When the novel opens, the year is 1830 and we are introduced to the small Missouri town of Dawson's Landing. It is a young town - only fifty years old - but it is growing. A rich, slave-worked backcountry of grain and pork provide the sleepy town with its economic sustenance. And, as it is seated on the Mississippi River, the town is only a half-day's journey to the bustling city of St. Louis.
York Leicester Driscoll is forty years old, county judge, and the town's chief citizen. He is descended from the First Families of old Virginia, and is fiercely proud of this ancestry. While he and his wife are nearly happy, they remain childless and therefore are unable to enjoy absolute bliss. The Judge's widowed sister, Mrs. Rachel Pratt, lives with the couple.
Percy Northumberland Driscoll is the Judge's younger brother. He is married, and though he had children, he has lost them to a number of diseases. He is a prosperous man with a growing fortune, as he has "a good head for speculations." On February 1 of that year, two babies are born in Percy Driscoll's household. The first is born to him, while the second is born to his slave Roxana (who goes by "Roxy"). Because Mrs. Driscoll dies shortly after her son's birth, Roxy is entrusted with the care of both babies.
Finally in this chapter, we are introduced to the novel's title character, David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson. He is a young man from New York, who has wandered to Dawson's Landing to seek his fortune. He is a college graduate and completed a law course a couple of years prior. He earns his nickname (and dooms his future law practice) from a remark he makes shortly after arriving in the town. Hearing a dog barking and yelping, he comments that he wishes he owned half of the dog. When asked why he desired this, he replies that he would kill his half. This remark struck the townspeople as completely moronic - if Wilson killed half of the dog, surely the other half would expire as well. Thus, if he is going to kill the entire dog, why only wish for half? The town was convinced that Wilson was a fool, and from that day forward he was stuck with the nickname "Pudd'nhead." Though he would eventually come to be well liked, the nickname would remain.
Pudd'nhead Wilson buys a small home beside Judge Driscoll's property and sets up a shop in town, hoping to launch his legal career. However, much to Wilson's chagrin, his "half of the dog" remark doomed his law practice before it even began. Unable to get any business as an attorney, Wilson moves his practice into his home and resigns himself to doing some accounting and surveying work. But even in these fields, Wilson is able to attract few customers, and as a result, is left with ample free time to pursue other endeavors. Specifically, he adopts the hobbies of palmistry and fingerprinting. He is hesitant to discuss these hobbies with his fellow townspeople, as they only seem to add to the view that he is a fool.
One afternoon, Wilson overhears Percy Driscoll's slave, Roxy, engaging in a flirtatious conversation, with Jasper, a male slave. Roxy, we learn is only 1/16 black and appears to be white; as does her child (who she named Valet de Chambre, or Chambers for short) who is only 1/32 black. Indeed, Percy Driscoll is only able to tell his own son (Thomas Ã Becket Driscoll) apart from the slave child by the difference in their clothing. Wilson interrupts the slaves' banter and takes fingerprint samples from Roxy and both of the children she is caring for.
Back at the household of Percy Driscoll, some money has been stolen. Driscoll gathers his four servants (including Roxy) and demands to know who is responsible for the theft. All four claim innocence, though in reality, Roxy is the only one who is guilt-free (she had just found religion shortly before; otherwise, she too would have snatched some of her master's property). When no one comes forward, Driscoll threatens to sell all four "down the river." For Missouri slaves, sale down the river (to large cotton plantations where slave life is far harsher) is the equivalent of being condemned to hell. The three guilty thieves immediately confess their sin and beg their master's mercy. He gives in and agrees to sell them in town, rather than down river. Driscoll believes he has done a great and noble act, and records it in his diary, so that his son might one day read it and be moved to perform his own deeds of gentleness and humanity.
That night, Roxy is kept awake by the horrifying thought that one day, her own child will grow up and face the risk of being sold down the river. She reflects on how unfair it is that young Master Tom will never have to worry about such a fate, whereas her own child - who has not done anything wrong - is condemned to a life of hardship. She decides that she hates Percy Driscoll because he has no heart for his slaves, and would kill him if she could. However, she recognizes that slaying her master will not resolve her problem, because it will not save her son from being sold down the river by some other master.
Roxy resolves to kill herself and young Chambers by jumping into the river. As she is heading out to do so, her eyes fall upon her new Sunday gown. She does not want to be fished out of the water with everyone looking at her in "dis mis'able ole linsey-woolsey," so she puts on the dress. She even does up her hair "like white folks" and is astonished when she looks at herself in the mirror and sees her own beauty. Now ready, she picks up her child and once again prepares to leave. Then, she notices Chambers' own miserable attire - a short little gray tow-linen shirt. Roxy is ashamed that she looks so nice while her baby is dressed so shabby, and so she removes his clothing and replaces it with some of Tom's finer garments. She also takes the coral necklace from around Tom's neck and puts it on Chambers.
