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Roughing It | Themes


Travel and Adventure

Mark Twain states that he wrote Roughing It as a form of entertainment, calling it "merely a personal narrative ... of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour." Roughing It is first and foremost a travelogue, and it is saturated with tall tales of strange sights, wonders, and off-the-beaten path adventures. Just as today, many people during Twain's time did not have the leisure or money for pleasure travel to distant locales. And of course there was no television or Internet to give glimpses of foreign lands. Books like Roughing It offered such people a glimpse at life in far-off or exotic places. In fact, Roughing It helped shape the romantic myth of the "Wild West," with its freewheeling, sometimes dangerous lifestyle of freedom and opportunity.

Twain never loses an opportunity to brag about the places he's been and the adventures he's had. He revels in accumulating new experiences, proudly mentioning his "list of things which we had seen and some other people had not." Along the way, the author wears multiple hats in his role as entertainer to the reader. He is a tour guide, walking the reader through the streets of Salt Lake City to visit churches and government buildings. He is a naturalist, describing fantastic or unusual plants and animals, such as the voracious coyote, "a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton." He's a journalist, passing on juicy tidbits from local papers to readers back East. He's an anthropologist, recording and commenting on the customs and beliefs of the various peoples he meets, from the Mormons to the Hawaiian islanders. And he's often a fearless leader, taking the reader along on perilous adventures like trekking through an active, glowing volcano crater after nightfall. Wherever he goes, Twain uses humor to enliven his travelogue and make readers feel like they are almost there with him.


Language is in Mark Twain's blood, and this shows plainly in his manner of writing and choice of anecdotes. Twain presumes that his reader is equally literate and interested in linguistics, and he devotes much of the text to recording the local dialects he encounters. Examples of how deeply language is engrained in Twain's style are sprinkled throughout the book, for he sees and interprets life through a linguistic lens. For example, in Chapter 2, the author comments on an overly talkative passenger in the stagecoach, who "rained the nine parts of speech forty days and forty nights, metaphorically speaking." Her speech is full of "dislocated grammar and decomposed pronunciation" that makes the conversation torturous for Twain—but humorous in the retelling. In Chapter 5, Twain describes the coyote as "a living, breathing allegory of Want." (An allegory is a figure or even a story that represents an abstract concept, such as love.) In Chapter 6, he pokes fun at his own language use after he asks an ungrammatical question. "The grammar was faulty, maybe," he excuses himself, "but we could not know, then, that it would go into a book someday." In Chapter 18, the author remarks of his journey across the desert wasteland, "The poetry was all in the anticipation—there is none in the reality."

The language used by characters often indicates their background, from probable education level to social class. This is a significant aspect of the portrait Twain paints of the cultures he observes. A prime example of this is found in Chapter 47. "Slang was the language of Nevada," Twain writes, and "each adventurer had brought the slang of his nation or his locality with him."

He then records a detailed interaction between a minister and Scotty Briggs, a local in Virginia City, which humorously calls out the differences in their speech. The minister is a fresh import from the East and is unfamiliar with the ways of the West. His style of speech is formal and educated. Briggs's speech, on the other hand, is ungrammatical and thick with localisms. Neither man can understand the other's manner of speech at all because their backgrounds are so different. At one point, the frustrated minister asks, "Would it not expedite matters if you restricted yourself to categorical statements of fact unencumbered with obstructing accumulations of metaphor and allegory?" Briggs responds, "That last lead of yourn is too many for me—that's the idea. I can't neither trump nor follow suit." While the minister asks Scotty, in language Scotty can't understand, to speak plainly, Briggs's style of speech is as natural to him as breathing. He cannot change it any more than he can change the way he breathes. The idiom Briggs uses ("trump nor follow suit") references a card game. The minister is highly unlikely to know the game, or to play cards at all. There is little linguistic common ground where the two men can meet or come to an understanding.

Violence and Death

Violence is glorified in the West that Twain describes, and death is often the result of this violence. Even before Mark Twain arrives at his first destination, Carson City, he finds himself sleeping with his rifle in the stagecoach in case of attack. And indeed, their driver is attacked and killed by bandits, though Twain "lost interest in the murdered driver" when he learns of the killer Jack Slade. Slade, a notorious "outlaw amongst outlaws," is nonetheless hired by a stagecoach company as a division agent for a particularly troublesome region. His job is to prevent the frequent stagecoach robberies, and he does so using whatever means necessary. Slade establishes order quickly by killing "several men—some say three, others say four, and others six—but the world was the richer for their loss," writes Twain. This statement exemplifies the attitude of the region: violence and killing has its place and is often justified as an effective, acceptable means to an end. Outlaws are the most respected patrons at any saloon, and newcomers to Virginia City are nobody until they've "killed their man" to establish their reputation. Twain also writes of the "Mountain Meadows massacre," in which emigrants in a wagon train are slaughtered in cold blood by a band of Mormons disguised as Indians.

Death in Roughing It doesn't result only from violence, though. The bones of settlers, oxen, and horses litter the route as Twain and his companions travel overland by stagecoach. These pitiful creatures may have died from lack of water, starvation, exposure to the weather, or sheer exhaustion from the arduous journey. Life in the West is difficult and perilous, and anything from illness to extreme weather to mining accidents might claim lives. Twain himself has a few narrow escapes, including the night he and his companions spend in a raging snowstorm with no fire to keep them warm (Chapter 33). Twain's brushes with death are often the result of his own poor planning or foolish decisions, and at times, it seems it was a miracle that he survives to tell the tale at all. This, of course, is part of the adventure he describes.

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