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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Pudd'nhead Wilson is set in Dawson's Landing, Missouri—a fictional town nostalgically based on the author's childhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.

Puddn'head Arrives and the Babies Are Switched

Two events occur early in the story. A young lawyer, David Wilson, arrives in town and makes a witty comment that is misunderstood by residents, who thereafter consider him a fool. The other event is the birth of two nearly identical babies on the same day in the same household. One is the son of the white landowner; the other is the son of a household slave.

The slave, a fair-skinned woman named Roxana (Roxy), fears for her son's future as a slave and switches the two babies. Her scheme remains undetected, and the babies grow up answering to each other's names. Chambers, Roxy's son, becomes known as Tom Driscoll. Tom, in turn, becomes the slave child Chambers. In the meantime, Wilson's law practice has been stymied by his nickname of "Pudd'nhead." Actually a lover of knowledge, Wilson studies the budding science of fingerprints and collects specimens from everyone in town, including several sets from the two babies.

The Twins and Tom Complicate the Story

Years later, a pair of Italian twins with a somewhat questionable background—Angelo and Luigi Capello—arrive in Dawson's Landing. Roxy's son, known as Tom, has grown up as white and been adopted by his uncle as the uncle's heir. However, Tom is a rake and a gambler who runs up enormous debts. He takes to burglarizing his neighbors' homes and pawning stolen items. He learns some details about the Italian twins and steals a bejeweled knife from them. However, the authorities are looking for the knife, so Tom realizes he will not be able to pawn it. He manages to insult the twins, and Luigi kicks him. However, Tom fails to demand a duel. This infuriates Tom's uncle, who duels with one of the twins in his stead.

To make money, Roxy and Tom scheme for him to sell her, a freed slave, to a planter. Roxy finds herself sold down the river and escapes, demanding Tom ask his uncle for money to buy her back. Tom decides instead to rob his uncle, and during his attempt he stabs his uncle to death with the twins' stolen knife.

Puddn'head Proves Himself

David Wilson at last has his day in court and defends the twins successfully by showing their fingerprints do not match the bloody prints on the knife. What's more, upon examination of his file of prints taken through the years, Wilson is able to expose Roxy's baby-switching scheme. Tom—really Chambers—is sentenced to life in prison. However, his creditors say he is more valuable as a slave, so he is pardoned and sold down the river. The real Tom, meanwhile, is lost between the world of the slaves and the world of the white townspeople and feels comfortable in neither.

Pudd'nhead Wilson Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Two boys are born in the same house—one white, one black.

Rising Action

2 David Wilson arrives in Dawson's Landing and is ridiculed.

3 The Driscolls' slave Roxy switches the babies.

4 The boys grow up—one a slave, the other a gambler and thief.

5 Italian twins arrive in town and become society's darlings.

6 A series of thefts includes the twins' jeweled knife.

7 Tom—born Chambers—sells his mother, Roxy, into slavery.

8 Roxy returns and demands Tom buy her freedom.


9 Tom attempts to rob his uncle and stabs him to death.

Falling Action

10 The Italian twins are accused of murdering Judge Driscoll.

11 Wilson exonerates the twins in court and unmasks Tom.


12 Tom is sentenced to prison, released into slavery, and sold.

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