Summary and Analysis
While Edward, the true king, is wandering about London on Coronation Day being mistreated, Tom Canty is just beginning to enjoy and deal effectively in his new position as king. With the help of his so-called whipping-boy, he has lost most of his early fears: "his misgivings faded out and died; his embarrassments departed, and gave place to an easy and confident bearing." In fact, Tom has learned to actually enjoy the splendid clothes, the grandeur, the attention, and the other royal privileges attendant upon his being considered royalty. For example, once when the Lady Mary argued with him over the wisdom of pardoning so many people who would otherwise be hanged, he "was filled with generous indignation, and commanded her to go to her closet, and beseech God to take away the stone that was in her breast, and give her a human heart."
This was not always so, obviously. At the beginning of the novel, Tom Canty had many painful thoughts about Edward, the real prince, but these thoughts eventually faded; likewise, at first, he sorely missed his poor mother and sisters, but later the very thought of their appearing in rags before him made him shudder.
At midnight, on the eve of his coronation, Tom Canty goes to sleep in his splendid bed, watched over by "loyal vassals." At the same time, the true king — "hungry and thirsty, soiled and draggled, worn with travel, and clothed in rags and shreds . . . [is] wedged in among a crowd of people who [are] watching with deep interest" the final preparations for the coronation of the young boy king.
On the morning of the coronation, Tom Canty finds himself once more the center of what he thinks must be the most marvelous pageant in the entire world. Nothing has been spared to make this occasion the richest and most splendid of all coronations. As the procession winds its way through the city, he suddenly realizes that he is once again in the neighborhood of Offal Court, and he catches sight of some of his old comrades, some who played the game of "royalty" with him only a short time ago. Twain reveals Tom's inner thoughts: "Oh, if they could only recognize him now!" As the ride through the crowd continues, Tom hears people shouting for "a largess! A largess!" and Tom scatters handfuls of coins among them.
At one point during the procession, he is suddenly struck dumb as he recognizes his mother! Up flies his hand, palm outward before his eyes — that old, involuntary gesture, "born of a forgotten episode and perpetrated by habit. " Almost immediately, his mother, recognizing the gesture, breaks through the crowd and embraces one of the lad's legs; she lifts up to him a face transfigured with love and joy. Tom looks at her and says, "I do not know you, woman!" His mother is snatched away, and a great shame instantly falls upon Tom's heart; all of the grandeur now seems as worthless as the rotten rags he once wore; royalty has lost its "grace and sweetness"; its pomp has become a reproach, and remorse is eating his heart out. He cries out for God to free him from his "captivity!"
As the procession continues, Tom Canty becomes so dejected that he slouches forward as though his soul had been struck with a funeral bell. His attendants try to encourage him to lift up his head, to shed the clouds from his face and to smile upon the people, but Tom can only respond that "she was my mother!" The duke attending Tom is horrified, and he assumes that the king "is gone mad again!"
