Appearance and reality in Mark Twains “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”

Seminar Paper, 2015

11 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


Variability of Human characteristics

Religious aspects and the role of Satan

Determinism and fate in Hadleyburg


Works Cited


“Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region and around about. It […] was of it than of any of its other possessions. It was so proud of it, […] that it began to teach the principles of honest dealing to its babies in the cradle, […].”

Based on these sentences it is obvious to see where the citizen’s priorities are set within their community and what is most important to them: honesty. Nevertheless, the title of Mark Twain’s Short Story The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg already indicates that this honesty might just be feigned. Because, Hadleyburg “was sufficient unto itself, and cared not a rap for strangers […]” (420) they one day fell in disgrace to a man, who was accordingly bitter and revengeful (420). Upon his return to Hadleyburg he pursues his plan of corrupting the town and taking revenge on its citizens. He hands over a sack containing forty thousand dollars to Edward and Mary Richards and expects of them to find the person who once helped him, by giving him a special remark, and who is the person that should actually receive the money. Both Edward and Mary see the opportunity to end their poor and hardworking lives and a chance to improve their lifestyle. As Mr. Richards so depletedly tells his wife after returning from his trip “it is dreadful to be poor, and have to make these dismal journeys at my time of life.”(p. 423). Even though the citizens try to teach honesty to their children and maintain their well-known reputation, the short story shows “that the best-laid plans of men […] may wreak unintended havoc and despair” (Quirk 233) because the Richardses’ become victims of the temptation possessing the money and so do all other nineteen incorruptible citizens of Hadleyburg.

There often is a thin line between appearance and reality and it is the people’s own choice to decide on what is more important for them to be perceived by what they pretend to be or really are. Their true character is being revealed based on the decisions they make. In the following I am going to explain how human nature is concerned with temptations, how the Hadleyburgians deal with the consequences. Furthermore I will expose the impact of determinism on their lives and how religion and the character of Satan are being inserted.

Variability of Human characteristics

In the later years of his life Mark Twain tried to find out “who or what was to blame for the human condition “ (Berkove 189) and “pondered about his fellow human beings” (Quirk 241-242). To him humanity was “funny, ridiculous, vicious, disgusting and damned, […] seldom sensible and never stable” (Berkove 190). In The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg all human characteristics occur and play a significant role. The fact that all of the nineteen principal citizens try to get the money by claiming to be the ones, who helped the stranger and gave the remark is certainly disgusting and somewhat vicious, but the story already starts with wickedness in the beginning, when the stranger’s plans are described as “not sweeping enough and that his plan should comprehend the entire town so that nobody escapes unhurt” (420).

The Richardses’ seem to be an honest religious couple, as Mrs. Richards reads the Missionary Herald, which was a popular Church journal during the 19th century. She exemplifies her faith with her reaction to the bag of gold after reading the note attached to it and saying “it is gamblers ’ money! the wages of sin; […] I don’t like to be near it; […] She moved to a farther chair. . .”(p.423) which seams hypocritical since both hold on to sinful secrets to maintain their social reputation and their good name. For instance when Mr. Richards confesses to his wife that he had been the instrument of Burgess’ downfall. He had lacked “manliness”(425) since he could have revealed the truth about Burgess and about his innocence but due to his fear of what the others “might think about him and because he did not want to have everybody against him” (425) remained silent. While Mary proves her loyalty to Edward by justifying his actions “As long as he [Burgess] doesn’t know that you could have saved him, he – he – well, that makes it a great deal better,” (436), even though she knows that what he has done was wrong. By withholding their secrets the Richardses’ are not only dishonest but they also allow in Mr. Goodson’s case an innocent godly man to suffer a terrible, if not the worst punishment in Hadleyburg, as his good name is ruined and him being send out of town. By that they are not only making a mistake but also reveal their evil nature.

This case shows the people’s self-interest and selfishness, it is more important to maintain one’s own reputation than standing up for what is right, which would have been the saving of the obviously innocent Mr. Goodson and Mr. Burgess. As Edward was capable to rescue Mr. Goodson and confesses that it was all done for his own good he hesitates to keep his families’ superior status of being part of the “nineteen incorruptible” in good order. It is also obvious that honesty only appears to be Hadleyburg’s priority but actually is not.

The vanity of Hadleyburg becomes obvious when the Richardses’ decide to publish the request from the stranger in the newspaper because it “is better. Think what a noise it will make! And it will make all the other towns jealous” (p. 423) just to display how perfect they are regarding their honesty. We can see another example of Hadleyburg’s vanity at the beginning of the second chapter when the news of the gold is being published and makes a national headline:

“Vain beyond imagination. Its nineteen principal citizens […] went about shaking hands with each other, and beaming, and smiling, and congratulating, and saying this thing adds a new word to the dictionary- Hadleyburg, synonym for incorruptible - destined to live in dictionaries for ever!” (p.432).

