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There is the following sentence in the conversation between Florentyna Rosnovski, the heroine of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, The Prodigal Daughter, who was first elected as the Congressman of Illinois and her husband, Richard Kane, Chairman of a New York bank.

She captured the Ninth District of Illinois with a plurality of over 27,000 votes. Richard was the first to congratulate her.
"I’m proud of you, my darling." He smiled mischievously. "Mind you, I’m sure Mark Twain would have been as well."
"Why Mark Twain?" asked Florentina, puzzled.
"Because it was he who said: 'Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself'." – The Prodigal Daughter, Page 302.

I can’t get the idea of the last phrase, “But I repeat myself,” following the preceding subjunctives – Suppose you are idiot or a member of Congress. Is Richard simply saying “Whoever you are, I won’t change.”?

What is the meaning of it as the punch line of a famous quote from Mark Twain?

Is he saying he won’t change his attitudes / belief / way of life whoever the counterpart is, i.e. he always stays as he is? Though it may sound uncouth, what is the essence of the humor of this line?

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The first time he say it "suppose you are an idiot". Then he repeats the same thing by saying "or a member of congress". The idea being that saying "a member of congress" is the same as saying "suppose you're an idiot". –  Ben Plont Jul 21 at 11:48
    
@Joe. Sure. The title of the book is "The Prodigal Daughter." It’s the switch of the episode of “The Prodigal son” appearing in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 15:11-32). I thought I put it "The Prodigal Daughter." –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 21 at 20:47
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@Joe. Thanks for your pointing out "typo." –  Yoichi Oishi Jul 21 at 20:58
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Suppose you are Jeffrey Archer and suppose you're a terrible author. But I repeat myself –  Dancrumb Jul 21 at 23:14

2 Answers 2

up vote 51 down vote accepted

The joke is that Twain considers idiot and member of Congress to be synonymous!

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Though, given Twain's opinion, Richard saying that Twain would be proud of Florentina for being elected to Congress makes no sense. I assume that's just Archer's clumsy segue to Twain's joke. –  Neil Jul 21 at 0:12
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And yet he surely doesn't think that all idiots are members of Congress, only the other way around (which makes them..not quite synonyms). It'd be like saying "Suppose you were a dog and suppose you were a black dog. But I repeat myself." Perhaps Twain made a minor mistake, and it would better (from a literal sense, perhaps not a humorous one) have been swapped to have said "Suppose you were a member of Congress and suppose you were an idiot." –  Tim S. Jul 21 at 0:19
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@YoichiOishi Twain's joke isn't that he considers himself an idiot. The joke is his claim that "suppose you are an idiot" and "suppose you are a member of congress" are equivalent, i.e.: that to be a member of congress is to be an idiot. He is making fun of politicians through wordplay. (This is a traditional pastime in pretty much every social circle, including those of the politicians themselves.) –  user867 Jul 21 at 0:48
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@YoichiOishi: I repeat myself means "I repeating what I said", as opposed to what someone else said: "I have said the same thing twice." –  StoneyB Jul 21 at 0:56
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@YoichiOishi: Mark Twain's entire quote was: "Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself." The author's use of this brilliant quote is just sloppy writing, because he would be effectively insulting his wife, calling her an idiot according to Twain. And, Twain would not be proud of her; he didn't suffer fools. So it's simply a sloppy (and therefore confusing) choice of words. Not all written English is well written. (Please see my answer below.) –  medica Jul 21 at 6:08

Mark twain's comment relies on the sarcastic use of tautology:

needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word.

The author Dan Brown mistakenly makes a lot of tautological statements, parodied in this description:

The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive.

The last word is an unnecessary repetition of repetitive - a tautology.

What Mark Twain is saying is that to say suppose someone is an idiot and suppose someone is a congresman is a tautology: they are the same thing. (All Congressmen by his definition were idiots.) To say both is a tautology.

To be honest, the writing is poor in the section you quote, because Richard is basically saying that Mark Twain would have considered F. an idiot, which is not something Twain would have been proud of. So Richard either is insulting his wife, or he is really not making sense here, which might be why it's confusing.

It's just a way for the author to sneak in a brilliant quote without having to work for it. It's an example of sloppy writing.

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I disagree with your appreciation of a confusing writing. The author makes it clear that Richard is being ironic, noting his mischievous smile. He is mocking his wife. This is further supported by the reaction of his wife, who looks puzzled, as she can't imagine why her husband would summon Mark Twain in this situation. –  dureuill Jul 21 at 9:21
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If that is so, I would not call this ironic, but rather, passive aggressive: "I'm proud of you, my darling. Mark Twain would call you an idiot." It's not even a back-handed compliment; it's a direct assault. Which makes no sense if he loves her. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe she's puzzled because she doesn't know the Twain quote. But I'm not going to read it to find out! –  medica Jul 21 at 9:24
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Maybe he's trying to say (clumsily) that Twain would be glad she was raising the general intelligence level of Congress by joining? –  Yamikuronue Jul 21 at 15:42
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Passive aggressive seems entirely wrong. He's being overtly aggressive, to the extent that it's aggressive. Passive aggressive would not be nearly so direct. I think it would be hard to judge the specific effect of the statement without a full understanding of the characters involved (which I don't have), but I've known plenty of couples who enjoyed witty repartee of this sort. –  Joe Jul 21 at 16:48
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"Which makes no sense if he loves her." -- you're not British, right? I don't think much of Jeffrey Archer, and certainly would not hold him up as a great representative of the country, but perhaps this passage would be of use to foreigners trying to understand British humour. The remark is snide, and quite possibly intended to make Richard seem a jerk, but is well within the bounds of British teasing. Perhaps the author's mistake is putting it in the mouth of an American in any context other than a sitcom, with a Chandler Bing-style "exaggerated sarcasm" intonation and canned laughter ;-) –  Steve Jessop Jul 21 at 23:17

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