The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

Author: Mark Twain

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1893

I read it: December 2015


I read the Project Gutenberg free online version of this book.

Twain marks his tale as a tragedy, and as being primarily about an intelligent yet outcast newcomer who the townspeople have dubbed Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain’s title is good because Pudd’nhead Wilson is a funny name (and the author can never resist his own cleverness), but this story is really the tragedy of Roxana.

We are introduced to Roxana, a slave, as follows:

To all intents and purposes 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. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro.

Roxy is, functionally, a black slave due to the “one drop” philosophy. She has her baby around the same time as that of her overseer. She takes care of both every day, and the only major difference is the quality of their clothing. Hoping for a better future for her natural son, she switches the clothes. And there you have it: a tidy tale of mistaken identity.

Roxy’s woes truly begin when her son, Tom Driscoll, grows into a supremely self-centered young man, abusing his servant (the rightful Driscoll boy who falls out of the story in short order) and squandering his inheritance through gambling and recklessness. Through it all, Roxy holds on to the precious few moments when Tom is nice to her. Aside from those times, he is hell to be around.

So where does Pudd’nhead Wilson factor in? He is a studious character with many hobbies, one of which is collecting fingerprint samples. (Convenient for our plot, perhaps?) He has not earned respect from the ignorant civilians, but intellectually he’s in the top tier. Indeed, Roxy is one of the shrewdest characters, because she’s the only person who fears Wilson’s brains and wonders if he could get to the truth. Wilson, it might be noted, was also a member of the local Freethinkers‘ Society, headed by Judge Driscoll (Tom’s uncle). That the organization had only these two members in total is one of the many Twainish jabs aimed at the mob mentality of the time.

Obviously the story aims to point out the absurd differences between how free folk and slaves are treated and thought of, while also poking holes in the strange traditions of family hereditiy. Tom eventually learns about his true origins, and complete emotional devastation ensues:

A gigantic eruption, like that of Krakatoa a few years ago, with the accompanying earthquakes, tidal waves, and clouds of volcanic dust, changes the face of the surrounding landscape beyond recognition, bringing down the high lands, elevating the low, making fair lakes where deserts had been, and deserts where green prairies had smiled before. The tremendous catastrophe which had befallen Tom had changed his moral landscape in much the same way. Some of his low places he found lifted to ideals, some of his ideas had sunk to the valleys, and lay there with the sackcloth and ashes of pumice stone and sulphur on their ruined heads.

But even this personal reckoning only persuades Tom to hide the truth at all costs, for fear of being reprimanded—or worse, sold. I don’t think I ever realized the source of the phrase “sold down the river,” which speaks to the fear that being sold to a destination further south is a harsher fate than being a slave in a more northern state. Anyway, that’s exactly what Tom does to his own mother at one point. He feels bad for a bit…

For a whole week he was not able to sleep well, so much the villainy which he had played upon his trusting mother preyed upon his rag of conscience; but after that he began to get comfortable again, and was presently able to sleep like any other miscreant.

As the reader suspects, it’s only a matter of chapters before Tom is revealed to be someone other than who he says he is. The revelation turns Puddn’head Wilson into a local hero for bringing to light the facts, but Roxana is brokenhearted all over again. The best she had hoped for up until now was to be able to continue Tom’s ruse but somehow persuade him to be nice to her, and find steady employment close to her son. It was not to be, and Twain’s story is infused with multiple motherly heartaches. Despite her social standing and her uneducated speech, Roxy knows that “In de inside, mothers is all de same.” That is, mothers are fused to the children they have, even if those kids are devils, and mothers will go to great lengths to give their children a better chance, even if it becomes ruinous for all involved.

Parting thoughts:

In an Author’s Note at the end, Twain discusses the trials of birthing this story, and all the forgotten characters that fell to the wayside during the labor pains. Apparently he had an entirely separate story almost finished to completion, but ran into nonnegotiable dead ends. He stripped away much of it and reoriented things toward a new aim. He makes it sound painful, which was perhaps standard for the author, who states that “A man who is not born with the novel-writing gift has a troublesome time of it when he tries to build a novel.”

Also, each chapter is headed with an entry from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar,” which we presume was something the title character kept in his study. I like to think it was created by Wilson himself and that all the nuggets are attributed to him. A selection:

  • Adam and Even had many advantages, but the principal one was, that they escaped teething.
  • Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.
  • Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.
  • As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
  • Behold, the fool saith, “Put not all thine eggs in the one basket”—which is but a manner of saying, “Scatter your money and your attention”; but the wise man saith, “Put all your eggs in the one basket and—WATCH THAT BASKET!”

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