Mark Twain’s “A Trial”

Capt. Ned Blakely – that name will answer as well as any other fictitious one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not desire to be famous) – sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for many years.

mark-twain

In reading through Mark Twain’s short stories, I knew I would eventually have to grapple with material that would be considered offensive by today’s standards and his story “The Trial” contains just such material.

But it’s difficult to say whether the overarching story in theme is offensive or just the racial slurs used.

Bill Noakes, the nemisis of Captain Ned Blakely, kills a favorite African shipmate of Blakely’s. Noakes is seen doing the killing by numerous witnesses so when Blakely goes to hang Noakes, he is taken by surprise when everyone insists on a “fair” trial.

The setup seems to move the story toward a trial where Noakes is found innocent in spite of his obvious crime. But, no, that’s not what happens. He’s found guilty and he’s hanged.

If there is humor in this story, it went over my head – or perhaps its simply not as timeless as much of Twain’s humor is. Would the ending have been a surprise to Twain’s readers in 1872? Would Twain’s 1872 readers have found something funny in this story? Or did Mark Twain just decide that some of his stories didn’t need to be funny?

 

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