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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17: The Judge Utters Dire Prophecy

Chapter 17 opens with two aphorisms. The first points out too much popularity can get on people's nerves. The second says a lot of people die on Independence Day through their own foolish actions. It then suggests the U.S. population has expanded so much that another Independence Day is needed.

Election Day draws close. Judge Driscoll and Tom work against Luigi and Angelo, both of whom are running for seats as aldermen (council members). The judge publicly accuses the Italian twins of being "adventurers" and "dime museum freaks." He takes it one step further when he says the bejeweled Indian knife is likely in the possession of its owner should he "have occasion to assassinate somebody." The twins lose the election and soon find themselves friendless in the town, while Wilson is elected mayor.

Chapter 18: Roxana Commands

Chapter 18 begins with two aphorisms. The first says gratitude and treachery go hand in hand. The second points out that everyone gives thanks on Thanksgiving except the turkeys. It goes on to imply people in Fiji eat people for Thanksgiving, so people should treat Fiji with respect.

Tom is in St. Louis one rainy night when he is followed home by a mysterious stranger who turns out to be his mother. Roxy angrily recounts how he sold her down the river. Although the planter was a good man, his wife and the plantation overseer were hateful and cruel to her. It was when the overseer struck a little slave girl that Roxy fought back. She knocked out the overseer and rode away on his horse. She made it to the river, where she found a canoe. Paddling down the river, she came to a steamboat—the very one on which she spent eight years working as a chambermaid. Her old comrades hid her as the boat chugged upriver past her plantation toward St. Louis.

Tom has been trapped by the planter into participating in the search for his mother, now a runaway slave. His name is on a bill offering a reward for her return. Roxy coaxes this information out of him and spits on him. She demands Tom pay the planter what he has, then go to the judge for the balance. If he doesn't, she tells him, she'll go to the judge herself, and then "he'll sell you down de river."

Tom determines he can't ask the judge for the money without giving away his true parentage. Instead, he'll rob "the old skinflint."


True friendship is a scare commodity in Dawson's Landing. Wilson, who has had his reputation besmirched with a derogatory nickname for two decades, suddenly finds himself elected mayor. But at the same time, the Italian twins, who were so highly esteemed after participating in a noble duel, have suffered a reversal. The whispers of "assassination" have cost them the election and all the goodwill ever extended to them. The judge's condemnation of them as "dime museum freaks" is another example of Twain's erratic removal of the original story of conjoined twins from the book.

Roxy's story of plantation life shows why every slave feared being "sold down the river." The life of a household slave in Missouri is worlds better than the harsh life on a plantation in the Deep South. Her descriptions of plantation work and beatings are harrowing. Her escape is perilous, made more terrible by the knowledge that she is actually a free black. Yet without her son's cooperation she stands to be captured and returned to the horrors of plantation life.

The aphorisms at the beginning of Chapter 18 provide suitable warning of what is to come. What began in Chapter 16 as gratitude toward Roxy on Tom's part has since turned to treachery. Tom has not saved up his allowance to buy his mother's freedom. As a result, he doesn't have enough money to do so. Having risked her life to escape slavery, Roxy is no longer blinded by motherly fondness. Instead she has become—figuratively at least—a cannibal. Whereas in Chapter 16 Roxy was willing to sacrifice herself for Tom's future, she is now ready to sacrifice Tom for her freedom. Tom himself, despite his earlier decision not to steal again, decides to rob the judge, thus figuratively cannibalizing the man who loves him like a son.

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