Literature / The Mysterious Stranger

In Medieval Europe, three boys meet a charming teenager who claims to be an angel; in fact, his name is Satan. Predictably, no good comes out of this.

Also known as No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger is one of Mark Twain's last works that he was unable to finish before his death. It was written just after his wife and favorite daughter died and Twain entered financial trouble, so it was much more vicious and depressing than any of his other works. There are three different versions of the work in varying degrees of completion, but all involve the titular Mysterious Stranger using his powers to show how much of a Crapsack World we live in (though in one of the versions he's not Satan).

As an interesting side-note, it has long been suspected that this was one of the works that inspired Neon Genesis Evangelion, particularly the character of Kaworu. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, writer of the Evangelion manga, has practically admitted as such.

The full text can be found here.

This work provides examples of:

  • Above Good and Evil: True for all angels.
  • All Just a Dream... "a grotesque and foolish dream."
  • And I Must Scream: The narrator's fate at the end.
  • Animated Adaptation: The Adventures of Mark Twain movie. Found here.
  • Author Existence Failure
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Satan may follow this.
    I can do no wrong, for I do not know what it is.
  • Butterfly of Doom: Played with. No Time Travel is involved, but Satan reveals that even the smallest detail like opening a window can be a Matter of Life and Death.
  • Butt Monkey: Nikolaus. The protagonist takes a paragraph to inform us of all the nasty things he'd done to Nick throughout their childhood. Arguably this gets to Cosmic Plaything levels when you get to the kids' first Sadistic Choice.
  • Central Theme: The inherent flaws, hypocrisies, and insanities of man, and his revered "Moral Sense".
  • Children Are Innocent
  • Cosmic Plaything
  • Crapsack World: A truly horrifying example. The ending may or may not mitigate this.
  • Creator Breakdown
  • Deal with the Devil
  • Devil but No God
  • Double Meaning: Satan holds true to his promises, and, as Theodor found out, suggesting his words to be a cruel and underhanded Prophecy Twist seems to be his only Berserk Button.
  • The Ending Changes Everything: Possibly. Taking the ending at face value implies that the whole story was just a nightmare, and that the godlike entity Theodor could make better worlds in the future. On the other hand, it is far more likely that Theodor really is just a lowly human, all of the horrible events he experiences "really" did happen, and Satan made him think he had godlike power so that he no longer knows of those horrors. Considering what Satan did to Father Peter, this second interpretation is depressingly plausible.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Satan's initial hospitality is quickly undermined by his disregard for human life, as shown when he kills two figures over their petty dispute, then destroys their village to stop the sound of its mourning. It takes a little longer for him to show his true colors in the last manuscript, but by the end it's clear that he's doing the whole thing for his own amusement. Or one might phrase it as...
  • For Want of a Nail
  • Harmful to Minors: And how.
  • Humans Are Bastards: One of the major themes of the book
  • Invisibility: Satan can hide his and the boys' presence when he feels like it.
  • Invisible to Normals: Nobody even senses that there's something off about Satan.
  • It Amused Me: Satan screws around with the lives of lowly mortals because it amuses him.
  • Karma Houdini: Guess.
  • Light Is Not Good
  • Lou Cypher: Averted, but the protagonists aren't any better off. Their gullibility may be justified because they're children.
  • Mindscrew: This generally straightforward story suddenly takes a baffling turn in the last three pages, leaving the reader to wonder what, if anything, was real in the tale.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Let's see... How about "Satan"?
  • Nice Is Not Good
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: This work ends on an incredibly nihilistic tone.
  • Our Angels Are Different: At least, that's what "Satan" says.
  • Religious Horror
  • Sadistic Choice: The protagonists are forced to choose between a life of suffering for their friend or a quick death. And that's just the first one...
  • Satan: The angel's name is Satan, but he insists that he's that other Satan's nephew and that it's a common name for angels. Of course, there's no way to confirm this, and Satan himself (the traditional one) is a notorious Unreliable Narrator. (Though it becomes an awesome moment of Fridge Brilliance when you consider that "Satan" originated as an epiphet given to many unrelated entities, as it just means "enemy" in Hebrew.)
  • Slowly Slipping Into Evil: August, the protagonist of the third section, comes to rely more and more on the assistance of his "friend." By the end of it, he's having almost as much fun causing chaos as No. 44 himself.
  • Take That: The last chapter contains one of the most venomous and scathing criticisms of Christianity ever written. Though bear in mind that it is Satan saying this....
    A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice, and invented hell mouths mercy, and invented hell mouths Golden Rules and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people, and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man's acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites his poor abused slave to worship him!
  • Tomato in the Mirror: "Oh by the way, didn't you ever realize that the entire universe only exists in your imagination and that you barely even exist yourself? Well, so long."
  • The Treachery of Images: "It was a vision — it had no existence."
  • Unfortunate Names: Lampshaded in the claymation:
    Becky Thatcher: Who are you?
    Satan: An angel.
    Huck Finn: What's your name?
    Satan: Satan.
    Huck Finn: Uh oh.
    Satan: What's the matter?
    Huck Finn: Nothing. Just that it's sure a sorry name for an angel.
    • The book explains Satan as being named after his uncle.
  • Villains Never Lie: Played With. Everything in the story makes just as much sense if one assumes that Satan really is lying his ass off the whole time, and it is impossible to tell whether he is or not.
  • Voice of the Legion: Satan in the Animated Adaptation.
  • What Could Have Been: The first version of the story, called 'The Chronicles of Young Satan', was set in Missouri in the 1840s, with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn playing supporting roles. The second version, called 'Schoolhouse Hill' involved Twain himself and his friends and family encountering Young Satan, who had come to Hannibal, Missouri and later been converted to Methodism. A later version, called the 'Print Shop', or 'Number 44: The Mysterious Stranger', was based around Young Satan becoming a printer's devil, and showing the worthlessness and futility of human existence by having him create and then destroy copies of the townsfolk. The best-known version is an amalgam of the three, crafted by Twain's literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine in the sixties. Some modern editions, though, are based on either one of the three original manuscripts.