‘The Five Boons of Life’ by Mark Twain: Short Story Analysis
‘The Five Boons of Life’ is a parabolic short story with a sadistic twist at the end of the tale. It has been penned by the father of American literature, Mark Twain, who lived from 1835 till 1910. From the five boons mentioned in the tale, it is evident that the most precious one must be death. A boon in the noun form is a thing that is helpful or beneficial. However, in the archaic form, a boon is termed as a favor or request. We must realize that the boons mentioned in this short story work both ways: they were not only beneficial states in life but were common favors, which mortals asked the Divine from time to time. The first point to note is if the youth had chosen the archaic form to understand the real symbology of the five boons: Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure, and Death, he would realize that he had to ask instead of choose for himself the boon mentioned by the good fairy. The second point to note is when you analyze the five boons’ antonyms or opposites, you get: Shame, Grief, Poverty, Pain, and Life. The only positive boon is ‘death’ whose opposite is eternal ‘life’ or a surreal form of divine-filled life, which is bliss itself.
The youth, however, makes a mistake and chooses the boons in this order:
He chooses death last of all, realizing that he had nothing to live for and that the other ‘boons’ were not gifts but illusionary lending states. They were not permanent or long-lasting and certainly not fulfilling. Pleasure makes him feel disappointed and void of spirit. Love makes him realize that he has spent his life loving people who leave this world never to return in the same form that he loved them. Then love becomes a curse and exacts its payment in grief and tears. He then chooses fame, which brings his downfall. Then he opts for riches to spite the people who were the cause for his downfall when he had chosen fame and the other boons. He becomes a pauper and realizes that death was the only compassionate gift worthy of being called a boon. When a man learns that everything in life is temporary and illusionary, he realizes that death is the surest fact about existence. When a child is born, one doesn’t know what its life will be like, but everyone is confident that even this child will die one day. What we do between birth and death is what truly defines our legacy and our self-realization in this realm of existence.
I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.—Mark Twain
The youth realizes that he feared to choose death because it speaks about things not known in this life. He was afraid of death, and this fear made him choose wrongly. He was still going to choose death at the end but with a skewed purpose, which was to end his painful existence. But death doesn’t mean putting an end to one’s painful existence or trying to run away from the losses we have made in this life. Death is a gift to those who lived right and who helped others. It becomes a boon when a person transcends the fear of death. When you lose the fear of death, you gain more than you do if you have lived a life fearing the ultimate reality – death. Own up to death, and then death becomes more than just another phase in life.
Even death is not to be feared by one who has lived wisely.—Buddha
Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.
If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.—Montaigne
I heartily agree with this last quote by Montaigne. I believe that the good fairy mentioned in this story is mother nature herself, who knows that life and death are more than just opposites. They are cycles, and one cannot happen without the other. Here I am referring to the literal as well as metaphorical death.
But the youth in this story wanted death to ease himself from his painful existence. Then comes the humoristic twist in the tale, which is Mark Twain at his best. The good fairy comes back to the youth the fifth time, saying that ‘death’ has been gifted to another, a ‘mother’s pet’, probably a little boy who trusted in mother nature, the promise of an afterlife, and the cyclic nature of birth and death. The boy allowed the good fairy to choose his ‘boon’ for him. In other words, in the archaic form, it would become a ‘boon’. The child was probably terminally ill and dear to a mother, so death came to him like a soothing balm. However, in Mark Twain’s characteristic sadistic wit, the good fairy comes back with the previous boons, which she knows the youth will no longer want to choose. She comes with another, the curse of living to old age. She feels the terminally ill boy didn’t deserve death. She also thinks that the youth was such a wretched and self-conceited person that he deserved worse than living to old age as a failed, disillusioned, and poverty-stricken man.
We tend to read this part twice when we come to this twist in the tale, which ends in a less fable-like anti-climax. However, it suits the otherwise didactic nature of the parabolic story, which almost seems highly modernist. Thus, we meanly gloat when we see the youth fail the test of the five boons. We find him senseless and too much of a sensualist. But aren’t we the same in our dealings in life? That is a question about which Mark Twain makes us think. Twain has not penned this story to let it sit idle. He wants to talk more about it like he used to do in his lectures.
I want to end my analysis with a few points from this short story titled ‘The Five Boons of Life’ which I want to draw your attention to:
- When the youth chooses the boon of fame, Twain mentions a series of downfalls for the youth. He says the first stage in the downfall of a person hankering after fame is the envy or jealousy of others for his state in life. Then comes a lessening of reputation or esteem, especially by envious, malicious, or petty criticism, which Twain calls detraction. Then comes calumny, making false and defamatory statements about someone to damage their reputation and fame. Then such a once successful person is persecuted, derided, which in today’s language would mean ‘trolled’ and ‘canceled’ until he finally becomes an object of pity. Doesn’t this canceling seem familiar to you? I see it all the time being used to defame (sorry for the pun) a person sometimes for no reason. Twain seems to be prophetic and a good judge of the human condition to know that these are the stages of the downfall of fame. He is a great soul who predicted the phases of the downfall of fame in the nineteenth-century that persist today. I have spoken about such trolling in my life and the world in the books I write. To know more about my life in books and with books, check out my memoir on the products page titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer and Reader of Mumbai. I’m sure it will open your mind to how so many people are suffering in this world because of the many social issues that are killing humanity more than just the Coronavirus.
- When the youth chose love, all the people he loved left him in this life. He, therefore, was disillusioned with love. This is deeper than it seems on the surface. A person doesn’t stop loving another when the other passes on. Love lives despite the distance. Death cannot separate two people who genuinely love each other, for when one dies, the other will not feel helpless. The ones left behind feel empowered to live the good life remembering the one gone before them. The youth was conceited. He stopped loving people after they left this world. It was not true love but self-indulgence.
- When the youth chose riches, notice that he already knew that riches would not give him lasting peace. He was well aware of its shallowness. He wanted to get back at the people who trumped him when he was famous, and because of that, he chose riches because he thought he could win against them with wealth.
- Notice how all the gifts were temporary, except death. They lasted as long as fate allowed them to, while death and life are everlasting. A quote here from one of my favorite writers Nietzsche to make you dwell on the lives we are leading today and what death could mean to us: “One should die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”
I enjoy reading anything written by Mark Twain. He is one of my favorite American writers. I always recommend his works to my students. I believe that Mark Twain’s works are everlasting classics that children can continuously dip into to know about the richness of life. To learn more about encouraging children to read the classics, you can check out my non-fiction multiple award-winning book CLASSICS: Why and how we can encourage children to read them.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in buying my books, you can check out the products page on my blog. There is a lot of excellent stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan