Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 3–4 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3: Roxy Plays a Shrewd Trick

Chapter 3 opens with an aphorism thanking the biblical Adam for bringing "death into the world."

Roxy spends the night considering killing herself and her child to save them both from the possibility of being "sold down the river." In the morning she dresses herself up so she will make a beautiful corpse. She also dresses her son in the Driscoll boy's clothes. Looking at him, she realizes she can switch the boys and improve her son's destiny. Roxy practices addressing her own son as Marse (Master) Tom, with her "tongue reverent and her manner humble," while she speaks severely to the real Tom.

Driscoll is too self-absorbed to pay much attention to the infants, and Roxy knows that when Driscoll sells the other household slaves, he will replace them with new slaves who will not notice any difference between the two children. Her only concern is David Wilson, who has shown an interest in the boys before. She decides to test her scheme and visits him with the children, now in each other's clothing. He doesn't notice anything unusual. He does, however, take the opportunity to take another set of fingermarks from the two infants.

Chapter 4: The Ways of the Changelings

Chapter 4 opens with two aphorisms from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar." One praises the Bible's Adam and his wife, Eve, for "escap[ing] teething." The second says that "special providences" are problematic because it is difficult to tell who benefits from them.

The two boys grow up together without anyone, including Percy Driscoll, suspecting the switch. Driscoll's true heir is now Chambers, his slave, and Roxy's son is known to all as Tom. Tom grows up spoiled, primarily by Roxy, who indulges his every wish. Tom is also terrible to his constant companion, Chambers, who is the butt of all of his pranks. The few times Chambers dares stand up to Tom he gets "three ... canings from the man who was his father and didn't know it." When other boys stand up to Tom's shenanigans, Tom makes Chambers fight for him. After a while, Roxy sees her role in Tom's life slip from a position of substitute motherhood to that of a common slave.

In the fall of 1845 Percy Driscoll dies. Before his death, Percy frees Roxy and sends his "son" to live with his brother, Judge Driscoll, and his wife, who is known as Mrs. York Driscoll. Judge Driscoll hears that Tom wishes his father to sell Chambers "down the river" and arranges to buy Chambers for his household. Roxy takes on a job as a chambermaid on one of the steamboats on the Mississippi.

Analysis

Questions of miscegenation, or interbreeding through marriage or sexual intercourse, are raised immediately by the fact that the two infant boys are identical. Roxy's child is as fair-skinned as the Driscoll boy. Roxy, who is herself "as white as anybody," has no trouble switching the two boys in their cribs. Her son will be accepted as the heir to the Driscoll estate. On the other hand, Percy Driscoll's son will be equally accepted among the household slaves as Roxy's fair-skinned son.

Critic Susan Gillman notes that the abuse of slave women by their masters, a part of life in the antebellum South, was an injustice Twain wanted to force his readers to address. The fact that he attempted to right this wrong as late as the 1890s, when the novel was written, indicates that miscegenation was still an unacknowledged stain in former slaveholding families.

As the two boys grow older, readers witness changes in them that develop the theme of oppositions. Despite their similar appearances, they are treated very differently and develop very different characters.

As Roxy takes care of the two young boys, it is easy enough for her to indulge her son, who grows up believing he is the heir to the Driscoll plantation. In an example of dramatic irony—when readers know something the characters do not—that knowledge leads him to care less and less for Roxy. He increasingly treats her as a slave.

There is also pathos in the fact that while Roxy is rejected by her own son, the boy known as Chambers—Driscoll's actual son—is beaten by his father when he stands up to the spoiled imposter. Chambers, like any other slave, learns to stay out of sight, and he slowly slips from the main narrative of the novel. Fortunately for Chambers, Judge Driscoll believes in the tradition of retaining family servants. Although the spoiled Tom demands Chambers be sold down the river, the judge keeps him in the household.

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