Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Chapters 7–8 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 7: The Unknown Nymph

Chapter 7's aphorism explains the difference between a cat and a lie: the cat "has only nine lives."

Judge Driscoll takes it upon himself to give the twins a tour of the town. He peppers the conversation with well-worn anecdotes and boasts of the many offices "of honor or profit" he has held. He proposes to take them to a meeting of the Society of Free-thinkers. David Wilson enjoys the twins so much that he invites them to his home that night.

Before this second visit, Wilson reflects on something he happened to see that morning in Judge Driscoll's house, which was next door to his own. A young woman was practicing various stances and bearings in the room above the judge's study—Tom Driscoll's room. Wilson later stopped in and asked Mrs. Pratt, the judge's widowed sister, if Tom was home. Mrs. Pratt told him they didn't expect Tom to arrive from St. Louis until later that night.

Chapter 8: Marse Tom Tramples His Chance

Chapter 8 begins with two aphorisms. The first praises friendship, which lasts "if not asked to lend money." The second says it's better to be a young June-bug than an old bird of paradise.

Roxy has returned to Dawson's Landing, and the narrator catches readers up on her life since she left town. She became a successful chambermaid on the steamboat line, was promoted, and saved money so she could live independently. But the New Orleans bank that handled her account went under, taking her financial future with it. Now she hopes to reestablish her relationship with the young man known as Tom, who seems to be away much of the time. Roxy has a conversation with the young man called Chambers, whose speech now fully reflects the dialect of a slave. Chambers tells her the judge fought with Tom over his gambling debts and disinherited him. The judge eventually relented, though, and drew up a new will.

Tom comes home, and Chambers brings him a note from Roxy asking to see him. When Roxy begs for "on'y jes one little dol[lar]," Tom outrages Roxy by saying he doesn't care about her problems and tries to throw her out. But she threatens to tell the judge everything she knows. Tom believes she's referring to his gambling. Roxy makes him get on his knees and beg to hear what she knows. Tom does, and Roxy—the "heir of two centuries of unatoned insult and outrage"—is satisfied. She tells him to meet her later that night, takes $5 from him and some whisky, then proudly marches out of the room.

Analysis

The aphorism at the beginning of Chapter 7 hints that something in that chapter is a lie. However, from reading the chapter it is not possible to guess what it might be. Has it to do with the twins, or has it to do with the young woman in Tom's room?

In Pudd'nhead Wilson Twain toys with the philosophy of determinism, the theory that human behavior is shaped by outside, preexisting causes and not by free will. His beliefs are on display as readers evaluate the two switched children, who are now grown up. Tom, who was born the slave Valet de Chambre, has grown into a dissolute and irresponsible landowner. Even though Roxy raised him as a child, Tom no longer sees her as anything other than a subservient Negro. He can't be troubled with her until she threatens to expose his debts. Chambers, on the other hand, is actuality the child who is the true heir to the estate. He has been so beaten down by living as a slave that any spark of individuality or resistance has been extinguished. Both young men, regardless of their potential at birth, have been shaped by circumstances already established around them.

Twain describes Roxy's emotional inheritance as a slave—centuries of "unatoned insult and outrage"—as she takes deep satisfaction in humbling "Marse Tom." Unlike the man called Chambers, she has shreds of pride and is allowed a spark of humanity. A part of that humanity is to feel particularly hurt when her own son treats her with such disrespect. Whereas she might not have lashed out at the real Tom, she feels entitled to retaliate against the fake Tom. After all, she is solely responsible for him living in a fine house and expecting a rich inheritance.

In another instance of dramatic irony, readers know what Roxy knows: Tom is actually her son. Tom, however, has no idea of this. When he assumes she is threatening to reveal his gambling, readers are aware she can reveal a much more damaging secret. This dramatic irony adds suspense to the plot. Will she really reveal his heritage? Will he give her the chance? Tom sees her as nothing more than his troublesome former nanny. Therefore, it might well occur to him to try to silence her before she can do him any damage.

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