In “The Mysterious Stranger” Mark Twain portrays a society so dependent on outside sources for guidance that the majority of Eseldorf’s citizens do not have independent thought. This reliance is what eventually ruins many of the resident’s lives and Satan merely serves to elucidate their foolish behavior. Though it is a much more modern time and setting, “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” is the same idea in a more modern time and setting. The inhabitants of Hadleyburg are not without corruption, simply temptation and the stranger’s scheme only function to induce the true nature of the town.
Awareness breeds independent thought, and without knowledge it is very difficult to have awareness. The citizens are forced into ignorance because, knowledge “was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them, and God would not endure discontentment with His plans.”(279) They are taught to be followers of God and all that symbolizes Him and His power which leads to the importance they place on the idea of Moral Sense. Moral Sense is “the faculty which enables us to distinguish good from evil,” however Eseldorf’s citizens only know what is religiously virtuous so this is how they define Moral Sense. The people think that their freewill is what separates them from the “beasts” but they do not have enough understanding of reality outside their village to utilize their freewill. All the decisions they make are based on their belief of God’s will for them and are not really their own.
Satan’s visit demonstrates to the people the effects of Moral Sense on their community. By interacting with different citizens like Marget, Ursula and the boys he unearths numerous facets of human weakness like, “foolish little feelings and foolish little vanities and impertinences and ambitions.”(326) These are innate qualities in all human behavior that corrupt Moral Sense but until Satan presents them, the people do not realize how meaningless their concept of morality is.
The town of Hadleyburg is a modern version of Eseldorf in many aspects. It was considered by outsiders the “most honest and upright town in all the region around about,” but only superficially.(231) The reality of the village’s nature becomes clear when a sum of money is given to one of the nineteen principal families by a stranger. He charges them to find the towns?person who did him a great service while he was in Hadleyburg and deliver the money to him. This money represents the first temptation the town has had to face and tests the citizens’ true nature. Enticed with the thought of a better life, the residents are “as weak as water” and the town’s grand reputation goes “to ruin like a house of cards.”(241) Everyone wants the money but no one has the right to claim it until the Nineteener’s receive a letter containing the remark that will guarantee them the gold. However each letter contains the same remark and consequently the “wretched Nineteen” are revealed by an elaborately false scheme by a bitter stranger to be fraud. The idea that human nature is incorruptible is an impossible one because society is not perfect and temptation is always present. Residents of Hadleyburg believe they are ideal but when faced with a new, appealing source of happiness qualities like stinginess, and greediness surface.
The man that corrupted Hadleyburg is blameless except for the invention of the temptation. As Satan did, the stranger merely created a situation which forced the people to see the reality of society’s character. The scheme he devised only worked because the citizens allowed it to by the part they played.
The people of Hadleyburg possess the same weaknesses as the citizens of Eseldorf and though the particulars of each story is different, what they reveal about human nature is the same. The parallels between these stories demonstrate that the appearance of society may change over time but its basic features do not. There is always weakness and corruption and the key to confronting this is through knowledge. If knowledge is withheld from society, people will live in ignorance doing only what they know, and ultimately creating a cycle which, if not stopped, will spread. It is only through people like Satan and the stranger that the truth is revealed and the cycle can be broken.