morality put to the test.

This is a very sombre and tragic tale. Hardly what you would expect from Twain.  The story explores the concept of sin and what it really means. Are standards of moral behaviour more important than inherent goodness? Does the end justify the means? Twain deliberately leaves you to decide the ending.

As I mentioned before, the two stories deal with similar concepts but the styles and even the language is so different that it feels like they’ve been written by different authors.  I’d definitely recommend reading them both, if only to see which Twain you like better.

Short Stories on Wednesday is hosted by Risa at


  1. Excellent and informational! I'm not a fan of his novels, so maybe I should try his shorter pieces. He had so many personal sadnesses, and yet wrote with such wit.

  2. I'm not a great fan of his novels either, but his essays and short stories are lovely.

  3. I need to read more of Twain's short stories-thanks for posting on this one-Kenzaburo Oe said Huckelberry Finn was one if his greatest sources of inspiration when he first began to write.

  4. Oh, I like Mark Twain's novels as well as his wit and profundity. I have never read his short stories and your post is egging me on to read them.

  5. Mark Twain is an author who has always intrigued me and yet I've only ever read Tom Sawyer. Something I have always meant to rectify. Love the sound of his short stories, thank you. I would also love to read his autobiography which was only published again this year.

  6. Mel U there are a great many of Twain's short stories on the link I provided. I hope you enjoy them.

    Prashant I've liked his short stories much better than his novel. I definitely recommend them. Thanks for dropping by.

  7. Twain was born on the day Haley’s comet visited our stratosphere and he died, as he had predicted, when it came around again.
    Fascinating. There are so many interesting things about Mark Twain's life, and now I've just found out another.

    I don't remember reading his short stories (aside from maybe Jumping Frog of Calaveras County). I love stories that explore/discuss morality thoughtfully, so I'll be adding these to my list of stories to read. Thanks!

    (And in the second story it jumped out at me, all H-names instead of Margaret... it makes her look like an outsider.)

  8. HKatz I'm yet to read Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was his best known short so I really must get to it. Thanks for reminding me.
    Interesting observation about the H-names. Perhaps Margaret is the only one who never tells a lie and that makes her the odd one out? I never noticed this until you pointed it out.

  9. I have not read any Twain yet but you make these stories sound really interesting!

  10. Shann Thank you for the kind words and the follow.