Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Pudd'nhead Wins His Name

Each chapter begins with an aphorism (a wise or witty saying) from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar." Chapter 1's quote says simply, "Tell the truth or trump—but get the trick."

The little town of Dawson's Landing is the setting of Twain's novel. It is a lovely, quiet town located on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. The year is 1830, and slaves work the farmlands outside the town.

There are several prominent citizens, including Judge York Leicester Driscoll and his dear friend Pembroke Howard, a lawyer. The two men share a Virginia heritage and are committed to upholding the honor of the southern gentleman. Another esteemed gentleman is Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex, about whom the narrator says, "with him we have no concern." To the judge, being a gentleman is "his only religion." Driscoll has a younger brother, Percy, who is a prosperous businessman. On February 1, 1830, Percy Driscoll's wife has a baby boy. On the same day their slave, Roxana, gives birth to her own son. Driscoll's wife dies within a week of the event, and it falls to Roxy to care for the two infants.

That same month, David Wilson, a young man newly graduated from law school, arrives in Dawson's Landing. While meeting a few residents, a dog nearby begins to howl loudly and Wilson remarks he wishes he owned "half of that dog." Someone asks why, and Wilson responds, "Because I would kill my half." Unfortunately, the witty remark is taken seriously by the residents, who declare Wilson stupid and not in his right mind. The story spreads throughout the town, and Wilson finds himself labeled a "pudd'nhead" (short for puddinghead, a nickname for an unintelligent person). Even though he eventually becomes a trusted and amiable friend to most residents, the nickname sticks, and Wilson's hope of establishing a law career is thwarted for the next 20 years.

Chapter 2: Driscoll Spares His Slaves

Chapter 2's aphorism stresses the humanity of the Bible's first man, Adam, who only wanted to eat the forbidden apple "because it was forbidden." The calendar entry goes on to say instead Adam should have been forbidden to eat the serpent.

David Wilson settles into life in Dawson's Landing and accepts that no one will hire a "pudd'nhead" as their lawyer. He is able to make a living as a land surveyor and accountant. He also dabbles in two hobbies, the art of palmistry and a study of "fingermarks" (fingerprints). Wilson collects these on glass slides, dutifully noting the owner of the prints and the date they were recorded.

Among the prints Wilson takes are those of Roxy and her two charges. The two infants in her care are nearly identical. The Driscoll baby, named Thomas à Becket Driscoll, wears fine, store-bought clothes, and Roxy's child wears only a linen shirt. Both babies have blue eyes and yellow curls. Roxy herself is light-skinned and beautiful, with long flowing hair. She has named her baby boy Valet de Chambre (French for manservant), but he's called Chambers for short.

In the fall Wilson takes a second set of the children's fingermarks. The following day Roxy and the other three slaves in Percy Driscoll's house are accused of petty theft. Driscoll threatens to sell them all "down the river" if no one confesses. The other slaves confess, and their master generously agrees to sell them locally. Although she is innocent and will stay on, Roxy now fears for the safety of her child.

Analysis

The story begins innocently enough. Dawson's Landing is a quiet, pretty town on the Mississippi that could be based on Twain's fond memories of growing up in Hannibal, Missouri.

But this is a slaveholding town, and the inhumane evils of slavery are immediately displayed when landowner Percy Driscoll threatens to sell all of his slaves "down the river." This means they would be sold to a plantation owner in the Deep South and end up doing backbreaking work in the fields. When all the slaves except Roxy confess, Driscoll magnanimously tells them he will sell them locally, a gesture he considers "noble and gracious." Readers may think the three slaves overreact; after all, they will still be sold. However, they know being sold down the river could well be a death sentence. Not only were the hot and humid conditions required for certain crops in the Deep South unhealthy, but living conditions in the field slave quarters were often unsanitary. Slave diets were high in starches and fats but low in fresh fruits and vegetables. As a result of all these factors, slaves were more likely to get sick than the owners and overseers, and they were often forced to work when ill. Punishments could be severe, even life-threatening. Usually field slaves would end up on cotton plantations, since cotton was the South's primary crop. But other crops were grown as well. Rice plantations were the worst. There malaria was common among the field workers, and many children never survived to adulthood. It is no wonder Driscoll's slaves are grateful to be sold locally.

Twain makes much of the Virginia ancestry of the Driscolls and Pembroke Howard. His intention to contrast their claims to decency and formal manners with their slave-owning sentiments can be seen in their names. They suggest English nobility to a degree that is absurd, down to the pretentious "à" in Thomas à Becket's name. Howard's name suggests the birthplace of Henry VII of England (1457–1509; reigned 1485–1509) in Pembroke Castle in Wales. Like the judge, he is of noble Virginian stock and subscribes to the code of the Virginia gentleman. And while the narrator tries to draw attention away from Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex, his name suggests that of an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603). This hints that he might play a role later in the plot. Moreover, Twain's statement that Essex is not of concern draws readers' attention to the colonel, also suggesting he may have a greater role to play.

The opening chapters also raise questions about the other white occupants of Dawson's Landing. The amiable David Wilson arrives in town and tries to make a witty remark about a barking dog. His remark is based on the biblical decision of King Solomon to divide a baby between two women who claim to be the infant's mother. The townspeople not only show a lack of any sense of humor but also are quick to categorize the newcomer as a fool. This reputation will stifle Wilson's talents for years to come.

Modern readers will be quick to understand Wilson's hobby of collecting fingermarks. Still, how seriously he pursues it and what part it will play in the story is not clear until later chapters. For Twain's contemporary readers, the science of fingerprints was new. Thus, it is doubtful they would have guessed the implications of Wilson's taking prints from the infants.

The aphorisms that begin the chapters—supposedly quotes from "Puddn'head Wilson's Calendar"—sometimes reflect the events of the chapter. This is the case with the sayings that open the book's first two chapters, which hint an act of deception will drive the plot. At other times, however, they are completely unrelated to the chapter contents. Twain had compiled the sayings for an almanac maker who subsequently cancelled the contract, and he seemed determined to use them regardless of their appropriateness.

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