Literature Study GuidesPuddnhead WilsonChapter 21 Conclusion Summary

Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapter 21–Conclusion | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 21: Doom

Chapter 21 opens with two aphorisms. The first says useless people belong underground, "inspiring the cabbages." The second says on April Fool's Day readers are reminded they are foolish year-round.

Wilson arrives in the courtroom with reproductions of many of his fingermark records made with a pantograph. A pantograph is a device with several hinged bars holding two pens. It is used to create a large copy of a smaller drawing traced with a pen. He has enlarged many of the fingermarks so differences in the whorls and loops can be easily seen. Wilson says he can begin his day's presentation without waiting for any of his witnesses.

He makes an extraordinary admission for a defense attorney: the marks on the knife handle were made by the person who committed the murder. But if that person was Luigi or Angelo, why would they have stayed in the room and waited for people to arrive? Wilson points out the twins weren't in possession of the knife; it had been stolen. However, knowledge a reward had been offered—but not advertised—prevented the thief from pawning the weapon. That knowledge could only have been gained by being present when the reward was discussed. The motive on the night of the judge's death, Wilson declares, was robbery, not murder. He suggests the murder only occurred because the judge discovered the thief.

Wilson says every person has something that sets them apart from everyone else—a "physiological autograph," he calls it. It is the fingerprint. Everyone has unique fingerprints. Even twins each have unique, individual fingerprints. Wilson holds up the murder weapon by its blade and tells the audience that only one man could have held the knife. He promises he will produce that man in this court. Wilson shows his expertise in identifying fingerprints by noting during his time in Dawson's Landing, he has fingerprinted everyone and can identify them "as well as the bank cashier knows the autograph of his oldest customer." He demonstrates by having people, including his clients, press their fingers against the windowpanes. To the applause of the audience, he identifies all of them. He then produces four enlarged sets of prints. Two sets are of two children taken at five months and seven months of age. He sets those aside and produces two enlarged sets of his clients' prints. The jury compares them to the prints Luigi and Angelo just pressed against the windowpane. They are identical. When compared to the prints left on the knife handle, the jury announces they "do not even resemble." Wilson declares the twins acquitted.

He next returns to the sets of children's prints and shows that each child had the same prints at five and at seven months. But when he produces pantographs of the same children at eight months, their prints are different. Wilson says the difference is because the two children had been swapped, one taking the place of the other. To the growing excitement of the crowd, Wilson describes how the first child was put into the nursery while the second child was taken from the nursery and transferred to the kitchen to begin life as a servant and slave. He then says that the first child has been living with the second child's name and is the murderer. The jury sees that the first child's prints, taken at age 12, match the marks on the knife handle. Wilson triumphantly tells the audience that the murderer sits among them. Then, looking at Tom, he challenges "Valet de Chambre ... —falsely called Thomas à Becket Driscoll—make upon the window the finger-prints that will hang you!" Tom faints and falls to the floor. Wilson interprets that as a confession.

Conclusion

The conclusion opens with two aphorisms. The first observes that a man who can't lie believes he can recognize a lie. The second remarks on October 12, when the 1492 discovery of America is traditionally celebrated. It suggests it would have been better if America had not been discovered.

David Wilson has finally achieved success. He is mayor of Dawson's Landing and clearly not a pudd'nhead at all. The twins have had enough of America and return to Europe. Roxy brokenheartedly seeks solace in religion. The young man Roxy consigned to slavery, however, continues to pay her a modest pension. That young man, the real Tom Driscoll, is lost between two worlds. He cannot read, and his speech is the lowest Negro dialect. It is impossible for him to feel comfortable in the white world, but the black world is now closed to him.

The young man formerly known as Tom makes a full confession and is sentenced to life in prison. But the creditors of Percy Driscoll's estate petition the governor, maintaining that "Tom" was not properly inventoried as a slave when the settlement was made. If he had been delivered up to them as part of Driscoll's property, he never would have had the opportunity to murder the judge. They claim that "guilt lay with the erroneous inventory." The governor agrees there is something wrong with shutting up a valuable slave for life. So, Tom is pardoned, and the creditors "[sell] him down the river."

Analysis

It is somewhat unbelievable that David Wilson could memorize the fingerprints of every citizen in Dawson's Landing, especially reading them off the courtroom windowpanes. Moreover, despite Twain's assertions in his "Whisper to the Reader," it is doubtful evidence collected as a hobby would be allowed in a court of law. Still, this is a melodramatic finish, and once Wilson calls upon Tom to put his own prints on the window and Tom faints, the trial is over. The twins are exonerated and exit the story as abruptly as they entered it. They return to Europe, where presumably they will play the piano and lecture about life in the United States.

Twain does not tell the story of Tom's trial—only its outcome. His sentence is lifelong imprisonment. This would have been an unlikely sentence for a slave in Missouri at that time. The more likely sentence would have been execution. However, this unlikely sentence keeps the character alive long enough for the sentence to be commuted to lifelong slavery.

On the theme of slavery, Twain uses Tom's fate to highlight with great irony how the life of a slave was only valued as property. Even a murderous slave could be pardoned as part of an estate's inventory and sold down the river. For readers, Tom's ultimate fate is particularly satisfying after his treatment of Roxy. Again, an earlier event in the novel finds a mirror image in the final chapters. He sold her down the river, and now it is his turn. However, while Tom did not concern himself for long over Roxy's fate, Roxy is now heartbroken by his.

Readers might wonder if Tom's fate was inevitable. Was he doomed to become a thief and murderer, or might he somehow have altered his future? It is the old question of nature versus nurture. Certainly, in Tom's case, no matter how much loving nurture he received from Roxy or from the judge and Mrs. Pratt, nature seems to have held sway.

The second aphorism is apt for the novel's Conclusion. The Capello twins undoubtedly wish they had never arrived in America. But the saying also encompasses the novel's theme that racism and slavery are the work of humans, not God. When Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) landed in the Americas, his first impression of the indigenous people of the Bahamas in 1492 was "they would make fine servants." He quickly set about putting them to work and within 50 years had essentially exterminated them.

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