The pain economy : Mark Twain's investment in pain.

Date of Award


Document Type



Caspersen School of Graduate Studies

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Mark Twain's humor draws our eye to scenes of humiliation, physical injury, loss, and suffering. While there is no doubt whether Twain is a successful humorist, the question remains why pain features so prominently in his writing. This dissertation brings together humor studies, masochism research, and literary scholarship to demonstrate how pain becomes currency--characters trade insult for injury, suffering is rewarded with sudden windfalls, and even the reader-author relationship is charged with the exchange of pain. Within the pain economy, taking an interest in pain is commercial good sense, not a sign of neurosis. Mark Twain's creative work is underwritten by the fruitful exchange of pain and pleasure. His natural inclination towards guilt and his ceaseless return to suffering become profitable endeavors. Drawn into the exchange through their pleasure, Twain's readers will be asked to share in the cost--either through monetary payment for the text or through some contribution of pain. The pain economy also comes to represent the ultimate moral measurement for Twain. He lambasts churches, governments, and other social institutions for their failure to provide a balance between pain and payoff for those that fall within their purview. For Twain, morality is defined almost entirely by the exchange of pleasure and pain. His moral heroes are those who suffer without complaint and for the good of others; his villains, any who make their way in the world by exploiting other people's pain personal gain. God provides Twain with his most powerful and exploitative villain, but in an ironic turn, Twain comes to resemble the villain he most despises. As an author, Twain creates an inescapable reality in which his characters suffer at his behest and for his benefit. Through his imitative authorship, Twain reveals the fact that all realities are merely creations of an authorial mind. Although this idea draws dangerously near the void of nihilism, Twain invites his readers to remain within the fiction through investment in the pain economy.