Major Themes- puddnhead
Nature versus Nurture
What determines the type of person an individual will become? Is it inherent, innate
qualities or upbringing and environment? This is a persistent theme throughout
Pudd'nhead Wilson. The author does not conclusively adhere to either argument, but
instead provides support for both theories.
This tension between nature and nurture is most clearly seen in the character of Tom
Driscoll (or more specifically, the young usurper, Chambers, who is unknowingly posing as
Tom). Tom grows from a spoiled, fractious child into a lazy, dishonest adult. One argument
is that Tom's flawed character is the product of his inherent "slave" or "black" qualities.
This would be in line with the racist views widely held in the American South during the
Nineteenth Century. Indeed, Tom's own mother, Roxy, suggests precisely this. She
hypothesizes that it is Tom's "blackness" which has made him such a coward. Opposing
this "nature" theory for explaining Tom's character is the "nurture" view. According to
this position, Tom's overindulgent upbringing is responsible for his flaws and failures.
From a young age, his every desire is attended to and a sense of entitlement is fostered in
him. Once grown, the idea of working or making an honest living seems beneath him.
Instead, he feels entitled to just to take whatever he wants, whether or not the item belongs
Though Twain never expressly comes out in support of one view or the other, a persuasive
case can be made that he favors nurture over nature. First, unlike other authors of his era,
Twain does not embrace the view of African Americans as inherently lazy and deceitful. To
Twain, acts of thievery by black slaves are justified acts of rebellion against their white
oppressors. Given this perspective, it seems unlikely that Twain believes Tom's African
American blood is the cause of his character flaws. Additionally, Chambers' fate, as
penned in the novel's conclusion, seems to further support the nurture theory. Chambers,
who was actually born Tom Driscoll, the wealthy white heir to the Driscoll fortune,
suddenly learns his true identity and gains his freedom. If a person's nature were
determinative, then one would expect Chambers to feel at home in the white man's world.
However, just the opposite occurs, suggesting that his upbringing as a slave trumps any
Honor is an important theme in Pudd'nhead Wilson. The people of Dawson's Landing
place a significant premium on the traits of honor and courage. For example, when Judge
Driscoll and Luigi Capello engage in a duel, a fight in the name of honor, the townspeople
celebrate them as heroes. For two decades, Pudd'nhead Wilson has been labeled a buffoon
and a fool, and has been isolated from the rest of the town. By simply serving as Luigi's
second in the duel, he is able to erase twenty years of ridicule and emerge one of Dawson's
Landing's leading citizens.