With all that bragging they still want to make it look naturally, as if they had not been trained since their childhood. Hadleyburg’s growth from pride in its so far untested virtue to learn how to resist any temptation that is crossing their way can be seen as shield for the gloomy nature of its citizens. All of them are very complacent as one can see on the basis of Mr. Richards, despite of being trained “his conscience affects his actions only to the point at which they conflict with the desire for the good opinion of the town […]” (Burhans Jr. 379). In spite of all effort the corruption is ubiquitous “everyone of the nineteen families succumbs to the temptation […] to claim a reward that each one knows is not theirs. […] The tale highlights the corruption that lies beneath the surface […]” (Berkove 191). Another interesting fact is that the villagers always try to justify their actions even though they actually know that it is wrong, they blandish their situation and their action; for instance, that the Richardses’ think it would be justified to keep the money since they both were old, overworked, poor. Therefore Mr. Richards suggests “to burn the stranger’s papers and bury the money” (423).

But nothing describes the real being and character of Hadleyburg better than Mary’s confession to her husband when she states and reveals the true being of Hadleyburg that “this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours. It is a mean town, a hard, stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about “(p.430). Another example for blandishing their actions is given when Mr. Richards tries to remember the favor he has done for Barclay Goodson and talks himself into believing that the good deed he has done, was when he saved Mr. Goodson from marrying his fiancée, “a very sweet and pretty girl”, who carried “a spoonful of negro blood in her veins” (438) which also indicates an existing racial prejudice in the town and shows the American concept of racial “purity” at that time. It is important to note, that Mark Twain uses this incident concerning racial prejudice to illustrate Richardses ideas of the good deed that he might have done Mr. Goodson, “because for Twain, white attitudes about blacks were always an index of moral development” (Harris 244). The blandishing and justifications are performed by all of the citizens, which can also to be seen as ironically that of all people the lawyer Mr. Wilson, accuses Mr. Billson to have stolen the remark from him, by that making him look like a fool since all the other nineteen have made the exact same remark: “‘The remark which I made to the distressed stranger was this: ‘You are very far from being a bad man; go, and reform.’”(443) The greed of the humans is therefore obvious as they are “driven by their desires of wealth, security, and social position” (Burhans Jr. 380) and fear of losing their superior status as being part of the nineteen incorruptible. Driven by this mad desire of social admiration and acknowledgment the citizens of Hadleyburg will do whatever is necessary to keep their reputation in glory. The Richardses’ live in the constant anxiety of being caught, which is the only reason why they shortly think about revealing the truth when it comes to the publication of the remarks.

Hadleyburg’s problem is that their training “has shaped their consciences to an awareness of the moral ideal of honesty” (Burhans Jr. 378) but their honesty does not come from their heart and their own consciousness, which means they are not aware of the consequences of their actions and how to handle them. When the towns people realize that everybody is lying they still do not really take what they have done as a serious matter, there is neither a striving for “true honesty nor a sense of guilt” (Burhans Jr. 378), which is depicted by their behavior while Burgess is reading out the remarks at the town hall; “the gathering turns into a melodramatic travesty set to a tune from Mikado” (Quirk 234). Cheered up by this tune the less prominent citizens have the chance to mock the “moral elite” which has dominated them for so long by repeatedly chanting the first few sentences of everyone’s letter.

As the Richardses’ are far from being innocent only they, unlike the others, admit that they are hypocrites, but really are only pushed to do so by fear.

There real being can be seen as Mary, whose actions are always tied to reputation and livelihood, assures her husband that his actions where indeed correct because they “couldn’t afford it” (425) to lose their reputation and him being seen as a coward. Although the Richardses’ act wrong they seem to be the only ones who might have a little sense of guilt as “they consistently counter their admissions of greed by piously acknowledging its sinfulness”(Harris 243). At the end it seems as if only Mary and Edward Richards “become the chief victims of the stranger’s hoax only because they have been too defeated by the burdens of their lives” (Harris 242), yet they are being saved on their deathbeds after Edward confesses to Mr. Burgess that he could have saved him back when he was in trouble and by doing that he is being morally regenerated. Another striking insight one gets is that the Hadleyburgians did not learn from their failure of representing a generation’s old virtue of this town, instead of striving to regain the admiration of being an honest town. The superficiality of Hadleyburg’s praised honesty is exposed when they decide to change its name after its embarrassment, as if that would adjust its character or even was an honest action. Since they will continue doing what they have been doing for all those years, hiding their real being under a surface of a commercialist honesty. In fact, some even ignore their failure, which can be seen in Mr. Harkness willingness to pay $40,000.00 for the sack of gold so he can defeat his political opponent and showing the reader his recalcitrance being.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Appearance and reality in Mark Twains “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (American Studies)
Mark Twain
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Mark Twain, Short Stories, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Quote paper
Jonas Heidger (Author), 2015, Appearance and reality in Mark Twains “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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