Mark Twain's Method of Characterization
Story, character, setting, and plot are the main elements that combine to form a short story or a novel. These elements, with the language used in presenting them, also combine to create the theme of a work of fiction. Story, character, setting, and plot are always present in any work of fiction, but the emphasis on them varies from work to work. Thus, one work may emphasize the exploration of character, and the other elements will be secondary to that focus. Another work may emphasize the events of the story, while a third may emphasize the setting in which the action takes place.
Of course, theme is important in every fictional work; theme is the basic reason for the existence of a literary work, masterpiece or otherwise. Still, some works give greater direct emphasis to theme than other works do; when this happens, all other elements in the work are subordinate.
The Prince and the Pauper is one of Twain's most tightly plotted novels. In addition, this novel is strongly thematic. Thematically, Twain is particularly interested in contrasting the lives of the rich with the lives of the poor, the lives of the nobility with the lives of the lower classes. At the same time, however, Twain is also interested in showing that a person of noble birth is not essentially different from a person of common birth, even though their lives may seem to be very different. In other words, he wishes to show that a prince dressed in a pauper's clothing will be treated as a prince; in addition, the pauper can do the prince's job very nearly as well as the prince could, if the pauper is given the chance.
This thematic emphasis requires characters of certain kinds, which means that the themes of the novel establish a set of characteristics that the characters must have. Adding to the limitations of characterization established by the themes of the novel, other limitations are added by the requirements of the plot. That is, the characters in this novel must have certain characteristics that will allow them to participate in the action as it develops.
The two main characters in The Prince and the Pauper are, of course, Tom Canty and Edward Tudor. Because these two boys are the main characters, they also carry the main burden of advancing both the theme and the plot. The theme and the plot require that the lives of these boys be contrasting, that the life of one be very different from the life of the other. This requirement is met by having one of the boys a prince, a person whose life has been extremely guarded and luxurious, and having the other boy a pauper, a person from the lowest ranks of society whose life has been very hard. In order to contrast the lives of these two boys most clearly and effectively, then, the natural choice is one boy from each of society's extremes.
In this novel, Edward Tudor has been raised in luxury. He is used to fine foods and magnificent clothing. He is used to being waited on by hundreds of servants. He is used to being protected and to giving commands that others obey quickly. He is used to sleeping in soft, comfortable beds. He is used to these things simply because they are part of the life of a prince. On the other hand, Tom Canty has been raised in extreme poverty. He is used to little food and to saving extra bits of food whenever he finds them. He has one set of rags that he wears until they fall apart. He expects to take care of himself and to do things for himself. He also expects to be beaten if he does not do certain things. He sleeps quite comfortably on straw, tossed in a pile on the floor. He is used to these things-indeed, he does not see any particular problem about living this way; enduring these discomforts is the only way he has lived, and his way of life is exactly like that of everyone around him.
The theme of the novel requires that, although these two characters must be accustomed to different ways of life, they must also be similar in nearly all other respects. Thus, they must look alike, so much alike that people can easily mistake one for the other. Thus, Tom Canty and Edward Tudor have the same coloring, the same height and weight, the same facial features, and so on. If they were identifiably different in their appearances, the events of the novel could not have taken place, and the thematic points could not have been made. If Tom Canty had been dark-haired and dark-complexioned, while the prince was light-haired and had a light complexion, the prince wearing the pauper's clothing might have been put out the gate, but Tom would never have been taken for the prince, even in the prince's clothing. If Tom is not mistaken for the prince, of course, he would have been punished, probably harshly, and a search for the real prince would have been started immediately. A very different novel would have resulted.
In order to stress the idea that rank is not based on essential differences between people, these two boys must also share other characteristics. One of these characteristics is youth. If they had been older, and if they had become more solidified in a particular way of life, they could not have changed positions so easily. If Edward, for example, had been king for, say, a year or two, the difference between his actions and Tom's actions on the throne would have been more pronounced and more likely to cause suspicion. As it is, neither of them has any particular experience, and thus one can slip into the other's role without much difficulty; although Edward had a better background and more training for becoming king, he would have had to grow into the job in the same way that Tom grows into it.
In addition to their youth, this aspect of the theme of the novel requires that they share other characteristics as well. Thus, both Edward and Tom are intelligent and kind hearted, ready to recognize injustice and cruelty, willing to reward service and alleviate need, and able to learn from their experiences. The theme does not require this particular set of characteristics; it only requires that, whatever the characteristics are, Tom and Edward share them. In other words, if Edward were stupid, Tom would also have to be stupid, and so on. These particular characteristics are, instead, the result of the requirements of the plot. One of the functions of plot is to align the reader's sympathies with one set of characters and against another set of characters. Twain obviously wants the readers of The Prince and the Pauper to like these two boys and to identify with them; in order to achieve this effect, positive and favorable characteristics are needed. In addition, the plot requires that certain things happen: if Tom were stupid, for example, he could not have learned what is expected of him as king, and the novel could not have been developed as it was.
In short, each of the characteristics shown by Edward and by Tom is a characteristic required by either a theme or the plot — or by both the themes and the plot.
Miles Hendon is another character whose characteristics meet requirements set by the plot and by the themes of the novel. The plot requires that the prince have a protector to keep an eye on him as he travels through his realm. Miles Hendon is the person who serves this function. In order to protect the prince, this person must have some skill with a weapon or with his fists, as well as a reason, or excuse, for wearing a weapon; Miles Hendon, of course, has been a soldier, which gives him a reason for wearing a sword and a background that would enable him to use it effectively. This protector must also have some kind of motivation for trying to keep the prince — whom he doesn't know is the prince — with him or for trying to find him once they are separated. Hendon, of course, admires the boy's spirit and pluck, and he sympathizes with what he imagines to be the boy's delusion; in short, Hendon is warmhearted, sympathetic, kind, and loyal. These characteristics are among those that would be necessary in a person in order for that person to qualify as a protector for the prince.
It is helpful that Hendon is of a noble background, for this allows him to understand what the prince expects. In addition, this background makes it more likely that Hendon can treat the prince's expectations without resentment. Finally, this background allows Hendon to be wronged by his brother, thus allowing the prince to show his sense of injustice and his willingness to reward others for service and kindness.
Hendon does not believe that the boy whom he is trying to protect is the King of England; indeed, no adult in the novel believes Edward's claim. Children can readily believe his claim because they can do nothing about it. It is essential to the plot of the novel, however, that those who could help Edward establish his true identity do not believe him, since their belief could change the whole direction and thrust of the novel. It is particularly important that the prince's protector be skeptical of his claims, since he is also the person who could do the most to help him regain his rightful position before the prince has completed the education that he must have before he regains the throne.
The needs of the plot and the needs of the various thematic elements in The Prince and the Pauper thus determine the characteristics displayed by Tom Canty, Edward Tudor, and Miles Hendon. Tom Canty is intelligent, perceptive, quick to learn and to adapt, kind-hearted, decisive, young, and low-born. He has these characteristics because they are required by the plot and by the themes; he has no characteristics that are not related either to the requirements of the plot or to the requirements of the themes. Similarly, Edward Tudor is intelligent, perceptive, strong-willed, kind-hearted, decisive, young, nobly-born, and impervious; he has these characteristics because they are required by his role in the plot and in the theme, and he has no characteristics that are not required. Likewise, Miles Hendon has only those characteristics that are required by the plot and by the themes of the novel: he is kind, loyal, considerate, well-born, persistent, and skilled with a sword because these are the qualities necessary for him.
E. M. Forster divided the characters in fiction into two groups, rounded characters and flat characters. Rounded characters are those that have a variety of characteristics, some of which are required by the plot, others of which are required by thematic considerations, but still others of which are simply present to give a character individuality and life-likeness. Flat characters, on the other hand, have only those characteristics required by plot and theme. Rounded characters are found most frequently in novels that focus on the exploration of character, but in any novel, even in those most concerned with this exploration, only a very few characters become fully rounded. Usually only one or two characters are truly rounded in a novel. Most characters in fiction are flat, yet to say this is not to condemn any novel or any novelist's ability to portray character; it is simply to acknowledge the fact that some novels are more concerned with other aspects of fiction than they are with character development; this usually means that the characters must serve the needs of those other aspects, leaving little room, or need, for more rounded characters.
The characters in The Prince and the Pauper are flat characters. They were created to advance the plot of the novel and to develop the thematic points that Twain wanted to suggest to his audience. Nevertheless, although they are not rounded individuals, people remember Tom Canty and Edward Tudor because of the characteristics they do have and because of the roles they play in the action of this novel.