Pudd'nhead Wilson | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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Pudd'nhead Wilson | Themes

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Slaves as Property and Nonproperty

The climax of Pudd'nhead Wilson throws the issue of slavery into sudden sharp focus. David Wilson not only declares Tom Driscoll to be the murderer of his uncle but also exposes Tom as an African American slave. Justice has been done, and a wrong has be righted. However, the verdict raises the larger question of whether or not a slave can be tried and punished in the same way as a white citizen.

In the novel, Tom—now exposed as a mixed-race slave—is sentenced to life imprisonment after he confesses. But creditors of the estate of Percy Driscoll, who owned Roxy and her son, claim they have been deprived of "his services" because he was not properly listed in the inventory of Driscoll's "property." The guilt, they maintain, "lay with the erroneous inventory," and it would be wrong "to shut up a valuable slave for life."

The power of the prominent citizens of Dawson's Landing rests in their property. In 1830 the accumulation of wealth takes precedent over any considerations of the constitutional rights of liberty and equality. The governor agrees with their petition and grants Tom a pardon so he can be turned over as a property to the creditors. They will then be able to recoup some of what is still owed them by selling him as a slave.

Racism and "Purity"

After being confronted by Roxy with his true identity, Tom Driscoll wrestles with the question of who he is. He wonders, "Why were niggers and whites made? ... And why is this awful difference made between white and black?"

The novel is set in 1830, a time when slavery was firmly established in the southern states. A descent rule had long determined that all descendants of a mixed union are classified as black. Some states had a one-drop rule; that is, a person with "any known degree of black ancestry was legally considered a Negro." Roxy's appearance, for example, is "as white as anybody," but because she is 1/16th black, she is considered a slave and salable. This is believed true even in Missouri, where the law stipulated having one black grandparent made a person black, because she was born into slavery.

The need to maintain control over property and identity prompted laws to discourage and punish miscegenation, or sex between people of different races. To landowners in the antebellum South, acknowledgment of the frequent rape of women slaves by white owners by claiming the resulting children as their own would mean a breakdown of social divisions, a threat to the proper transfer of wealth from one generation to the next. This did not stop interracial affairs, as noted by diarist Mary Chestnut (1823–86): "Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all the mulatto (now offensive term used to describe the child of an African American parent and a white parent) children in everybody's household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds."

By the time Pudd'nhead Wilson was published in 1894, the country was in the post-Reconstruction era, and the issue of racial purity became paramount to southern states building a segregated society. Laws against intermarriage became more stringent, and definitions of racial purity were given "pseudo-scientific authority." This included laws such as the one-drop rule.

Twain's novel came out during the height of lynching—execution by mob action rather than through the legal system—in the United States. Therefore, he knew he could not make a strong call for racial justice. Instead, he evades addressing the issue directly, electing to "write in soft disguises," perhaps hoping to subtly lead readers to an awareness of the injustices of racism and segregation. He still manages to put clearly before the reader the idea that slavery is a construct of humankind, not God. Language such as Tom's lament about the "awful difference ... between white and black" go to the heart of the matter. Still, science steps in at the novel's end in the form of its hero, David Wilson. Wilson saves the town's social order by using fingerprints to unmask Tom's true racial identity. In doing so Wilson maintains the status quo in Dawson's Landing.

Oppositions

Early in Pudd'nhead Wilson, David Wilson makes a joke about an annoying dog, saying he wished he owned half of the dog because he would kill his half. The joke is a reference to the biblical King Solomon's proposal to split a baby to share between two women who each claimed to be its mother. It sets the stage for a novel of dualities on several levels, from family relationships to social distinctions.

The main conflict of duality begins with the birth of two babies on the same day. One is white, and one is technically black because his mother, who looks white, is 1/16 African and a slave. The boys are almost identical, and their switch by the character Roxy propels the plot. It is inevitable that their fates will intersect again with the unmasking of their true identities.

The novel's original intended duo, conjoined twins, are retained by the author, but are separated now. The Capello twins are supposedly an aristocratic pair of Italian young men who in real life are merely opportunists and adventurers. They are presented by the author in opposition to a pair of honorable older gentlemen, the judge and his friend. And while Roxy and her son scheme burglaries together, they are pursued ineffectively by Constable Blake and Wilson, the amateur detective.

Twain, who loved the idea of twins and switched identities, also incorporated his enjoyment of disguises into Pudd'nhead Wilson. During his burglaries, Tom often dresses in women's clothing, including his mother's. Roxy, on the other hand, when fleeing the planter to whom her son sold her, dresses in men's clothing. Mother and son revolve around each other both as family members and as master and slave.

The end of the novel presents the ultimate issue of duality. Is Tom a man who can be punished for a crime, or is he property that cannot be held accountable? The tangle of contradictions exposes the unstable foundation of society in Dawson's Landing.

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