In “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” shame is cast as torturous, something that can warp a person’s happiness. Edward and Mary Richards experience this most acutely, since they’re the only couple out of the town’s nineteen most well-respected families to escape seemingly unscathed from Howard Stephenson’s act of revenge. Although Edward and Mary deserve the same public embarrassment as everybody else—since, like the other Nineteeners, Edward lied in order to claim a sack of gold—they are spared the humiliation to which the other couples are subjected. In fact, their fellow citizens laud them for their integrity, showering them with praise for not succumbing to the temptations that disgraced the other Nineteeners. Although at first the couple feels a sense of relief, they soon become devastatingly ashamed for having gotten away with their lie. As time goes on, their guilt festers, wrecking havoc on their personal lives, their happiness, and even their physical wellbeing. By the end of the story, both Edward and Mary are driven to their deathbeds as a result of their overwhelming shame. In this way, Twain suggests that shame should be addressed head-on, implying that people suffering from immense guilt would be better off if they confessed their wrongdoings. Otherwise, shame can badly alter a person’s life, rendering them unable to live with themselves.
Edward and Mary Richards’s feelings of shame are made worse by the fact that everybody praises them for their integrity. To understand this dynamic, it’s worth briefly reviewing how Howard Stephenson corrupts Hadleyburg: in his attempt to take revenge on the town, he separately tells all of the Nineteeners to write a specific sentence on a piece of paper and submit it to Reverend Burgess. The town has already been informed that whoever writes down the correct phrase—a phrase that corresponds to the words written in an unopened letter—is the rightful claimant of a large sack of gold. However, Stephenson tells each Nineteener to write down the same phrase. When Reverend Burgess reads the notes out loud one by one, all containing the same phrase, the townspeople realize that the Nineteeners are all lying in order to dishonestly win the gold. While the Reverend reads, Edward and Mary Richards tensely await their public shaming. Edward is so nervous that he stands up, hoping to preemptively address the imminent disapproval. When Edward begins to address the crowd, Reverend Burgess interrupts him and acts as if Edward isn’t making a plea on his own behalf, but on behalf of the other Nineteeners who have already been proved guilty of lying. In doing so, Burgess exacerbates Edward’s shame. Sheepishly, Mr. Richards sits down again and whispers to his wife, “the shame will be greater than ever when they find we were only going to plead for ourselves.” In this moment, Edward acknowledges how toxic shame can be when kept hidden, since guilt grows “greater” the longer it goes unaddressed.
Despite the fact that Edward submitted a note to Burgess, the Reverend never calls his name. Mary and Edward are dumbfounded, but their fellow citizens immediately congratulate them for their upstanding moral integrity. Before long, the citizens open the sack and realize it’s full of painted lead, not gold. To further shame the other Nineteeners, they decide to start an auction for the lead, determined to give the proceeds to Edward and Mary. Meanwhile, Edward and Mary watch in horror—now they’re guilty not only of lying about their superiority, but of remaining quiet and taking their fellow citizens’ money. “O Mary,” Edward whispers, “can we allow it? It—it—you see, it is an honor-reward, a testimonial to purity of character, and—and—can we allow it? Hadn’t I better get up and—O Mary, what ought we to do?” Once again, Edward contemplates confessing the truth, thereby unburdening Mary and himself of the guilt and shame building up inside of them. Unfortunately, though, he finds himself unable to do this, instead opting to sit idly by “with a conscience which [is] not satisfied, but which [is] overpowered by circumstances.”
Soon, the couple receives a letter from Reverend Burgess explaining why he didn’t read Edward’s note in front of the town. Apparently, the Reverend was once accused of doing something incredibly disgraceful, and the entire town turned against him. Just before the citizens were going to run Burgess out of town, Edward snuck over to his house and warned him, telling him to flee and come back once everybody had calmed down. “You saved me, in a difficult time. I saved you last night,” Burgess writes. “It was at cost of a lie, but I made the sacrifice freely, and out of a grateful heart. None in this village knows so well as I know how brave and good and noble you are.” Unbeknownst to Burgess, the only reason Edward warned him in the first place is because Edward was the sole person who knew for sure that the Reverend was innocent of whatever crime the townspeople claimed he committed. (The implication is that Edward was sure of Burgess’s innocence because he was the one who committed the crime, not Burgess.) As such, Edward once again finds himself having to accept praise when, in reality, he knows he deserves to be publicly shamed.
