A Helpless Situation by Mark Twain: Summary and Plot Analysis

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Have you ever been in a situation when you were approached by a distant relative of a friend of a friend’s friend, whom you don’t know and have never heard of before, and they asked you for a favor?

If so, A Helpless Situation by Mark Twain is sure to take you for a stroll down the memory lane with the added bonus of his wit and humor.

A Helpless Situation: A Brief Summary

In this short story, published as part of his collection The 30000 Bequest, he recounts his past experience of dealing with people asking him for favors just because he knew their relatives at some point in his life – whom he doesn’t clearly even remember now.

He responds to the request via a letter, a letter wherein he mentions a hypothetical conversation with his publisher about a recommendation for the ‘seeker’ (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call this person a seeker)

He refers to the letters that he receives asking for favors, talking to them in complete disbelief, clearly mocking the senders of those artifacts.

“I have seen you a thousand times, you always look the same way, yet you are always a wonder, and you are always impossible; to contrive you is clearly beyond human genius – you can’t exist, you don’t exist, yet here you are!”

Mark Twain is amazed by the extent these distant relatives of friends go to seek favors, knowing fully well that there is no way for the ‘influential’ person to actually know anything about them to provide a recommendation. The criterion for them to reach out is simply that the person should be influential.

“In a word, to every person who is supposed to have influence. It always follows the one pattern : “You do not know me, BUT YOU ONCE KNEW A RELATIVE OF MINE.”

He expresses helplessness in this situation also indicating that someone keen and talented would not be resorting to such means.

Well, there is not a thing we can do that would be a help, for not in any instance does the latter ever come from anyone who CAN be helped.

His logical stance to describe his helplessness is no less humorous than it is eye-opening (for all of us seekers out there!)

The tribute to Mr Twain’s funny take cannot be over without reproducing at least a portion from the letter he sends to the seeker eventually hypothesizing the conversation that might have happened if he decided to send the recommendation.

So, here goes:

Publisher: She must have thought that you knew her literature and could speak for it. Is that it?

Twain: No, she knew I didn’t.

Publisher: Well, what then? She had a reason of some sort for believing you competent to recommend her literature, and also under obligations to do it?

Twain: Yes, I knew her uncle

Publisher: Knew her uncle?

Twain: That isn’t all, there are other ties. I know the cabin her uncle lived in, in the mines, I knew his partners, too; also I came near knowing her husband before she married him.

The comedy doesn’t end here though. 

Publisher: How can you know it when you don’t remember it?

Twain : I don’t know. That is, I don’t know the process, but I do know a lot of things that I don’t remember and remember a lot of things that I don’t know. It’s so with every educated person.

Publisher: Is your time valuable?

Twain: No. Well, not very.

Publisher: Mine is.

Not all of us have the wit to reply to a distant relative of a barely known friend asking us favors the same way as Mark Twain, but now thanks to A Helpless Situation, we do know how to tell them where to go, without actually saying the words.

4 thoughts on “A Helpless Situation by Mark Twain: Summary and Plot Analysis

  1. I haven’t read that one, but from your post it seems kind of similar to his story, “The Joke that Made Ed’s Fortune.” It’s about a letter of introduction from a friend of a friend. It’s interesting how Twain often reused similar comedic premises.

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    1. Ah, Interesting! Haven’t read that one. Next on my list!
      As for repetition of the premise, I did notice that in the later works of his career. Guess, ultimately he was as human as anyone else, in that having seen something work once, we tend to subconsciously fall back on it. I wonder if he realized the overlap….. I will rather stop my rant here, or I will drift completely off topic! and once again, thank you sir! I seem to find comfort in falling back on you for my reading list, pretty soon I think I am going to be reaching out for recommendations!
      🙂

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