Mark Twain -- the pen name of Samuel Clemens -- is best known for his warm, humorous novels about the characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. However, as Twain aged his work became increasingly cynical and dark. Many scholars believe that the loss of his wife and three of his children led to this growing pessimism. By the turn of the 20th century, Twain was regularly writing short stories as dark as "The Five Boons of Life."
Twain's early work is characterized by a heavy use of colloquial dialogue and folksy descriptions, reflecting the rich and humorous character of his settings. But "The Five Boons of Life," published in 1902, is written in an elevated tone, somewhat in the manner of the King James Bible. Twain seems to be attempting something of a universal, timeless quality to the prose without grounding the story in any specific time or place.
Fans of Twain's early work hold his ability to create rich, idiosyncratic, memorable characters as perhaps his greatest strength. In "The Five Boons of Life," he makes his characters abstract as possible. The good fairy is almost a pure abstraction, reflecting only the philosophical view of its author. The other character, the youth, grows as a character. But his experiences are rendered extremely vague, making him something of a universal figure.
Unlike Twain's earlier, freewheeling tales, "The Five Boons of Life" is tightly structured, almost like a formal poem. The five boons are reflected in numbered sections of roughly equivalent length, varying most in the fourth and fifth sections, with 306 and 66 words respectively. Although the content of the story might surprise readers, the structure is carefully established at the outset and proceeds entirely as expected.
The meaning of the story is remarkably bleak. The fairy presents the youth with five gifts throughout life. He chooses Pleasure, Love, Fame, and Wealth, only to learn the folly of each. The gift not chosen is Death. Twain implies that life is so inherently unhappy as to make an early death the best possible outcome. Even Twain's marvelous sense of humor is muted here, making the story less an exercise in very dark comedy and more the reflections of a deeply depressed author.
- "The $30,000 Bequest and Other Stories"; Mark Twain; 1906
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