Having suffered a grave injustice in Hadleyburg (the details of which Twain never reveals), Howard Stephenson is determined to take revenge on the citizens of this supposedly upstanding town. To this end, he decides to expose the dishonesty of Hadleyburg’s nineteen most well-respected citizens (the Nineteeners) and their wives. For a town that defines itself based on its reputation as an honest, virtuous place, revealing immorality in the community wounds Hadleyburg and its sense of itself. However, although Stephenson is cast as an antagonistic character, he actually does the townspeople a great service: he shows them the error of their ways, thereby underhandedly encouraging them to reform. In this sense, his act of vengeance gives the citizens of Hadleyburg the opportunity to redeem themselves—after all, immorality can’t be addressed if it goes unacknowledged. As such, Twain suggests that an act of revenge can serve as a catalyst for change, demonstrating that this kind of adversity should spur thoughtful self-evaluation rather than absolute resistance.
Twain frames redemption as something everybody can achieve, no matter how wretchedly they’ve lived their lives. In fact, the stranger himself even expresses this sentiment in the made-up story he uses to hoodwink the Nineteeners. In a letter affixed to a sack of gold he leaves in Hadleyburg, he explains (though he’s lying) that two years ago, he came to town as a miserable gambler down on his luck. While he was begging one night, a kind man gave him twenty dollars—a sum that lifted him out of poverty. The stranger claims that he then went forth and became rich using this twenty dollars. Now, the stranger says, he wants to track down the man who helped him and reward him with this large amount of gold. “And finally,” he writes, “a remark which [this man] made to me has remained with me to this day, and has at last conquered me; and in conquering has saved the remnant of my morals; I shall gamble no more.”
When the citizens of Hadleyburg hear this, they all assume that the man who helped the stranger must have been the late Barclay Goodson. Soon enough, each of the Nineteeners receive private letters from a man named Stephenson (who, unbeknownst to them, is actually the stranger). These notes affirm that Goodson was indeed the man who lent the money and uttered the remark. However, Goodson is now dead. In order to trick the Nineteeners into dishonestly claiming the gold as their own, then, Stephenson tells them what Goodson said on that fateful (but made-up) night, hoping they’ll each come forward and uphold that they uttered the remark, which goes: “You are far from being a bad man: go, and reform.”
Although Stephenson has hatched this scheme in order to corrupt and embarrass Hadleyburg and its most revered citizens, the execution of his plan speaks directly to the idea that nobody is beyond redemption. Indeed, his story about Goodson’s kindness ultimately underlines the fact that even a gambler at the lowest point in his life is “far from being a bad man.” In Stephenson’s tale, Goodson’s encouraging words revive the “remnant of [his] morals,” urging him to stop seeing himself as a “bad man” and start seeing himself as somebody capable of “reform[ing]” himself. Rather than suggesting that morally corrupt people should simply accept their own wretchedness, then, Stephenson’s story advocates for repentance and personal improvement.
Despite the fact that Stephenson’s plot against Hadleyburg ruins the town’s reputation, the community benefits from his otherwise antagonistic plan. This is because his act of retribution allows Hadleyburg citizens to finally admit that they aren’t as honest as they originally thought. Most importantly, though, they come to accept their own shortcomings. Instead of vehemently denying the unsavory implications about the town’s moral integrity—which arise as a result of Stephenson’s plan—the citizens see their downfall as an impetus for change. Indeed, Hadleyburg even changes its name, a sign of just how ready the citizens are to leave behind their old ways and remake the community. What’s more, they alter the town’s motto and “official seal.” Whereas the seal originally read, “Lead us not into temptation,” now it reads, “Lead us into temptation.” By deleting the word “not,” Hadleyburg subtly acknowledges that it has been tricked into following “temptation.” Interestingly enough, though, the new slogan embraces this, suggesting that the citizens understand they’ve been made stronger because of Stephenson’s trickery. As such, they willingly accept that they should be led into “temptation,” since confronting their vices has ultimately helped them grow.
In this way, the townspeople of Hadleyburg adhere to the crux of Stephenson’s lesson about redemption; their desire to change echoes the line, “You are far from being a bad man: go, and reform.” In other words, the citizens recognize their previous moral shortcomings, but they also acknowledge that these weaknesses don’t render them incapable of change. Instead, they see Stephenson’s act of revenge as a lesson, which they can use to honestly examine themselves so that they can redeem their values and move forward as a new community. This reformative attitude stands in stark contrast to the way Stephenson himself faces adversity. Whereas the town of Hadleyburg reacts to Stephenson’s malice by endeavoring to change, Stephenson only shows “bitter[ness]” when he is wronged by Hadleyburg in the first place. Although his act of revenge ultimately helps Hadleyburg remake itself, his express goal is to harm the town. He even spends a full two years plotting his revenge, a fact that suggests he is perhaps not as capable of adapting to and moving on from adversity as the citizens of Hadleyburg are. In turn, Twain illustrates that it’s most productive to view acts of malice as opportunities for growth. Rather than holding grudges, people ought to look forward, asking themselves how they can move on from hardship. This is what Hadleyburg has done, taking Stephenson’s act of revenge as an impetus to honestly evaluate itself and, ideally, change for the better.
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Revenge and Redemption Quotes in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
But at last, in the drift of time, Hadleyburg had the ill luck to offend a passing stranger—possibly without knowing it, certainly without caring, for Hadleyburg was sufficient unto itself, and cared not a rap for strangers or their opinions. Still, it would have been well to make an exception in this one’s case, for he was a bitter man and revengeful.
I wanted to damage every man in the place, and every woman—and not in their bodies or in their estate, but in their vanity—the place where feeble and foolish people are most vulnerable. So I disguised myself and came back and studied you. You were easy game. You had an old and lofty reputation for honesty, and naturally you were proud of it—it was your treasure of treasures, the very apple of your eye. As soon as I found out that you carefully and vigilantly kept yourselves and your children out of temptation, I knew how to proceed. Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire.