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Pudd'nhead Wilson Themes

by Mark Twain

Major Themes

Nature versus Nurture

What determines the type of person an individual will become? Is it inherent, innate qualities or upbringing and environment? This is a persistent theme throughout Pudd'nhead Wilson. The author does not conclusively adhere to either argument, but instead provides support for both theories.

This tension between nature and nurture is most clearly seen in the character of Tom Driscoll (or more specifically, the young usurper, Chambers, who is unknowingly posing as Tom). Tom grows from a spoiled, fractious child into a lazy, dishonest adult. One argument is that Tom's flawed character is the product of his inherent "slave" or "black" qualities. This would be in line with the racist views widely held in the American South during the Nineteenth Century. Indeed, Tom's own mother, Roxy, suggests precisely this. She hypothesizes that it is Tom's "blackness" which has made him such a coward. Opposing this "nature" theory for explaining Tom's character is the "nurture" view. According to this position, Tom's overindulgent upbringing is responsible for his flaws and failures. From a young age, his every desire is attended to and a sense of entitlement is fostered in him. Once grown, the idea of working or making an honest living seems beneath him. Instead, he feels entitled to just to take whatever he wants, whether or not the item belongs to him.

Though Twain never expressly comes out in support of one view or the other, a persuasive case can be made that he favors nurture over nature. First, unlike other authors of his era, Twain does not embrace the view of African Americans as inherently lazy and deceitful. To Twain, acts of thievery by black slaves are justified acts of rebellion against their white oppressors. Given this perspective, it seems unlikely that Twain believes Tom's African American blood is the cause of his character flaws. Additionally, Chambers' fate, as penned in the novel's conclusion, seems to further support the nurture theory. Chambers, who was actually born Tom Driscoll, the wealthy white heir to the Driscoll fortune, suddenly learns his true identity and gains his freedom. If a person's nature were determinative, then one would expect Chambers to feel at home in the white man's world. However, just the opposite occurs, suggesting that his upbringing as a slave trumps any inherent qualities.

Honor

Honor is an important theme in Pudd'nhead Wilson. The people of Dawson's Landing place a significant premium on the traits of honor and courage. For example, when Judge Driscoll and Luigi Capello engage in a duel, a fight in the name of honor, the townspeople celebrate them as heroes. For two decades, Pudd'nhead Wilson has been labeled a buffoon and a fool, and has been isolated from the rest of the town. By simply serving as Luigi's second in the duel, he is able to erase twenty years of ridicule and emerge one of Dawson's Landing's leading citizens.

While honor is a highly prized commodity throughout the town, it is especially critical to the descendents of Virginia's First Families. These Virginian heirs, who form Dawson's Landing's quasi-aristocracy, live by a strict code. No character more fervently adheres to this honor code than Judge Driscoll. When the Judge learns that his nephew, Tom, has been humiliated by Luigi (by way of a very public kick), his response is that Tom must fight Luigi in a duel. In the Judge's mind, Tom has a duty to redeem his family's good name, and the only way to do so is to meet Luigi, face-to-face, on the field of honor. Concern for Tom's welfare never enters into the Judge's calculation here. The fact that his nephew could be killed is secondary to the code's command that a duel be fought to reestablish the Driscoll name.

Judge Driscoll is outraged when he learns that Tom is too afraid to face Luigi in a duel, and has instead resorted to a court of law, filing assault charges against the Italian. The American judicial system has been constructed precisely for the purpose of resolving these types of conflicts. Moreover, Judge Driscoll has devoted his own life to this system and to furthering the interests of justice. Yet, once again these considerations are trumped by the Judge's adherence to the code of honor. He is so angered by Tom's "cowardice" and use of the legal system, that he disinherits his nephew and fights the duel himself.

Emphasis on honor is not limited to the white residents of Dawson's Landing. When contemplating taking her own life, as well as the life of her child, Roxy pride won't allow her to throw herself into the river while wearing cheap rags. Instead, she puts on her finest dress, so that she can be fished out of the river in style. Additionally, she displays pride in her own ancestry, boasting that she is descended from Pocahontas, as well as Captain John Smith (who was himself a First Family Virginian, according to Roxy). And when she learns that her son was too cowardly to fight in the duel against Luigi, she is disgraced and rebukes him.

The Arbitrary Nature of Racial Distinctions

Perhaps the central theme of Pudd'nhead Wilson is that classifications on the basis of race are completely arbitrary. Roxy, for example, is a beautiful woman, who to the unknowing observer, appears white. She is incredibly clever, and has a strong spirit. Further, she claims to be descended from the First Families of Virginia. Not only would these qualities typically guarantee a person success in Dawson's Landing, they would likely make the individual one of town's most prominent citizens. But, because a tiny fraction of Roxy's blood, 1/16 to be exact, is black, she is condemned to a life of slavery. By making Roxy one of strongest, most resourceful, and most likeable characters in the novel, Twain highlights the irrationality of relegating her to the lowest trenches of society.

The arbitrariness of racial classifications is most clearly evident in the switching of the infants. Like Roxy, her baby has been condemned to a harsh life of servitude due to the fraction of his blood that is black. In contrast, her master's son, Tom, is ensured a life of luxury by fortune of his birth. These vastly divergent destinies seem arbitrary and unfair, given that the children are so identical and that not even Percy Driscoll, father of one of the babies, can tell them apart but for their attire. The ease with which Roxy swaps the infants and radically alters their respective fates demonstrates just how artificially constructed these distinctions are.

Betrayal

Tom personifies the theme of betrayal. When gambling debts leave Tom facing a desperate situation, Roxy decides to make the ultimate sacrifice for her son. She tells Tom that she is willing to forfeit her freedom and allow herself to be sold back into slavery, in order to raise the funds to pay off Tom's obligations. Twain emphasizes the enormity of Roxy's sacrifice, noting that "slavery - slavery of any kind, mild or severe, or of any duration, brief or long - was making a sacrifice for him compared with which death would have been a poor and commonplace one." Although Tom initially expresses gratitude for his mother's generosity, he is quick to betray her. When offering to give up her liberty, Roxy only makes two requests of her son: that he buy back her freedom a year later, and that he sell her up north, where slave conditions are not too harsh. Caring only about himself and putting his own interests above his mother's well-being, Tom sells Roxy to the one place she dreads the most - a plantation down the river.

Tom similarly betrays his benefactor, Judge Driscoll, who had taken Tom in and given him a home when Tom's father died. Not only did the Judge adopt Tom and treat him like a son, he also promised him an inheritance and provided him with an income. However, Tom responds to this munificence by disgracing the Judge (refusing to duel Luigi Capello) and later breaking into his house, attempting to steal his money, and finally, murdering him.

Tom's repeated betrayals can be contrasted with Chambers' loyalty. Growing up, Tom is incredibly cruel to Chambers. Yet, when Chambers sees his young master in the water, apparently drowning, he jumps into save his life. Additionally, even though Roxy swapped the two infants, robbing Chambers of his freedom and condemning him to a life of slavery, he remains loyal to her. After Wilson reveals the truth about what Roxy had done, and Chambers is freed and given his rightful inheritance, he ensures that Roxy continues to get money to live on.

This distinction between Tom's betrayal on the one hand, and Chambers' loyalty on the other, ties back into the debate between nature and nurture. One might argue that this difference is due to the fact that Tom was really born African American and a slave, and thus was inherently prone to betrayal. This is the racist view that many authors and commentators of the period would likely endorse. Alternatively, it can be asserted that the difference is the result of Tom and Chambers' widely divergent upbringings; specifically, that because Tom was spoiled as a child, he has become accustomed to putting his own interests before others. This is likely the view that Twain himself would have embraced.

Law

Twain's opening remarks in "A Whisper to the Reader" lay the foundation for law as a significant theme in Pudd'nhead Wilson. The author assures his reader that the novel's legal scenes are accurate, and even gives the credentials of the lawyer who Twain consulted to ensure the book's authenticity. Interestingly, however, the story's portrayal of law is somewhat paradoxical. At times, law is portrayed as a noble profession that has a considerable influence over life in Dawson's Landing. The town's chief citizen, York Driscoll, is a judge. Other prominent citizens - such as Pembroke Howard, and later, Pudd'nhead Wilson - are lawyers. Toward the end of the novel, when Luigi and Angelo are on trial for murder, townspeople fill the courtroom, anxious to see justice be done. Further, it is Puddn'head Wilson's courtroom performance that wins him acclaim and solidifies his status as a "made man."

