The Invalid’s Story by Mark Twain
In The Invalid’s Story by Mark Twain we have the theme of responsibility, imagination, inexperience, innocence, confusion and appearance. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Twain may be exploring the theme of confusion. The narrator for the entirety of his journey on the train believes that the box in the cabin on the train contains the dead body of his friend. So sure is the narrator that his friend is in the box that everything that Thompson says to the narrator regarding the smell coming from the box rings true for the narrator. However the reality is that there is no smell coming from the box. Thompson and the narrator’s imagination has run wild. Common traits with regards to a corpse start to have a meaning for Thompson and the narrator. If Thompson says something about the box or corpse the narrator tends to believe him which may suggest that the narrator may be somewhat innocent. It is unusual for someone to believe everything that a stranger (Thompson) might tell them but nonetheless the narrator appears to be at the mercy of Thompson. What is also interesting is that each remedy that Thompson uses to rid the cabin of the smell only leads to the smell getting worse. If anything Thompson’s remedy is at fault. Which may suggest that Thompson is somewhat inexperienced when it comes to trying to alleviate the smell that comes from a corpse.
The narrator too is relatively inexperienced because he follows Thompson’s lead without any objections. No matter what Thompson might suggest the narrator willingly agrees to it. It may also be a case that the narrator is being deliberately respectful of Thompson. Thompson is older, he works on the train and there is an assumption by the narrator that Thompson knows what he is taking about. However the reality may be that the smell that both men are smelling is in fact coming from the cheese that is on the ground beside the box. Though as to why neither man suspects that the smell is coming from the cheese is not clear. However what is clear is the fact that Thompson’s imagination is also causing the narrator to imagine things that are not real. What should be a solemn affair, the transporting of a dead friend, only ends up being disastrous. With both the narrator and Thompson being unsure of what is happening to them. If anything they are guessing that the corpse is smelling when the reality is there is no corpse but rather a box full of guns.
The title of the story is also interesting as it highlights just how severe the narrator’s reaction has been to the events on the train. He has aged by twenty years and is no longer the man that he used to be. Though at the same time the reader suspects that things may have gone to extremes due to the narrator’s sensitivity to issues. Through no fault of his own he has made a mistake yet he appears unable to forgive himself and the knock on effect is that the narrator now lives a less than pleasant life. If anything the reader suspects that the main problem for the narrator is his inability to let go of the events that happened on the train. Though it is easy to blame Thompson for what has happened the narrator also has to take some responsibility. His mistake was one of innocence yet he continues to punish himself to the degree that he is now an invalid.
What is also interesting about the story is that the only thing Thompson is really certain about is that death comes to everybody. Everything else that Thompson says can be taken with a pinch of salt. He is an individual who talks on many matters but knows very little on any of these matters. His experience of life appears to be based around his own interpretation of the scriptures. Which he quotes regularly throughout the story. It is also possible that Twain is highlighting how deceptive appearances can be. Both boxes are the same though they carry different things and the contents would also smell differently. Yet the narrator and Thompson believe because of the card tacked on the box that they are in the train cabin with a corpse. If anything both men have let their imagination get the better of them due to a simple error. Though the story is meant to be seen in a humorous light there is still a serious element to it. Particularly for the narrator whose health has greatly diminished all because of his mind being overpowered by the irrational concerns of Thompson. Who in reality is the real cause for the narrator’s invalidity. If the narrator had of ignored Thompson’s advice he would not be in the position he is in. It is Thompson’s imagination which has helped trigger the narrator’s own imagination.