The Prince and the Pauper, seemingly a simple novel, handles several divergent themes and ideas simultaneously. Foremost is the basic idea of the exchange of roles and lines between the prince and the pauper and the constant reference to their twin fates. Prior to meeting each other, both boys have dreams of living the life of the other. Both are, in a sense, innocents who learn a great deal about life as a result of their exchanging clothes and roles. Likewise, the dreams of each are shattered as a result of the exchange. Ironically, both live at first in an extremely restricted society. Like Huck Finn, who did not want to be "sivilized" and who rejected the confinements of society, Tom Canty has no freedom and is constantly beaten and restricted in his home environment. Likewise, the young prince is confined to his royal apartments and has little or no freedom — that is, he does not have the freedom that he believes a commoner has. The freedom that both young lads desire exists only in their dreams. Of Tom, Twain writes: "His old dreams had been so pleasant, but this reality was so dreary."
Another basic idea is, of course, Twain's satiric expose of the concept that "clothes make the man": when the two lads exchange clothes, the prince immediately becomes the pauper and is thus treated like a pauper and, likewise, the pauper is treated like a prince merely because he is dressed in royal robes.
The subject matter of The Prince and the Pauper, like the subject matter of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, appealed to Twain because he was writing about an age controlled by nobility and royalty, political divisions which Twain enjoyed deriding; in addition, it was an age of great religious debate and distinction, yet it was filled with unchristian acts, just as it was also an age of enlightenment, where new laws and new concepts of justice were beginning to be popular. But, in this novel, Twain focuses particularly on the many social injustices which are exposed to the new king as he roams his land as a common pauper.
The subject matter specifically allowed Twain to utilize his vast knowledge of history and biography, two subjects which occupied much of Twain's reading time, and this novel also allowed him to meditate on the injustices inherent in human nature (or "the damned human race," as it was termed in his later work, The Mysterious Stranger). The subject matter also allowed Twain to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes — using a language different from that used by either the common people or the educated people; the idioms and dialects of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and the archaic language of The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee are all illustrations of Twain's penchant for utilizing different sorts of language.
The Prince and the Pauper is also Twain's most elaborately plotted novel. Seemingly an insignificant incident, the whereabouts of the Great Seal of England, becomes the key to the real identity of the new king. Likewise, Tom's knowledge of Latin and his early role as a friend and counselor to the people of Offal Court influence his actions later as the surrogate king.
In his Autobiography, Twain wrote of this novel: "Edward VI and a little pauper exchange places by accident a day or so before Henry VIII's death. The prince wanders in rags and hardships and the pauper suffers the (to him) horrible miseries of princedom, up to the moment of crowning in Westminster Abbey, when proof is brought and the mistake rectified." From this bare sketch, Twain fleshed out the characters and created a masterpiece that has endured and delighted thousands of young readers and adults alike ever since its publication in 1882.