At other points in the novel, however, Twain seems to mock the legal profession. The so-called attorney-consultant who checked the novel's legal accuracy had not practiced law in a number of years and had to brush up on his law before attempting to edit the book. When Luigi disgraces the Driscoll family by kicking Tom, the Judge is outraged to learn that his nephew had attempted to resolve the dispute by resorting to a court of law. To the judge, confronting such an offense through use of the legal system is a disgraceful practice, which only a coward would engage in. Similarly, Pudd'nhead Wilson, a lawyer, notes that he would have tried to keep Tom's case out of the courthouse, to give the Driscoll's an opportunity to take matters into their own hands, and challenge Luigi to a duel.

Identity

Issues of identity are prevalent throughout the novel and appear in a variety of forms. For example, identity issues arise through Twain's use of twins - literally, in the case of Luigi and Angelo, and symbolically, with regard to Tom and Chambers. By including twins in the novel, Twain raises the question of whether these identical siblings have their own distinct identities, or if they merge into a single personality. There are some distinctions between the Italian brothers; one twin is slightly darker than the other, and Angelo is a teetotaler, while Luigi eagerly joins the rum party. Beyond these slight variations, however, the two seem to meld into a single character. Indeed, as the novel progresses, Angelo seems to wane in importance and simply becomes an accessory to Luigi. Though the novel continues to refer to the "twins," only Luigi seems to have any relevance to the story. Luigi is the owner of the knife, and the one who kicks Tom, duels Judge Driscoll, and is accused of murder. Angelo's character all but disappears from the story.

The novel's other set of "twins" - the symbolic twins, Tom and Chambers - raise a very different issue of identity. In the antebellum South, a person's station in life was not a result of merit or achievement, but rather of lineage and race. The racial composition of a person's blood could condemn an individual to the very bottom of the social ladder. This fact is evidenced in the cases of Roxy and her child, both of whom appear white and have very little black blood, but are considered slaves nonetheless. Thus, we can see that racial identity was sharply defined in the pre-Civil War period. Whites were considered the ruling class, while African Americans - including those individuals with only a fraction of black blood - were relegated to the slave class. Twain employs Tom and Chambers to attack this conception of racial identity. He shows how artificial and constructed these racial distinctions are, by demonstrating how easily a black man and white man can swap destinies. Due to Roxy's small act of deception, her black child becomes a spoiled rich kid, while the true white heir is transformed into a meek, humble slave.

Finally, physical identity also plays an important role in the book. When Wilson reads Luigi's palm and reveals that he once killed a man, Tom exclaims "a man's own hand is his deadliest enemy." This statement ultimately proves prophetic. For a long time, Tom is able to use deception to hide his true identity and avoid getting himself into trouble. His white complexion allows him to usurp the true heir's life without arousing anyone's suspicion. When breaking into and burglarizing homes throughout Dawson's Landing, he uses disguises to escape detection. In the end, however, his fingerprints give him away, and his true identity is revealed to the town.

Reputation

Many of the novel's characters place a high premium on reputation, and concerns about personal standing drive much of the story's action. At the meeting of the rum party, for example, Tom's affront to Luigi's reputation motivates the Italian to deliver the massive kick that launches Tom into the audience. Consequently, this physical assault leads Judge Driscoll to worry about his own family's reputation. The Judge fears that Tom's getting kicked, combined with his nephew's cowardice and refusal to duel the twin, will reflect negatively on the Driscoll family name. Thus, Judge Driscoll challenges Luigi to a duel himself.

The first quote from Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar notes how easily ridicule can tear down a person's reputation. We see this demonstrated when Wilson first arrives in Dawson's Landing and makes his fateful remark about owning half a dog. As a result of this comment, Wilson is branded a "Pudd'nhead" and a fool, and his law practice is doomed to failure. Moreover, despite his affable personality and intelligence, this reputation sticks with him for more than a decade. Similarly, despite having quickly won over the town with their grace and charm, Luigi and Angelo become town outcasts due to Judge Driscoll's campaign to defame them and paint them as assassins.

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