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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Symbols

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The most prominent symbols in the novel—the Indian knife and fingerprints—can be seen as opposite sides of the dualities in Dawson's Landing. The Indian knife complicates the discovery of the judge's murderer, while fingerprints are used to unmask the identity of the killer.

The Indian Knife

The jeweled knife given to the Capello twins by an Indian prince introduces a red herring to the novel. A red herring is a plot device that throws readers off the track of a truth in the story. The knife's jewel-encrusted sheath makes it irresistible to Tom Driscoll's thieving eyes. After it goes missing, David Wilson alerts local pawnshops about a reward for the knife and the capture of anyone attempting to redeem it. This leaves Tom stuck with it in his possession.

The knife becomes the emblem of the rash of burglaries in Dawson's Landing, and questions about its existence dampen the community's goodwill toward the twins. When Tom then inadvertently uses the knife to kill his uncle, its appearance as the murder weapon is both good and bad news for the twins. It ties them to the crime, but Wilson is ultimately able to prove the bloody prints on the handle are not theirs.

Fingerprints

Fingerprints—or "fingermarks," as they are called in the novel—are the obsession of David Wilson and of the author, Mark Twain. In the novel they represent a steady scientific truth that prevails in a crime muddied by switched identities.

While writing Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain obtained a copy of the 1892 book Finger Prints by British scientist Francis Galton (1822–1911). It was the first comprehensive study on the subject. The incorporation of the science of fingerprints into Twain's story changed it from a tragedy about race relations into more of a melodramatic detective story. Wilson is able to use fingerprints to solve not only the murder but also the switched identities at the heart of the story. In so doing, he vindicates himself, proving his value as a lawyer.

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