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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 15–16 | Summary



Chapter 15: The Robber Robbed

Chapter 15 opens with two aphorisms. The first says others should reform their habits. The second reworks an old proverb, saying you should put all your eggs in one basket and then guard it carefully.

To Tom's chagrin, everyone in town is delighted Dawson's Landing hosted a duel. The duel between Judge Driscoll and Luigi is seen as a sign of nobility. The twins are feted, and David Wilson, who was Luigi's second, is now a shoo-in for mayor.

Tom runs into Wilson and Jim Blake and, in his usual devious way, innocently asks how the investigation into the spate of burglaries is going. Blake has to admit he has not made any progress identifying the old female thief. Wilson is equally embarrassed the knife has not turned up at a pawnshop. Tom plants the idea the knife was never stolen at all. No one has ever seen it, he says, so either it doesn't exist, or the twins still have it. Both Blake and Wilson are now uncertain in their assumptions, and Tom is happy to have muddled their investigation.

Tom takes his campaign of confusion one step further by telling the judge he couldn't have honorably fought a duel with Luigi because the twins had made him swear not to tell anyone Luigi was an assassin. This outrages the judge, who forgives his nephew for avoiding a duel. He promises to shoot the Italian after the election.

Tom heads off to St. Louis on a steamboat to redeem his stolen items. But while he's sleeping, a "brother-thief" steals his bag of plunder and escapes.

Chapter 16: Sold Down the River

Chapter 16's first aphorism says that a starving dog won't bite its helper, but a man will. The second saying reflects that people "know all about" ants and bees but nothing about oysters. It concludes we haven't found the right time to observe oysters.

Roxy has followed Tom to St. Louis, where she learns he lost all of the stolen items on the steamboat. Her maternal heart breaks to see her son desperate and destitute, and she comes up with a plan. Even though she is a freed slave, Tom can sell her as a slave for $600. Then he can pay off his creditors, bank the rest, and add Roxy's half of his allowance each month. In a year he should be able to buy her back. She tells him to sell her to a farmer and assures him any mother would do the same, regardless of race.

Tom forges a bill of sale to present his mother as a slave. He sells her to a plantation owner who grows cotton in Arkansas. The man seems very happy with the price and with Roxy. Tom pays off $300 in debts and plans to add to it monthly. For a few days he finds he can't sleep for worrying about Roxy, but then he "get[s] comfortable again." Meanwhile, Roxy, seeing the riverboat is traveling the same direction as the water current, realizes her son has sold her down the river.


These chapters take Tom through what has become a familiar pattern. He begins feeling secure in a plan of his own making—in this case, selling his loot in the big city, where no one is checking the pawn shops. Then through his own foolishness—by not, as advised by the chapter's aphorism, guarding the eggs in his basket—he finds himself in trouble. Finally, someone else saves the day—Roxy, in this case—leaving Tom better off than when he began the cycle.

Often, the person who helps Tom puts themselves at risk. This was true of Judge Driscoll when he challenged Luigi to a duel. Fortunately, Judge Driscoll survived to revel in his glory. However, Roxy is not so lucky.

Tom continues to grow more deceitful as the story progresses. He delights in teasing the constable about his failure to find the woman thief and in reminding Wilson the bejeweled knife has not appeared. His insinuation (and later the judge's) that the knife might still be in the twins' possession will make incriminating testimony when it becomes a murder weapon. However, his most despicable action thus far is his selling his mother down the river. He is aware of what he has done and purposely hides her destination from her. Although his conscience plagues him at first, within a week, he is able to sleep untroubled "like any other miscreant."

Twain's drive to expose the hypocrisies of slavery is openly on display in Roxy's reflection about mothers. She says there is nothing a white mother or a black one won't do for their child because "De good Lord he made 'em so." The conversation underscores the idea that slavery is one of humanity's more revulsive constructs and a perversion of God's intent for humanity.

At the same time Roxy acknowledges that for a person of color, freedom is precarious. "White folks ain't partic'lar," she tells Tom, explaining she can lose her freedom just by not leaving the state after being ordered to do so. Actually, this was not true in Missouri in the 1830s. First of all, she would not be ordered to leave the state because she had resided there as a slave and been freed there. This guaranteed her the right to stay. (Missouri, like many other states, even in the North, did not allow free blacks from other places to settle in the state.) If, however, a free black person were ordered to leave the state and did not comply, the punishment would be whipping, not slavery. Certain crimes, however—such as sheltering a fugitive slave—did result in reenslavement as a punishment.

Interestingly, Roxy would not have been considered black under Missouri law of the 1830s. In fact, in 1825 the Missouri legislature defined a person as black if they had one or more black grandparents. Thus, to be legally black, Roxy would have had to have at least one-fourth "negro blood."

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