Many of the characters in “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” trick themselves into believing they’re honest and moral. They’re able to delude themselves into thinking this because they’ve been told their entire lives that they belong to an “unsmirched” community renowned for its “incorruptible” honesty. Despite the high esteem in which they hold their morality, though, their integrity has never actually been tested—everybody simply takes it for granted that they posses an unimpeachable sense of goodness. Unfortunately for the citizens of Hadleyburg, a disgruntled out-of-towner named Howard Stephenson (“the stranger”) decides to take revenge on the town by exploiting its communal weakness, ultimately using the residents’ own vanity to reveal the feebleness of their moral integrity. To do this, all he has to do is privately suggest to each of the town’s nineteen most well-respected citizens that they once did something kind, and that this kindness deserves a reward in gold. Although none of the so-called Nineteeners can recall what, exactly, they did to earn such a generous gift, they all convince themselves that Stephenson’s flattering account must be true—after all, they have always been known for their “incorruptible” goodness. As such, each one deigns to accept the reward, letting his high opinion of himself overshadow any doubt he might otherwise have about whether or not he deserves Stephenson’s trust and compensation. In this way, Mark Twain demonstrates that a person’s overinflated ego can cause them to ignore the truth about themselves. Vanity, he shows, often encourages people to overlook their own shortcomings, ultimately allowing them to delude themselves regarding the true nature of their moral integrity.
Twain establishes at the very outset of the story that Hadleyburg has a reputation for being “the most honest and upright town in all the region.” In fact, the citizens are so proud of this reputation that they work hard to “insure its perpetuation,” making sure to “teach the principles of honest dealing to [the town’s] babies in the cradle.” In turn, these teachings become the “staple of their culture.” However, there’s a problem with Hadleyburg’s unrelenting pride regarding its moral integrity: its citizens never actually allow this integrity to be challenged or tested. “Throughout the formative years temptations were kept out of the way of the young people,” Twain notes, “so that their honesty could have every chance to harden and solidify, and become a part of their very bone.” Although the townspeople might think that keeping “temptations” away from young people will allow their “honesty” to grow strong and unflappable, in reality this approach only creates weakness, since nobody in the town ever truly exercises his or her moral integrity in trying situations. Instead, they bask in the mere idea that they’re “incorruptible,” believing that honesty is something of an innate quality, something that is “part of their very bone[s].” Howard Stephenson, for his part, recognizes that the citizens of Hadleyburg have confused their vanity and pride for actual honesty and integrity, and so he sets out to prove that their supposed virtues are inauthentic.
To corrupt Hadleyburg, Howard Stephenson tricks all of the Nineteeners into individually coming forth to publicly claim a sack of gold that they don’t actually deserve. His method of tricking each of these citizens is the same. For example, he privately writes to Edward Richards—the bank’s elderly cashier—and explains that he (Stephenson) was with a now-deceased man named Barclay Goodson one night when Goodson helped a stranger. This stranger has recently returned to Hadleyburg and declared that he wants to repay the person who helped him with a sack of gold. Unfortunately, the stranger doesn’t know who, exactly, helped him, so he tasks the town with tracking down the right man. This man, the stranger has explained in a note affixed to the sack of gold, can be identified by a remark he uttered on that fateful night. When Stephenson writes to Edward (and to all of the other Nineteeners, though Edward doesn’t know this), he reveals that it was Barclay Goodson who helped the stranger. He then tells Edward what Goodson said. The reason he tells Edward this is because he claims that Goodson would have wanted Edward to collect the money. Apparently, the stranger says, Edward once did something very admirable to help Mr. Goodson, though Edward might not actually remember doing this “service.” However, Stephenson states that he isn’t completely sure whether or not Richards is indeed the person to whom Goodson was referring. He tells Edward, “if it was you that did him that service, you are his legitimate heir, and entitled to the sack of gold. I know that I can trust to your honor and honesty, for in a citizen of Hadleyburg these virtues are an unfailing inheritance.”
Stephenson actively wants to expose the vainglorious citizens of Hadleyburg, who think of themselves as upstanding moral citizens—people who believe their virtuous qualities are bone-deep “inheritance[s].” To do so, he gets Edward to focus on his reputation and self-image as a man with unshakable integrity, thereby duping him into ignoring the fact that he never truly helped Goodson in the first place.
By showcasing Edward Richards’s reaction to Stephenson’s letter, Twain illustrates how eager people are to see themselves in a favorable light. Even though Edward can’t recall what act of goodness he showed Goodson, he immediately begins inventing scenarios that might render him deserving of such a generous reward. Of course, it’s clear that Edward doesn’t deserve the reward, but he’s determined to trick himself into finding an interpretation of the situation that not only allows him to accept the prize, but to do so in a way that will reinforce his vain—and unfounded—belief that he is a morally upstanding man.
By the end of “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” Stephenson successfully proves that all of the Nineteeners are dishonest men. In a final letter, he reveals that it was easy to trick people like Edward into convincing themselves to accept the reward. “As soon as I found out that you carefully and vigilantly kept yourselves and your children out of temptation, I knew how to proceed,” he writes. The citizens of Hadleyburg have devoted their lives to the mere idea of virtue, essentially failing to actually uphold any kind of legitimate morality. Their high-minded estimation of their integrity is nothing more than vanity, as they take delight in their sterling reputation without behaving in a way that befits that reputation. Furthermore, they still actually believe they are virtuous people, even when they’re actively scheming to take a sack of gold that doesn’t belong to them. Indeed, the genius of Stephenson’s plan is that it invites Nineteeners like Edward to dupe themselves. By putting this process on display, Twain shows readers that people are often more than willing to delude themselves, especially when doing so means bolstering their egos and affirming the vainglorious notions they have about themselves.
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Vanity and Virtue Quotes in The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
Hadleyburg was the most honest and upright town in all the region around about. It had kept that reputation unsmirched during three generations, and was prouder of it than of any other of its possessions. It was so proud of it, and so anxious to insure its perpetuation, that it began to teach the principles of honest dealing to its babies in the cradle, and made the like teachings the staple of their culture thenceforward through all the years devoted to their education. Also, throughout the formative years temptations were kept out of the way of the young people, so that their honesty could have every chance to harden and solidify, and become a part of their very bone.
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.
Very well, what shall we do—make the inquiry private? No, not that; it would spoil the romance. The public method is better. Think what a noise it will make! And it will make all the other towns jealous; for no stranger would trust such a thing to any town but Hadleyburg, and they know it. It’s a great card for us.
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!”
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.
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.