Meanwhile on this Coronation Day, we learn that many people in the town have been awake and busy since early in the wee hours of the morning. And besides all the poor folks who anticipate the pomp and ceremony, there are just as many nobles and their ladies who also look forward to the coronation. Indeed, the vast sea of diamonds and other jewels glitter so brilliantly that one can hardly see. Finally, in all of this grand ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury finally lifts the crown above the head of the "trembling mockking" and, at that moment, from a hiding place, a boy appears; he is "bareheaded, ill-shod, and clothed in coarse garments." He delivers this note of warning — "I forbid you to set the crown of England upon that forfeited head. I am the king! " The young fellow is instantly apprehended, but Tom Canty orders that Edward be turned loose, proclaiming loudly that Edward is indeed the king. There is sudden panic everywhere. Then the Lord Protector recovers his self-control and instructs the assembly to "mind not his majesty, his malady is upon him again-seize the vagabond." Tom Canty then countermands the order, and there is even more confusion. Tom Canty then approaches Edward and swears fealty to him. It is then that the Lord Protector and others notice the amazing similarity between the two boys. The Lord Protector then has an idea: he asks Edward — if he be king — the whereabouts of the Great Seal of England which has never been found, for, he says, ". . . only he that was the Prince of Wales can so answer! " This is a simple question; the young king explains that there is a secret compartment where the Seal is kept — known only to him and his carpenter, and he instructs them where to find it. After awhile, however, the Lord St. John returns with horrifying news: "Sire the Seal is not there!" Edward, the real king, is about to be taken away when Tom suddenly realizes what the object is that they are looking for. He asks Edward to recall the first day that they met and to remember all the details about that day. The king can remember almost everything, but he has to be prompted on a few details. For example, Tom reminds him how they exchanged clothes and, afterward, when the king noticed Tom's injured hand, he rushed forth from the royal palace. But before he did so, he looked for a place to put the Great Seal. It is then that the young king remembers where he put the Seal! He instructs the Lord St. John to go to the Milanese armor and look in the arm piece; there, he will find the Great Seal.
The Lord St. John leaves and returns with the Seal, and everyone acknowledges Edward as the "true king." When Tom Canty begins to shed his royal garments, the Lord Protector orders that "the small varlet be stripped and flung into the Tower." But the new and true king will not have such. He reminds his uncle, the Lord Protector, that his conduct is not becoming to him because it was through Tom Canty that he became a duke and, tomorrow, he must "sue to me, through him, for its confirmation, else no duke, but a simple earl, shalt thou remain."
Edward then turns to Tom and asks him how he knew where the Great Seal was; Tom blushes and explains that without realizing its true function, he had been using it all this time as a nutcracker!
These chapters shift attention away from the young king and, instead, focus on Tom Canty the pauper. Twain points out how magnificently the young pauper has adapted to the regality of his new life; again, he suggests that there is very little difference between a prince and a pauper — except for the clothes they wear and the company they keep.
Chapter 31, in particular, emphasizes the basic, good qualities of Tom Canty; in spite of his having enjoyed the great wealth which has surrounded him, the sight of his mother and his horribly cruel rejection of her cause Tom to long to be a pauper again; he truly wishes that it were possible for him to put aside all of his new splendor and riches and rejoin his family, becoming simple Tom Canty once again. His royal role is empty, compared to the love he found with his mother and sisters.
In Chapter 32, perhaps the true climax of the novel occurs. Recall that the prince and the pauper exchanged clothes early in the novel as a joke; now the rightful ruler must be restored to the kingship, and Tom must be allowed to return to being a simple citizen once again. During the course of the novel, the many and varied experiences of the boys will have their effect on them forever. For example, Tom learned much about royalty, but — more important — young King Edward learned even more about Ins subjects, about justice and injustice, and, in general, he learned how he should properly rule a kingdom.
The seeming possibility of a prince being able to swap places with a pauper occurred, and it caused such consternation that even the royal and supposedly learned authorities could not tell the difference. They simply are inclined to believe that one — or both — of the boys is mad: no king would willingly give up his throne to become a pauper! Yet, that is exactly what Tom Canty proposes. The irony here is that he — as king — must be obeyed. And the lords don't know which boy is the real king. If they obey the person who looks like the king, they could lose their heads. If they obey the person who looks like a pauper, they will seem ridiculous. Consequently, the plot device introduced at the beginning of the novel has now become the means whereby the identity of the true prince is discovered. Dramatically, the whereabouts of the Great Seal of England is known only to the Prince of Wales, but when it is sent for, it is ironically not there; only upon clever prompting from Tom is the true king able to remember where the Great Seal was placed.
Early in the novel, one should recall, the true king threatened several times to punish the vagabond usurper, but when Tom Canty is now ordered to be arrested, the new king forbids it. His many and varied experiences among the people of his realm have taught him valuable lessons in gratitude and justice.