This is second-hand, so bear with me. I don't have the author's name or story title, just a description: A person loses a loved one (not even sure about genders!) and an angel arrives to explain why that happened. He takes the guy to see what the future would be if that loved one had lived and it turns out to be horrible for the world. So it was better that the loved one died.

Second hand info says that the story was by Mark Twain, but I've been through his novels and short stories and didn't find it. Any leads or ideas?

  • 1
    This is basically the plot of "It's a wonderful life"
    – Valorum
    May 24, 2015 at 22:45
  • 2
    @Richard In "It's a wonderful life" not the loved one, but the protagonist himself experience what happened to the world if he never existed. Maybe didymus7 got it wrong, but it's an important different detail. May 24, 2015 at 23:17
  • I originally noticed the similarity to 'It's a wonderful life' with a twist.
    – didymus7
    May 26, 2015 at 0:28
  • A Mark Twain story about an 'angel' is "The Mysterious Stranger"
    – Jim Green
    Aug 10, 2016 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


"The Mysterious Stranger" By Mark Twain is about an angel - Satan - who appears to a group of boys and teaches them about the follies of morality and civilization in general (Twain wrote it while he was dying, and apparently bitter about his impending demise).

At one point in the unfinished novel, one of the boys is killed (drowns, I believe), and the group begs Satan to bring him back. Satan shows them an alternate future if the drowned boy had survived, which involves several people dying as a result, as well as the boy himself living longer, but suffering a miserable existence.


This is a long shot, but your description reminds me of the 1881 short story "Hands Off" by Edward Everett Hale, of "The Man Without a Country" and "The Brick Moon" fame. Not Mark Twain, of course, but at least a contemporary of his.

The first-person narrator's "Mentor" or "guardian" is clearly an angel, although he is not called that in the story; and he shows the narrator how changing history, by saving one man, would bring the whole world to ruin. However, it's not a loved one that the narrator wanted to save; rather, he wanted to help the patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob, escape from the Midianite traders and return to his father after being sold into slavery.

You can read the story for yourself at the Internet Archive.

  • Thanks! If this isn't the story, there are too many with the same plot! (Oh, yeah, that's happened already...;-). I'll check it out.
    – didymus7
    May 26, 2015 at 0:26

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