Mark Twain’s “The Stolen White Elephant”

Mark Twain’s “The Stolen White Elephant” is another story with a very concise plot. In fact, I would say most of Twain’s stories have plots that don’t ramble and are very focused – usually focused toward what I would call a punchline or the culmination of a comical event.

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This story actually has a title that reflects the main point of the story (something I’ve found many of Twain’s stories do not do). A white elephant being delivered from the King of Siam to the Queen of England is stolen in New York. The gentlemen in charge of the elephant fears for his job as he reports the crime to New York detective Inspector Blunt.

The comedy comes from the bumbling actions of the Inspector and his team while the Inspector gives the impression that he is one of the sharpest detectives on the planet:

I am a ruined man and a wanderer on the earth – but my admiration for that man, whom I believe to be the greatest detective the world has ever produced, remains undimmed to this day, and will so remain unto the end.

It’s a fun story as most of Mark Twain’s stories are but I found it went on a little too long.

Mark Twain’s “The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm”

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“The McWilliamses and the Burglar Alarm” is the third of Mark Twain’s McWilliamses stories that I’ve read and it’s also the funniest. Perhaps its because Mrs. McWilliams isn’t really in this story although she does have a role to play. She can be annoying not only to her husband but to readers as well.

In this story, the comedy comes from Mr. McWilliams taking the advice of his wife (there’s her role) to buy a burglar alarm for their new house:

I will explain that whenever I want a thing, and Mrs. McWilliams wants another thing, and we decide upon the thing that Mrs. McWilliams wants – as we always do – she calls that a compromise.

Given that this is 1882, the alarm itself is a giant gong hanging over the couples’ bed. Even by today’s standards, that has comedy written all over it.

In addition, the burglars seem to be attracted to the alarm. So much so, that a whole slew of them end up as guests in the house. The intelligent conversations Mr. McWilliams has with many of the burglars only adds to the fun!

Here are my posts for the other McWilliamses stories:

Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup

Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning

Mark Twain’s “A Curious Experience”

And the War Department! But, oh, my soul, let’s draw the curtain over that part!

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Mark Twain’s “A Curious Experience” is one of the longer of his short stories (at least the ones I’ve read so far) at 25 pages. I’m not sure whether it’s suppose to be funny or not. He could definitely be satirizing the military but this story has a different tone to it than most of Twain’s satirical writing. The plot focuses more on what is unknown to the reader and the narrator making it into a mystery with a little satire.

A young boy claims to be a Union sympathizer when he asks to be signed up for the war in the 1860’s. As the story unfolds, the Sergeant becomes more and more convinced that the boy, based on his actions, is a spy.

The satire, if that’s what it is, comes as the boy is able to wreak havoc on the entire company simply by pretending to be someone out of his “dime-store” novels – perhaps the comic books of the 1860’s.

In spite of the story’s length, Twain is able to make the plot brilliantly concise. It never roams or rambles but always heads straight to what I would consider the punchline. However, then the punchline has to be explained which maybe is the reason the story doesn’t ring as funny.

 

Mark Twain’s “The Invalid’s Story”

Pretty soon it was plain that something had got to be done. I suggested cigars.

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Comedy rule of thumb: Always let the reader know about the Limburger cheese.

In Mark Twain’s “The Invalid’s Story”, the narrator is accompanying his dead friend from Cleveland to Wisconsin via train. Apparently, in the 1880’s, one actually rode in the same car as the coffin.

Since the narrator is retelling the story and now knows about the Limburger cheese that a stranger left by the coffin, he kindly lets the reader know about it which allows the antics that ensue to be darkly comical as he mistakes the smell of the Limburger cheese for the smell of his dead friend.

This story would not have worked if the Limburger cheese had not been disclosed to the reader up front.

Because the smell of a dead body – well – its just not that funny.

 

Mark Twain’s “What Stumped the Bluejays”

There’s more to a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book talk – and bristling with metaphor, too – just bristling!

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Jim Baker can understand what animals say and relays his story to Mark Twain about an incident involving bluejays, acorns and a house.

In some ways, this story reminds me of a fable; however, the plot serves only to be humorous, delightful and absurd. The absurdity of the situation makes it most enjoyable.

Mark Twain’s “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning”

Well, sir – continued Mr. McWilliams, for this was not the beginning of his talk – the fear of lightning is one of the most distressing infirmities a human being can be afflicted with.

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After reading Mark Twain’s story “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning”, I wondered if it would be considered a farce. Of course, I wasn’t sure of the exact definition of a farce so I looked it up on dictionary.com:

a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character.

Mr. and Mrs. McWilliams are recurring characters in Twain’s stories where Mr. McWilliams, though irritated, gives in to the irrational fears of his wife. In the case of this story, Mrs. McWilliams has herself hidden in a closet during a lightning storm. Because the closet is only big enough for her, she yells out directions to her husband about how best to protect himself from the lightning – given that he can’t fit in the closet with her.

Ultimately, the situation builds and builds with one humorous act after another. It reminded me of an episode of I Love Lucy. I think most sitcoms could be considered farces – as well as this story.

Here’s my post about another McWilliams story, “Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup”. 

Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”

In Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”, the narrator and his friend Riley (an “odd” friend as the narrator puts it), both journalists, walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C.  in the midst of a winter storm when they are met by Mr. Lykins, a teacher from San Francisco who aspires to a post-office position in his California home.

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Perhaps because Riley is amused at Mr. Lykins for thinking these journalists will have some sort of pull to get him the position he’s looking for, Riley proceeds to tell Mr. Lykins a story:

He backed Mr. Lykins against an iron fence, buttonholed him, fastened him with his eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and proceeded to unfold his narrative as placidly and peacefully as if we were all stretched comfortably in a blossomy summer meadow instead of being persecuted by a wintry midnight tempest…

The story goes on longer than Mr. Lykin probably expects and has nothing to do with Mr. Lykin’s ambitions. In spite of Riley’s “oddness”, Twain throws his sympathies to him for being able to keep Mr. Lykin’s attention for so long with no specific point.