The Californian’s Tale

The Californian’s Tale Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mark Twain's The Californian’s Tale. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mark Twain

Mark Twain is an icon of American literature who used his acerbic wit and wry humor to create some of the most celebrated works of fiction in the American literary canon. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, he grew up in Missouri along the Mississippi River, and his experiences with river life and the institution of slavery influenced his writing throughout his career. As a young man, Clemens worked as a printer on several newspapers while also writing short stories and tall tales about American life. In 1857 he became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the outbreak of the Civil War sent him out west, where he adopted the pen-name “Mark Twain,” a play on the phrase “marking the twain” for measuring river depth. In 1865, Twain published his first story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” This humorous tale brought him national recognition and led to a multi-year job as a travel writer, which inspired his first best-selling book, 1869’s The Innocents Abroad. Twain married Olivia Langdon in 1870 and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where he wrote his most famous novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Scholars consider the latter work to be the quintessential Great American Novel. Twain spent the last years of his life on the European lecture circuit, and his writing during this period critiqued human greed, cruelty, and hypocrisy. He died in 1910 at the age of 74, his literary legacy long sealed.
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Historical Context of The Californian’s Tale

The promise of gold led an estimated 300,000 American settlers to California in the mid-nineteenth century. “Boomtowns” quickly grew around gold deposits and were just as quickly abandoned after the gold ran in an area out, leading to “ghost towns” throughout the state. Gold-rush fever drove much of Twain’s journalistic writing during his time in Nevada and California, but privately, the harsh reality of the mining life often tempered his enthusiasm for the West. Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Twain had traveled to Nevada and tried silver prospecting, but failed to strike it rich. Twain then moved to California and worked the gold country, where he bunked in miners’ cabins and immersed himself in the rough and tumble culture of their camps. In his work, Twain, even more so than other naturalistic writers, leaned towards cynicism and pessimism, conditions fueled by his observations as a traveler as well as a lifetime spent pursuing (failed) get-rich-quick schemes. During his travels abroad in the 1890s, Twain also witnessed the exploitation of European imperialism, further deepening his pessimism about humanity. In “The Californian’s Tale,” which he wrote during this period, Twain combined his growing skepticism of global imperialism with his past experiences in the mining camps to tell a story about how America’s own westward imperialism destroyed the bodies and minds of doomed prospectors.

Other Books Related to The Californian’s Tale

Twain was one of the strongest voices in the new literary naturalist movement. Literary Naturalism (1865-1900) grew out of Realism, which depicted the everyday experiences of common people. Naturalism similarly embraced this common focus, but added a greater emphasis on fate. Naturalistic writers depicted humans as products of their surroundings, including their environment, social conditions, and heredity. Naturalist writers therefore eschewed the notion of free will and instead depicted humans as subject to forces beyond their control. “The Californian’s Tale” shares its pessimistic and deterministic themes with Jack London’s short story, “All Gold Canyon” (1906). In the latter, a grizzled prospector arrives in a pristine California valley. There, he discovers gold, but a claim-jumper shoots him. Not mortally wounded, the prospector eventually kills the claim-jumper and buries him in the gold dig. London’s naturalistic story further echoes “The Californian’s Tale” by highlighting how the lure of the Gold Rush unleashed destructive, tragic, and unconquerable human passions. The naturalistic novelist Frank Norris likewise explored such themes in his 1901 novel The Octopus: A Story of California, which pits doomed wheat farmers against the unstoppable greed of the railroad monopolies that usurp the farmers’ land. Norris, like Twain and London, depicts how the promise of wealth drew Americans westward, only to see them torn apart by their own primal urges.
Key Facts about The Californian’s Tale
  • Full Title: The Californian’s Tale
  • When Written: 1891-93
  • Where Written: Europe
  • When Published: 1893
  • Literary Period: Naturalism, Realism
  • Genre: Short story, Western
  • Setting: The Stanislaus River region, California
  • Climax: The narrator learns that Henry went mad following the disappearance of his wife and believes she will still return.
  • Antagonist: The desolate American West, fate
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Californian’s Tale

Twain and Tesla. Mark Twain was close friends with the celebrated futurist Nikola Tesla, as the two men shared a mutual interest in science and literature. In the 1890s, Twain frequently visited Tesla in his New York laboratory and took part in the scientist’s electrical experiments.

Cat Lover. Twain loved cats so much that, at one point, he owned nineteen felines of his own. When he traveled the world, he would “rent” cats from acquaintances to keep himself company. He also gave his cats majestic names, such as “Blatherskite,” “Sour Mash,” and “Zoroaster,” just to name a few.