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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Context



Pudd'nhead Wilson started as a farce (satirical comedy with an unlikely plot) about twins, but the author stated that it became a tragedy when two characters, David Wilson and Roxy, "intruded" into the text. Those characters and the dilemma created by switched babies and a senseless murder eventually turned the novel into more of a detective story.

But at heart, Pudd'nhead Wilson may be considered a melodrama. In a melodrama, as American literary critic M.H. Abrams (1912–2015) states, "The protagonists are flat types; the hero and heroine are pure as the driven snow and the villain a monster of malignity" (viciousness). Wilson, the hero, certainly has no blemishes, and readers are set on the trail of a series of burglaries perpetrated by the devious Tom Driscoll. Abrams says melodramas often sacrifice credibility of plot and character in favor of "violent effect and emotional opportunism," and there is enough violence and opportunism here for several novels. The reader is treated to thievery, a haunted house, a duel, and a vicious murder. The villain's heart grows harder as the story progresses—so hard, in fact, that he will sell his own mother into slavery. All is capped off with a dramatic trial in which the hero unmasks the villain.

The novel has puzzled readers since its publication in 1894. One critic at the time wondered how the volatile issue of race relations could have been given such "stock" treatment. If any other author had presented this story, wrote Norwegian critic and novelist Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1848–95), "we should have been tempted to class his work with such cheap stuff as that of ... the dime novelists." Instead, concluded Boyesen, Twain somehow elevates his tale "into the region of literature." For Boyesen and many readers since, Twain's use of historical realism and authentic atmospheric details balances the sensationalism of the plot and saves the narrative from its "dime novel" fate.


Several contemporary phenomena influenced the writing of Pudd'nhead Wilson: a set of Siamese twins, the publication of a book on the new art of fingerprinting, and the rise of detective fiction.

The Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins

Twain returned frequently to plots involving mistaken identity, disguised characters, or even two identical people exchanging roles. He solidified his literary career with that theme in The Prince and the Pauper (1881), a historical novel about a poor waif in London who changes places with the prince of Wales. He was also familiar with reports of conjoined twins, including the famous twins Chang and Eng Bunker (1811–74), who were born in Siam (now Thailand) and toured the United States and elsewhere from 1829 to 1839.

Twain said he was inspired to write about conjoined twins by Italians Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci (c. 1877–c. 1906), who toured the United States in 1891. He wrote a manuscript originally called Those Extraordinary Twins as a farce. However, as he added characters and developed the theme of racial inequalities, he focused more on the detective story aspect. When the first American edition of Pudd'nhead Wilson was published in one volume in 1894, a version apparently not proofread by Twain, the book included as a separate story Those Extraordinary Twins. This edition was titled The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins. Twain's subsequent revisions of the novel failed to eliminate all traces of the originally conjoined state of the characters Luigi and Angelo Capello. For example, Luigi explains that his murder of an evil servant with a bejeweled knife was essential because "[if] I hadn't saved Angelo's life ... wouldn't [the man] have killed me, too? I saved my own life, you see."

Finger Prints by Francis Galton

It was while writing Pudd'nhead Wilson that Mark Twain discovered the book Finger Prints (1892) by British scientist Francis Galton (1822–1911). Finger Prints was the first scientific study and classification system published on the subject. Twain apparently "devoured" the book and incorporated many of Galton's theories into the novel. One of Galton's major points, which Twain seized upon, was the notion that fingerprints could be used to identify an individual at any age. Galton also maintained that the fingerprints of identical twins were not identical.

Although the use of fingerprints may appear to be an anachronism for a story set in 1830, the subject had been studied from the 1820s. Twain, long fascinated with "fingermarks," had already written about how a comparison of thumbprints solved a murder case in Life on the Mississippi (1883). In an earlier draft of Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain had planned to use footprints to identify the murderer, but reading Galton's book, he claimed, changed the "plot and plan."

Detective Fiction

By the time Twain began working on Pudd'nhead Wilson, the public's appetite for detective fiction was well on the rise. A Study in Scarlet by British author Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the first novel featuring detective Sherlock Holmes, was published in 1887. Critic Susan Gillman has noted the similarities between Doyle's British brooding detective and Twain's ostracized David Wilson: "As in popular detective fiction, one condition of intellectual power is the isolation from the community." As Twain began to concentrate more on the murder and trial aspect of the story, the Capello twins became suspects in Judge Driscoll's death. Wilson spends much of the novel pondering the identity of the thief in a rash of burglaries. He also apparently commits every fingerprint of every resident of Dawson's Landing to his photographic memory.

Twain later gave his youthful character Tom Sawyer a turn at sleuthing in Tom Sawyer Detective, published in 1896. He also appropriated Sherlock Holmes himself for a story set in the American West, "A Double Barrelled Detective Story," published in 1902.

The Antebellum South

The antebellum time period refers to the era in the United States before the American Civil War, which started in 1861. The term antebellum is a Latin phrase that translates to "before the war" or "prewar." Historians differ on the start of this time period in American history. Some report that the antebellum period in the United States began after the War of 1812 (fought between the United States and Great Britain over British infringement on U.S. sea rights); others use the date of 1789, when the American Constitution was adopted and slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in the House of Representatives. By either definition, it was well underway by 1830, the year in which Puddn'head Wilson begins. In slave-owning states, enslaved people of African descent were unequivocally viewed as property during this era.

The antebellum South was steeped in tradition and long-held customs. Twain sets the ugly reality of slavery in the antebellum South against the notion of the perfect gentleman descended from the First Families of Virginia (FFV). These families, whose names included Randolph, Fitzhugh, Byrd, Wormeley, and Gordon, were among colonial Virginia's earliest settlers. Wealthy and politically influential, they helped to shape the concept of society in the colony. The families stressed the importance of education and the provision of sizable inheritances in order to ensure the ongoing status of family members.

The leading members of society in Twain's fictional Dawson's Landing, Missouri—Judge Driscoll, his brother Percy, Pembroke Howard, and Colonel Cecil Burleigh Essex—are all FFV. Their adherence to the code of the southern gentleman includes belief in the code duello, by which all grievances between gentlemen will be settled man to man with a duel. The author leaves it to the reader to contrast these characters' pretensions to gentlemanly behavior and their callous treatment of their slaves. An example of such treatment occurs when Percy Driscoll notices the loss of a small sum of money. He tells his slaves that if the thief doesn't speak up, he will sell all of them "down the river." Being "sold down the river" meant being sold to a cotton plantation owner in the Deep South. As American journalist and historian Lee Sandlin (1956–2014) has pointed out, "being 'sold down the river' was seen as tantamount to a death sentence."

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