Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 11–12 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 11: Pudd'nhead's Startling Discovery

Chapter 11 begins with two aphorisms. The first tells how to please an author; the second, the value of leaving out adjectives when writing.

The story now resumes with the twins coming to visit David Wilson. Tom shows up unannounced and teases his host about his failure as a lawyer. He informs the twins Wilson is a dabbler in the study of fingermarks, adding Wilson also reads palms. To Tom's amazement, the twins say they believe in the credibility of palm readings and agree to let Wilson have a look at Luigi's palm. Luigi writes down a fortune previously told him that came true. After some examination of Luigi's palm, Wilson says he sees some sensitive secret and writes it down. When the two slips of paper are opened and compared, it is revealed Luigi had once been told he would kill a man. Now Wilson has discovered evidence of the deed in Luigi's palm.

The tale of the murder, the twins say, focuses on an exotic knife with a jeweled handle given them by an Indian prince. A native servant attempted to kill the twins while they slept, but Luigi awoke and stabbed the man, who was trying to kill Angelo. Luigi says he had to do it because if he let the man kill Angelo, "wouldn't he have killed me, too?" Luigi views the killing as self-defense.

Tom refuses to let Wilson read his palm and reflects he has stolen the exotic knife. At that moment, a friend of Wilson's, John Buckstone, arrives and whisks Tom and the twins to a rally in support of strong rum. This proves to be a disaster, as the twins are presented on stage and cheered by the drunken crowd. Angelo claims he doesn't drink, and Tom—already on his second rum—steps forward and insults the twins. Luigi kicks Tom into the crowd, and as Tom is pushed and shoved through the audience, fights break out. Soon torches are knocked down, and the meeting hall catches fire.

Chapter 12: The Shame of Judge Driscoll

Chapter 12 opens with a long aphorism offering tribute to a flea's courage because it attacks humans constantly without a thought for the threat to its own life.

Judge Driscoll and his friend Pembroke Howard go fishing. This provides Twain with an opportunity for a long authorial reflection on the superiority of the descendants of Virginia's first families. On their way home, the friends meet a man in a boat. The man tells them about the ruckus at the rum meeting and how one of the twins gave Tom "a kicking." Driscoll and Pembroke, who, as part of the heritage of Virginia gentlemen, believe honor must be defended with a duel. So they are horrified to learn Tom sued Luigi in court and won. This hands Luigi's attorney, David Wilson, a defeat in his first appearance in court. When Tom confirms his legal victory, the judge demands Tom challenge the Italian to a duel. Tom refuses, and the judge disinherits him (again) for cowardice. The judge sends Tom away and, with Howard as his second, arranges to duel with Luigi himself.

Analysis

At times it is hard to tell what sort of novel Twain intended to write with Pudd'nhead Wilson. By turns it is a sociological study of character development in two men. At other times, it is a detective story about solving burglaries and a murder. In Luigi's meditation on the need to kill Angelo's attacker as an act of self-defense, it is something else again. Twain seems to have forgotten he is no longer writing a comedy about conjoined twins. After all, for conjoined twins, who often share organs, if one is killed the other is also likely to die. Luigi and Angelo are fraternal—not identical—twins. If one is killed, the other continues to live.

Chapter 10 introduces David Wilson's friend John Buckstone. In his humorous description of Buckstone, Twain draws on ethnic stereotypes of the day, calling Buckstone "a good-natured, ignorant, energetic ... Irishman." Buckstone is also a would-be politician, which is another stereotype. Irish political machines ran cities across the United States throughout most of the 19th century and into the 20th century.

For Twain, drawing on ethnic and class stereotypes provides humor but sometimes also serves a serious purpose. He wants readers to question the biases common in American society and, he hopes, see beyond them. This is especially true in his central plot, which focuses on how superficial stereotyping affects the characters' lives. This is not only true for the African American and white residents of Dawson's Landing but also true for David Wilson, whose name alone prevents him from finding success as a lawyer.

At the end of Chapter 11, Twain produces a scene that could have been lifted out of his earlier writings about rough-and-tumble life on the Western frontier. The fiasco at the strong rum rally descends into broad, slapstick humor. The drunken audience throws Tom from row to row, starting fights and igniting fires that begin to burn down the meeting hall. The fire company the judge had so proudly exhibited to the twins earlier in the day now arrives. In an insanely incompetent fashion, the firefighters proceed to blast water at the structure and its drunken inhabitants. This is the stuff of early vaudeville comedy. Vaudeville was a form of light stage entertainment that was just coming into fashion when Pudd'nhead Wilson was published. Physical comedy such as Twain describes in this scene was an integral part of vaudeville shows.

Readers may wonder what Tom is referring to when he calls the twins a "human philopena." A philopena is a nut that when opened is found to contain two kernels. It is also a game based on such a nut in which a man and a woman share the kernels. Then, when they next meet, whoever says "philopena" first can demand a forfeit from the other. The game is a form of flirtation. Despite its Greek-like spelling, the term derives from the German word vielliebchen, or "very dear one." Thus, Tom's remark has a double meaning. He may mean the twins are as alike as two nuts in the same shell. But he may also be implying they are like a flirtatious couple. Given Luigi's response, it is likely he understood Tom to mean the latter.

After the rally it falls to Judge Driscoll to reestablish order. It is ironic that a judge would be so offended by his nephew's using the courts to win compensation. Readers might expect he would be proud that Tom resorts to the law rather than to violence. However, both Judge Driscoll and his fellow judge, Pembroke Howard, subscribe to the code of the southern gentleman. This includes the code duello, by which all grievances can be addressed directly, man to man. Unlike a kicking or a lawsuit, in the judge's opinion, a duel is the only way to settle a difference once and for all.

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