A Ghost Story By Mark Twain Analysis

Historical Context

Mark Twain is a renowned author of the 19th century, credited for his witty and satirical pieces of American literature that are still studied in schools today. One of his shorter works, ‘A Ghost Story’, was included in his 1874 short story collection, Sketches New and Old. A supernatural short story set in the south of the United States in the 1880s, ‘A Ghost Story’ was published in the hopes of provoking fear in readers.
The tale centers around a group of passengers on a riverboat who hear a ghost story told by an old man. This ghost story, set in the South, deals with superstition and the idea that even dead bodies are not completely free of life and emotion. Though ‘A Ghost Story’ seems to be a traditional ghost story, Twain uses it to depict the breakdown of communal stories and superstitions, as well as its ruthless dismissal by a younger generation.

Literary Techniques Used

Mark Twain employs a number of techniques to bring the story to life for the reader. He uses dialogue to convey the story as if it is being told by a narrator, and employs dramatic irony to build suspense. Twain also creates a sense of community within the passengers on the boat, using the relationships between the characters to further to build tension and anticipation.
Throughout the story, Twain uses imagery and vivid details to paint a picture for the reader. By including vivid descriptions of the environment, a feeling of suspense and fear builds, as the reader is left with the unknown lurking in the shadows. Twain also weaves in an abundance of symbols, such as the characters’ attire, to further cement the literary impact the short story embellishes.

Themes in ‘A Ghost Story’

One of the main themes presented in ‘A Ghost Story’ is the conflict between superstition, progress and mortality. The old man in the story serves as a vessel for Twain, who uses him to introduce an antiquated point of view into a society that is quickly advancing. The old man’s narrations cause some of the passengers to doubt the reliability of the supernatural world he describes.
Twain also examines the notion of mortality and its influence on individuals, with implications from the ghost tale’s ending suggesting that death might be not so sinister after all. Through the old man’s narration, Twain also paints a picture of a society that is slowly changing and erasing traditional beliefs.

Interpretations & Analysis

The modern reader can take away from ‘A Ghost Story’ a reminder that superstition will always remain in some form within a rapidly changing world, as traditional ideals continue to clash with modern thinking. Additionally, Twain uses this short story to address notions of mortality in a philosophical manner—death is believed to be something to fear and avoid, but the narrator of the story ultimately portrays the grimness through a more somber, optimistic perspective.
Another possible interpretation is that the story hints at society’s role in erasing and disregarding traditional beliefs, while pointing out the shallowness of a capitalistic driven culture that no longer acknowledges the power of oral story-telling or the stories and facets of different cultures that made up America’s foundations during the 1880s.

Character Analysis & Evolution

The characters in ‘A Ghost Story’ are diverse, embodying symbols of various generations of society and moral ideologies. The old man with white hair symbolizes superstition and an old-fashioned perspective of death, while the young characters symbolize progress and the future of the society.
The conversations between the old man and the youths on the boat represent Twain’s contrast between superstition and progress, highlighting the different perspectives between old and young generations. The young character’s refusal to accept the superstition presented by the old man challenges readers to discern between present and past mindsets of death and mortality, suggesting that it is possible to co-exist with both mindsets instead of immediately disregarding the age-old belief.

Narrative Structure & Momentum

Twain presents ‘A Ghost Story’ in a linear narrative format, with the ghost story being the key episode of the plot. The events that take place before and after the story’s central narrative, such as the old man’s arrival on the boat and the travelers’ disbelief, add to its momentum of the plot—building suspense and highlighting the importance of the ghost story.
In addition, Twain also gradually increases the level of tension throughout the story. After setting up the scene, there comes a huge silence that encapsulates everyone, creating a sense of anticipation through the reader. The gradual buildup of the suspense builds until it ultimately reaches a height of tension, where the reader is left stunned or in dread.

Tone & Mood

Twain successfully creates a distinct and fitting tone that transports readers back in time to a superstitious society filled with fear of the unknown. Through the use of various techniques, such as employing vivid imagery, Twain creates a heavy dark emotion filled with sadness and remorse, with a further lingering chill that can be felt all throughout the story.
The story culminates with an unexpected twist, as the old man undergoes a transformation from disbelief to understanding of the supernatural world after witnessing the event on the boat. This sudden and unexpected change in tone from disbelief to understanding creates a sense of hope and contentment that is felt throughout the story.

Symbols & Allegory

In ‘A Ghost Story’ Twain again employs the use of symbols to further emphasize the contrast between the older and traditional superstitions of society and the modern progress of an emerging society. The character of the old man embodies superstition and age-old beliefs, while the other characters illustrate the skepticism and disbelief surrounding traditional beliefs.
One of the most apparent symbols in the story is the clothes the old man wears, which were fashioned by his wife. These clothes serve to both allude to and reinforce the age-old beliefs the old man holds and emphasizes the progress made within society.

Critical Response to ‘A Ghost Story’

Twain’s ‘A Ghost Story’ has earned praise for its ability to deliver an engaging and original tale, exploring themes of mortality and superstition in an interesting manner. Critics have commended Twain for his use of vivid imagery, which builds suspense and carries the story throughout, as well as his clever use of symbolism and allegory to further advance the story.
The supernatural elements of the story and its ability to evoke different emotions from its readers have also been widely praised. Many have noted the story’s ability to produce a range of emotions, such as fear, disbelief, distress, and even a sense of awe and surprise at its conclusion.

Reception & Legacy

Since its publication, ‘A Ghost Story’ has gained a new level of popularity, which is furthered by its inclusion in the encyclopedic horror anthology The Penguin Book of American Supernatural Tales. It is also included in some syllabi of school curricula, allowing younger generations the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Twain’s unique style of storytelling.
Its popularity has transcended into the realm of film, as several directors have adapted it into short films and television adaptations. ‘A Ghost Story’ has become a staple in the world of horror, praised for its originality and its ability to explore psychological themes in a manner that provokes thought in its readers.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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