Mark Twain’s Tale Within a Tail Within a Tale

In some ways, I tell and explain jokes for a living.   Part of what I love about teaching American literature is sharing its humor with students, some of whom have been schooled to see “LitTRAture” as a serious thing with a capital “L”.   They sometimes feel distant from it, and defensive.

But “getting” humor, as I said in my previous blog entry, involves a shared ground, a common experience.  Trying to directly explain what’s funny about a joke often makes the listener feel even more an outsider, a butt of the joke rather than one who shares in it.  On the other hand, describing the context that makes a joke funny puts you both on common ground.   Further, American humor is often self-deprecating, or based in a feeling of being an outsider or in a perception of being lesser than someone else, somehow less worthy.   Not getting the joke at first can even increase our identification with and enjoyment of it once we have possession of the context that makes it funny.  We share the pain, as it were.

Literary humor works on many levels, depending on the context you consider; the more contexts you consider, the funnier it gets.  Mark Twain, in Chapter XXV of A Tramp Abroad, relates an anecdote in which a young woman seems to get the better of the narrator, taking advantage of his obtuseness; she finally explains the joke, ostensibly to let him in on it, but really to punish him for not remembering her.  The scene is funny enough on its surface level, playing on pretense and the embarrassment most of us have felt when someone we cannot place seems to remember us.  But it is the context that makes the scene hilarious, as Mark Twain claims the last laugh.  And not coincidentally, it is also this humorous context that gives the scene its depth and significance.  We laugh about the things that really matter, often about things that hurt.

The narrator and his companion Harris get into an argument about some folks at another table–whether they’re American and if so, from which state, and then about the age of the—not coincidentally—pretty girl.  As the “dispute . . . waxed warm,” the narrator declares to Harris “with a pretense of being in earnest” (247) that he’ll simply go ask.  Harris dares him to, saying that he’d never have the balls to do such a thing.  Caught, the narrator approaches the table, planning an innocuous opening that will get him out of the awkward situation quickly.

To his surprise, the girl speaks up first, as though she knows him.  When he fails to recognize her but pretends that he does, the girl takes him along a garden path of fabricated reminiscences, one of which refers to someone called “Darley”:

“It was necessary to say something, –so I said,–

“I always regarded Darley as a troublesome old thing.”

“So he was, but then they always had a great affection for him, although he had
so many eccentricities.  You remember that then the weather was the least cold,
he would try to come into the house.”

I was rather afraid to proceed.  Evidently Darley was not a man,–he must be
some other kind of animal,–possibly a dog, maybe an elephant.  However, tails
are common to all animals, so I ventured to say,–

“And what a tail he had!”

“One!  He had a thousand!”

This was bewildering. I did not quite know what to say, so I only said,–

“Yes, he was rather well fixed in the matter of tails.”

“For a negro, and a crazy one at that, I should say he was.”

It was getting pretty sultry for me.  I said to myself, “Is it possible she is
going to stop there, and wait for me to speak?  If she does, the conversation is
blocked.  A negro with a thousand tails is a topic which a person cannot talk
upon fluently and instructively without more or less preparation  As to diving
rashly into such a vast subject,–

But here, to my gratitude, she interrupted my thought by saying,–

“Yes, when it came to tales of his crazy woes, there was simply no end to them
if anybody would listen . . . .” (250)

And the tale goes on, until she finally admits that she is pulling his tale in punishment for merely pretending to know her.

Out of context, the anecdote is funny enough in its exposure of social awkwardness, though aspects of it are disturbing.  As is so often true with Mark Twain, those deliberately disturbing bits are our invitation in to the deeper, more painful joke.  Or, as is also so often true with Twain, an interwoven set of jokes.

A Tramp Abroad is a travel narrative, a semi-fictional romp through Europe by the American Vandal and his sidekick “Harris,” a walking tour in which little walking is ever actually attempted or accomplished, in which nothing is ever quite as it seems.  The narrative as a whole comments on tourism and its motivations, playing on the ways in which tourists and locals will exaggerate their accomplishments, all in the name of status or for the purpose of making a buck.

The chapter opens with a seemingly unrelated point, in which the narrator clears up some commonly held misinformation, declaring that chamois is not really an animal to hunt, but some sort of pestiferous bed bug infesting Swiss hotels.   He claims that it gives him “no pleasure” to expose the “humbug,” but that he “must” do it all the same, for too much “romantic nonsense has been written about the Swiss chamois and the perils of hunting it” (241-242).   Of course, here, the humor is directed at the narrator, because the reader knows he himself is wrong about the chamois being a bedbug.  But the joke is also turned against hunters and against the assumptions of manhood and courage, as the narrator mocks their courage and efficacy in hunting bedbugs with guns, as well as their propensity to tell exaggerated stories.  Chamois hunting had been banned by Swiss law a few years before, in 1875, because the mountain goats were almost extinct from overhunting, prized for their “beard” which decorated hunters’ hats and for the soft leather made from their hide.   It is only their habitat that makes hunting them dangerous.

