A Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain: Summary, Analysis and Review

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A Californian’s Tale is a short story published as part of his short story collection.  Written towards the tail end of his career, this short story sometimes seems a reflection of sorrows from his own life at that time.

A Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story narrated by an unnamed traveler is set in California, decades after the mad gold rush.

The narrator admits to have tried his fate with gold prospecting along Stanislaus river failing to find any luck. He remembers it to be a lovely region, woodsy, balmy and alive. What remained now was a shadow of the town he knew from before the gold rush. It was a lonesome land now with only a few cottages inhabited.

He caught sight of a human and immediately felt a strange uplift.

The house, unlike the others around, seemed to have been thoroughly cared for, having a garden of flowers in the front yard, a pleasure to the narrator’s sore eyes.

Upon being invited by the homeowner, Henry, a middle-aged gentleman, the narrator obliges and finds a tour of the house pleasantly refreshing. 

Being used to the harsh life of a miner, everything about the house uplifted his spirits. Every nook and cranny was tastefully done and Henry took pride in mentioning that all of it was his wife’s work.

His mentions of his wife reek of worship and adoration.

While washing himself up, the narrator happens to look at the picture of a beautiful young woman and soon realizes that she was the owner’s wife.

Spellbound by her beauty, he inquires about her and gets to know that she is away visiting her parents 50 miles away and will be back in a few days.

Feeling a pang of disappointment, the narrator mentions that he would not be staying that long, but is eventually convinced by Henry to stay back and leave only after meeting her.

Not very long after, he has a visitor named Tom who asks for the whereabouts of Henry’s wife. Henry informs him that she would be back on Saturday, and reads her letter for Tom.

Tom breaks down but mentions it’s only because he was expecting the missus to be back sooner.

Another friend Joe visits them and expresses the same dissatisfaction of not being able to see her.

The day arrives but the wife doesn’t arrive.

Henry starts to get a bit restless and asks the narrator multiple times if he thought everything was fine with her.

Another friend Charley visits them, pacifies Henry in his worrisome state, and urges him to stop worrying and to start working on wrapping up the decorations for her welcome.

As they are done wrapping up the celebrations, Joe and Tom arrive as well and the party begins. The men begin drinking. Henry’s three friends ensure that he did too but he continues to gaze at the road waiting for his wife’s return.

The men continue to make him drink while he feels sick with worry and asks for their help in order to lie down. Almost falling asleep and starting to mumble, he imagines hearing horse’s feet, when his friends tell him that the wife is going to be 30 minutes later.

Henry is asleep when his friends begin to leave.

The narrator asks them to stay back as Henry’s wife would not recognize him because he was a stranger. The friends then tell him that his wife had been dead for nineteen years and that Henry has not been sane ever since.

Each year during the time of the year when she was supposed to return, his friends visit him, ask about her, help with decorations and welcome and sedate him so that he could get some peace. They had been doing it for him for the last nineteen years, to spare him the grief and pain his memory caused.

A Californian’s Tale: Review and My Thoughts

I loved the story for the intense passion with which Henry seems to adore his wife.

She seems to be an adorable and beautiful woman. Henry and his friends speak so highly of her that even our narrator got hooked. There is a vivid image that Twain painted about the woman we don’t actually get to see in the story, but we develop a soft spot for her.

With all the television and movies that I have watched all my life, I must admit that I did sense something to be off with the whole Henry and his wife setting, but I didn’t anticipate her death. And at the hands of Indians!

Two themes in the story stood out the most – Love and Friendship

1 – The love between the husband and the wife

The woman, teenager at the time, is cheerful and full of life. Her loving letters to her husband and his adoration for every little thing she did, makes me weak in the knees, the classic aww moment. Consider this, for example:

She did it all by herself – every bit.

I’ve seen her fix all these things so much that I can do them all just her way, though I don’t know the law of any of them. But she knows the law. She knows the why and the how both; but I don’t know the why; I only know the how.

It’s not just a husband that loves his wife but has a very healthy respect and admiration for what she was.

2 – Having friends helping through tough times

Having friends that stand by you, no matter how difficult life gets, is a real privilege. Henry’s friends, completely aware of the fact that he had lost his sanity, instead of running away, did the very thing that true friends would do – they stood by him.

They helped him cope the only way they know how. It’s sweet. It’s the silver lining in Henry’s dark tragic fate.

Never has he been sane an hour since, but he only gets bad when that time of the year comes round. Then we begin to drop in here, three days before she is due, to encourage him up, and ask if he’s heard anything from her, and Saturday we all come and fix up the house with flowers, and get everything ready for a dance. We have done it every year for the last nineteen years.

You cry tears of sorrow for the tragedy.

You cry tears of happiness for Henry’s friendship.

Sad and Sweet. Not a very common combo.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what Mark Twain can do to you, even with the shortest of his stories.

In the story, what spoke to you the most?

Please share your thoughts in Comments!

4 thoughts on “A Californian’s Tale by Mark Twain: Summary, Analysis and Review

    1. He had sprinkled hints all through the story that something was amiss , although the ending wasn’t completely unexpected, it still broke my heart a little.

      P.S. Thanks for recommending McManus, its been a sheer delight so far.

      Liked by 1 person

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