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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Quotes


A home without a cat—and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat—may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?

Narrator, Chapter 1

Mark Twain introduces Dawson's Landing as a quiet, idyllic town described with a twinge of nostalgia for his own hometown of Hannibal, Missouri. A cat in the window says as much about the quality of a town as white fences and flower boxes full of geraniums. But like many of Twain's stories, his tone shifts when he comes to describe the inhabitants of his setting. Here in Dawson's Landing the inhabitants have cats in the windows and slaves working the "grain and pork country back of it."


I wish I owned half of that dog ... Because I would kill my half.

David Wilson, Chapter 1

New in town, David Wilson makes the acquaintance of several residents and while talking to them is interrupted by a dog barking nearby. His witticism is based on the biblical story of King Solomon. Solomon proposed cutting a baby in half to share it with two women who each claimed it as her own. The townspeople do not get the reference and think Wilson is a fool. They call him Pudd'nhead, short for puddinghead, another word for a fool. Though he eventually becomes a well-liked neighbor, the stigma of his nickname holds back his career as a lawyer.


Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Roxy has a fair complexion and could pass as a white woman. But she is "a slave, and salable as such." She gives birth to an equally light-skinned son whose father is one of the town's grand old gentleman. Roxy at times seems conflicted, wanting her son to be as proud and honorable as his father. But although her son is "thirty-one parts white," he too is ultimately salable. The threat of his being sold down the river prompts Roxy to scheme to save her son from his African American heritage.

Twain uses the lowercase n for the word negro, a term and styling considered offensive by many contemporary readers. Both the black and the white characters also liberally use the offensive term nigger.


He was a fairly humane man toward slaves and other animals.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Percy Driscoll is oblivious to the personal lives of the slaves who work for him. He views them just as he does his livestock. Driscoll is obsessed with financial dealings on his plantation. It is nothing for him to threaten his slaves, whom he suspects of a minor theft, with selling them down the river. However, when they confess to the petty crime, he rewards them by selling them locally, thus demonstrating his "magnanimity."


They had an unfair show in the battle of life, and they held it no sin to take military advantage of the enemy.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Roxy sees nothing wrong in the petty thievery that goes on behind a plantation master's back. There is a secret economy, an undeclared sharing of wealth, going on among the slaves. Later in the story, when Roxy returns penniless from her years working on a steamboat, she will find food and comfort with slaves around Dawson's Landing.


Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam ... He brought death into the world.

David Wilson, Chapter 3

Each chapter begins with an aphorism (a wise or witty saying) from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar"—sayings collected by David Wilson. These are actually comments collected by Mark Twain that often illuminate the storyline. Several of them discuss Adam and his fall from grace, a subject that interested Twain toward the end of his life.

Twain examined the Creation story in "Letters from the Earth," an essay published posthumously in 1962. In it he claimed God viewed man as a somewhat botched experiment that he first neglected, then treated with severe vengeance throughout history. God punished Adam and Eve for their sin of eating the forbidden fruit and also "elected to punish their children, all through the ages to the end of time." Moreover, Twain contended, God was vengeful. When he realized man could escape his wrath by dying, he came down to Earth as Jesus and devised hell "as a way to pursue the dead beyond the tomb."


Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college degree.

David Wilson, Chapter 5

This is a quote from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar." It reflects Mark Twain's fascination with determinism, the theory that behavior is influenced by previously existing causes and that there is no such thing as free will. The switching of two babies, each with a different future predicted at birth, is a sociological study that is shocking, but thought-provoking. The question is, does an individual have any power over his actions or his character?


An enemy can partly ruin a man, but it takes a good-natured injudicious friend to complete the thing and make it perfect.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Residents reacted to David Wilson's attempt at humor—a joke about killing half a dog—by calling him a pudd'nhead. His law career is stymied by the nickname even though people eventually find him a likeable neighbor.

Unfortunately, his close friend, Judge Driscoll, takes it upon himself to spread around the many aphorisms Wilson has collected in his self-published calendar. Instead of endearing Wilson to the larger public, the sayings confirm to the rather humorless citizens of Dawson's Landing that he is something of a fool. This delays the establishment of his law practice even further.


He was liked, he was welcome enough all around, but he simply didn't count for anything.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Judge Driscoll is respected about the town as a man of honor and supporter of the code of conduct for southern gentleman. He is president of the Society of Free-thinkers, which only has two members: himself and David Wilson. In contrast to the judge, however, Wilson is "a cipher in the estimation of the public." Years after his joke about killing half a dog, the residents still view him as a fool. Their attitude shows their small-mindedness and—as with their easy acceptance of the young man whom they think is Tom Driscoll—their willingness to be swayed by appearances.


The heir of two centuries of unatoned insult and outrage looked down on him and seemed to drink in deep draughts of satisfaction.

Narrator, Chapter 8

Roxy, who could pass as a white woman, has managed to pass off her son as a white man and heir to the Driscoll estate. Nonetheless, she takes umbrage at her son's treatment of a slave—herself. She delights in threatening him and making him beg on his knees for forgiveness. At this moment, they are not mother and son. They are a dignified slave standing triumphant over the white master.


Why were niggers and whites made? ... And why is this awful difference made between white and black?

Chambers, Chapter 10

Twain's focus on the absurdity of the definition of racial purity can be seen in this quote. It is spoken by Tom Driscoll—really the slave Chambers—after he learns of his African heritage. The reason for the "awful difference" is the desire of whites for supremacy over people of color. In such moments Twain clearly shows that slavery perverts God's intent for humankind.


Tom imagined that his character had undergone a pretty radical change. But that was because he did not know himself.

Narrator, Chapter 10

Several times Tom wrestles with his conscience, grappling with reforming and no longer continuing to steal from his neighbors to fund his gambling habit. Having learned of his African American heritage, Tom begins to view his uncle as a vain old man. He fears if his uncle knew the truth about Tom, the man would sell him.

Twain's interest in the theory of determinism—that behavior is determined by outside causes already existing—is put to the test here. Tom's continued abominable behavior suggests he has no control over his fate.


A devil born to a young couple is measurably recognizable by them as a devil before long, but a devil adopted by an old couple is an angel to them.

David Wilson, Chapter 19

Luigi Capello cannot understand why Judge Driscoll believes the rumor spread by his nephew, Tom, that Luigi is an assassin. David Wilson tries to explain that old childless couples who adopt a bad seed will never see him in that light. It is both as "pathetic and beautiful," Wilson contends, as when old childless couples adopt "a menagerie of yelping ... dogs" or "a howling colony of cats."


Wilson stopped and stood silent. Inattention dies a quick and sure death when a speaker does that.

Narrator, Chapter 21

Wilson has been waiting more than two decades to appear as a lawyer in court. Confident that he will be able to acquit the twins of murder, he has the audience and the jury examining each other's fingerprints. As the buzz of excitement grows, Wilson shows he knows how to gain control of the courtroom. He is proving to be a masterful lawyer after all.


It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.

David Wilson, Conclusion

The final aphorism from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar" might refer to the Capello twins, who arrived with great fanfare but narrowly escaped being convicted of murder. They want nothing more to do with America and to return to Europe.

In a larger sense, however, Twain may be ending his antislavery novel with the sentiments of many Africans. It is likely they too wish they had never seen the shores of the New World.

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