This story is followed by another, in which the narrator willfully seems to misunderstand the purpose and significance of an alpenstock.  By the mid-nineteenth century, the alpenstock was firmly associated with tourism, as visitors would flock to the Alps to climb.  Alpenstocks were inscribed, or “branded” as the narrator says, with the names of the peaks that had been successfully scaled.  Falsifying this information had become as much a custom — and lucrative business — as the actual practice[1]by the mid-nineteenth century.   It was a double joke, too, on the pretenses of the tourists, because traditionally the alpenstock was associated with herders (rather than romantically brave hunters of herd animals, the chamois), who needed the alpenstock for better traction and balance when crossing glaciers and snowfields, and for measuring the depth of snow before stepping on it.   Real, mundane, working-class bravery contrasts sharply with the pretences of climbers and hunters alike.  The narrator, apparently guileless, admits that his own status with the “next detachment of tourists” was greatly improved by having his alpenstock “branded” with the names of peaks he had not climbed (246), his word choice emphasizing both the alpenstock’s pragmatic and danger-fraught working-class use and its value as a risk-free tourist item.

While the narrator’s admission seems to put him firmly in the pretentious “horde,” the rest of the anecdote plays on social class, status, and bravery.   When Harris taunts the narrator’s “pretense of being in earnest” about approaching the young woman in the dining room, and “hint[s] that there is perhaps no great danger” of the narrator doing so (247-248), the narrator declares, “what an intrepid person I am.  I am not afraid of any woman that walks” (248), and we are reminded, a little uncomfortably, of the intrepid hunters approaching the chamois, equating the woman with the goat.  It is her context that makes her dangerous.

She comments emphatically about a rough night at sea, when “the forward boats were washed away,” an occurrence that at least to her mind was dangerous and memorable.  That this event has left no particular mark on his memory—it would have been memorable only if it had “washed the rudder and the smoke stack and the captain away” (249)—reveals a courage in the narrator that challenges and creates a tension with his previous pretense.

Set in this context, the tale about the tail shifts.  When the young lady first mentions Darley, she asserts that he was notable for trying to come into the house, out of the cold.  Their class difference (and the narrator’s moral superiority) is emphasized by the fact that for him, this is evidence that “Darley was not a man,—he must be some other kind of animal,–possibly a dog, maybe an elephant.”  While the young lady and the narrator both regard Darley as some sort of animal, the narrator’s superiority is emphasized humorously through his misunderstanding.  The young lady regards her fictional creation as animal because he is a Negro; the narrator regards him as an animal because he was treated as one, and also because all men are simply an “other kind of animal”—one, alas, without a tail.

Nevertheless, she seems to get the better of him for the moment.  And the anecdote takes on greater meaning when we consider that A Tramp Abroad was written and published during the period when Twain had set aside Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s most extended and sustained seriocomic exploration of the implications of slavery and democracy, as it affects class, race, and the very foundations of humanity.  The narrator’s class identification is revealed by his genuine intrepidity in the face of a storm that obviously terrified her and by his assumption that human beings should be allowed in the house where it is warm.  His efforts to be seen as a gentleman, as an upper crust tourist, ready to complain about the lodgings, ignore mundane workers, and falsify his own accomplishments crumbles ironically.

He returns to Harris, determined to make his friend pay for the embarrassment.  He infuriates and embarrasses Harris with an extended and fictional account of his conversation with the young lady that convinces Harris that she must think them both escapees from an “idiot asylum” (257).  The narrator ends, “I had been well scorched by the young woman, but no matter, I took it out on Harris. One should always ‘get even’ in some way, else the sore place will go on hurting” (257).

In the end, this is the mark of Twain’s humor, ambiguous and ambivalent, presenting a comic struggle rather than a comic resolution.  The more of the context we share, the more troublesome – and the more painfully hilarious – it becomes.


[1] “Mountaineering In Japan” refers to earlier Swiss practices in its discussion of similar trends arising in Japan (The Spectator 20 Feb 1897:  274-275).

© Sharon D. McCoy, 2 January 2012

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2 responses

  1. […] Mark Twain’s Tale within a Tail within a Tale Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Academic Society, Huck Finn, Humor Studies, Mark Twain ← The third best gift of all: The Muppets and Laughter Book of Knowledge → No comments yet […]

  2. Steve Stewart, author: MEET MARK TWAIN | Reply

    The first thing that comes to mind when reading this passage, about a pretty American girl in Europe, from Twain’s – A Tramp Abroad – is a pretty American girl in Europe named – Daisy Miller – by Henry James.
    For readers with tastes for humor, James probably isn’t their first choice, but is there more than meets the eye in Twain’s passage?
    Do you know if Twain was also touching on – Daisy Miller – in the passage?

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