Edward and Mary’s anxiety grows, and the two of them become paranoid and physically ill from harboring so much guilt. On his deathbed, Edward summons Reverend Burgess and—in front of a group of witnesses—confesses that the Reverend saved him from public humiliation. However, it’s clear that Edward has waited too long to confront his guilt, for he dies quickly after unburdening himself, rendering the declaration rather worthless in the long run. Worse, his confession also hurts Burgess, since it reveals that the Reverend lied to save him. To the very end, then, Mr. Richards acts selfishly—when he finally does come clean, he’s only interested in making himself feel better, even if this means causing trouble for a man who has kindly helped him. By presenting this portrait of a man unable to properly address his feelings of guilt and shame, Twain underscores the importance of responsibly handling disgrace. In doing so, he suggests that people should unburden themselves of their guilt without implicating others in their dishonor, since everyone deserves to confront shame on their own terms.
Guilt and Shame ThemeTracker
Guilt and Shame Quotes in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Oh, I know it, I know it—it’s been one everlasting training and training and training in honesty—honesty shielded, from the very cradle, against every possible temptation, and so it’s artificial honesty, and weak as water when temptation comes, as we have seen this night. God knows I never had shade nor shadow of a doubt of my petrified and indestructible honesty until now—and now, under the very first big and real temptation, I—Edward, it is my belief that this town’s honesty is as rotten as mine is; as rotten as yours is. It is a mean town, a hard, stingy town, and hasn’t a virtue in the world but this honesty it is so celebrated for and so conceited about; and so help me, I do believe that if ever the day comes that its honesty falls under great temptation, its grand reputation will go to ruin like a house of cards. There, now, I’ve made confessions, and I feel better.
At this stage—or at about this stage—a saying like this was dropped at bedtime—with a sigh, usually—by the head of each of the nineteen principal households: “Ah, what could have been the remark that Goodson made?”
And straightaway—with a shudder—came this, from the man’s wife:
“Oh, don’t! What horrible thing are you mulling in your mind? Put it away from you, for God’s sake!”
But that question was wrung from those men again the next night—and got the same retort. But weaker.
And the third night the men uttered the question yet again—with anguish, and absently. This time—and the following night—the wives fidgeted feebly, and tried to say something. But didn’t.
And the night after that they found their tongues and responded—longingly:
“Oh, if we could only guess!”
Had he rendered that service? Well, here was Goodson’s own evidence as reported in Stephenson’s letter; there could be no better evidence than that—it was even proof that he had rendered it. Of course. So that point was settled…. No, not quite. He recalled with a wince that this unknown Mr. Stephenson was just a trifle unsure as to whether the performer of it was Richards or some other—and, oh dear, he had put Richards on his honor!
[…] Further reflection. How did it happen that Richards’s name remained in Stephenson’s mind as indicating the right man, and not some other man’s name? That looked good. Yes, that looked very good. In fact, it went on looking better and better, straight along—until by and by it grew into positive proof. And then Richards put the matter at once out of his mind, for he had a private instinct that a proof once established is better left so.
The house was in a roaring humor now, and ready to get all the fun out of the occasion that might be in it. Several Nineteeners, looking pale and distressed, got up and began to work their way toward the aisles, but a score of shouts went up;
“The doors, the doors—close the doors; no Incorruptible shall leave this place! Sit down, everyone!”
If those beautiful words were deserved, Mary—and God knows I believed I deserved them once—I think I could give the forty thousand dollars for them. And I would put that paper away, as representing more than gold and jewels, and keep it always. But now—We could not live in the shadow of its accusing presence, Mary.
Within twenty-four hours after the Richardses had received their checks their consciences were quieting down, discouraged; the old couple were learning to reconcile themselves to the sin which they had committed. But they were to learn, now, that a sin takes on new and real terrors when there seems a chance that it is going to be found out. This gives it a fresh and most substantial and important aspect. At church the morning sermon was the usual pattern; it was the same old things said in the same old way; they had heard them a thousand times and found them innocuous, next to meaningless, and easy to sleep under; but now it was different: the sermon seemed to bristle with accusations; it seemed aimed straight and specially at people who were concealing deadly sins.