Roxy looks at her son, adorned in the fancy garb, and then looks over at the child lying in the other cradle. Suddenly, "a strange light dawned in her eyes, and in a moment she was lost in thought." Realizing that but for their attire, Percy Driscoll cannot tell the children apart, she dresses young Tom in Chambers' tow-linen shirt. With this, Roxy's baby is now poised to usurp the position of Driscoll family heir.
Roxy justifies her actions by telling herself "white folks has done it." She is remembering a tale she had heard from a black preacher, about a prince who was taken from a palace, with a young impostor left in his place. Again she says to herself, "it ain't no sin, 'ca'se white folks done it." She then starts practicing referring to her child as "Marse Tom" and speaking to him humbly. Simultaneously, she practices using "motherly curtness" toward the true heir, who she now calls Chambers.
After calculating her chances of being discovered, Roxy is not too concerned. As previously noted, the master of the house is unable to tell the children apart, and the other slaves who were familiar with the children are all being sold away, to be replaced by new slaves. The one person who she does fear, however, is Pudd'nhead Wilson, who she refuses to label a fool, and who she describes as "de smartes' man in dis town." Roxy takes the two children over to Wilson's house, who gladly takes their fingerprints once again. When he fails to notice anything unusual about the infants, Roxy drops all concern about the matter out of her mind.
Each chapter opens with at least one quote from Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar. We learn in Chapter 5 that this "calendar" is in fact a "whimsical almanac," filled with ironical quips. Though not critical to the story's plot, these satirical passages often foreshadow themes that will arise throughout the chapters. Chapter 1's first quote notes the ability of "ridicule" to annihilate even the noblest of reputations. As an example, it mentions the ass; a humble, hard working creature that has unjustly been labeled stupid.
The ass in these opening chapters is Pudd'nhead Wilson. Like the donkey, Wilson has a number of admirable attributes: he is courteous, diligent, and intelligent (indeed, Roxy describes him as the smartest person in the whole town). His hobbies - though odd to the average townsperson - demonstrate his sharp and meticulous mind. An objective observer might predict that Wilson would enjoy great success - both financial and social - in the small town. Yet, for the first two decades of his residence, nothing could be further from the truth. Wilson's ill-timed "half-dog" remark makes him the subject of constant ridicule. He is unable to jumpstart his law practice and is largely rendered a non-entity in Dawson's Landing. Twain thus reveals that while there is no guarantee for its accuracy, a person's reputation can have a considerable impact on the course of their life.
The people of Dawson's Landing live in a highly stratified, hierarchical society. At the apex of this social order are the descendents of the First Families of Virginia, represented by such characters as Judge Driscoll, Percy Driscoll, and Pembroke Howard. Below this level of quasi-nobility are white citizens who trace their lineage back to the state of Virginia (though not its founders), followed by other whites, then free blacks, and finally - occupying the lowest rung of Dawson's Landing's social ladder - slaves. So powerful is this social hierarchy, that those on the bottom are forbidden from sitting or eating with citizens of higher status. Instead, they are relegated to the kitchen. Further, this segregation is not limited to the household; the layout of the town itself is similarly structured, with the snug homes of its white population situated up front, while the slave-worked portion is hidden in the backcountry.
Having constructed this social framework, Twain is able to deliver a stinging critique of slavery and race relations in the Antebellum South. He does this by showing the arbitrariness of racial classifications. Roxy, for example, is a beautiful woman, and to the unknowing observer, appears to be white. Moreover, she is clearly intelligent and clever, as evidenced by her numerous schemes (such as the switching of the infants). Yet despite her intellect and beauty, the tiny fraction of her blood that is black reduces her to the lowest trenches of society. This arbitrariness is even better demonstrated by the two infants Roxy has been charged with raising. They appear nearly identical (even Percy Driscoll, father of one of the babies, cannot tell them apart but for their attire), yet because 1/32 of Chambers' blood is black, he is destined to a harsh life of servitude, while young Tom's pure white blood ensures him a life of luxury and comfort. The ease with which Roxy switches the children's destinies reveals just how malleable and arbitrary these distinctions are.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is unique to its time in its portrayal of slave characters. Most works of this period portrayed blacks as lazy, dishonest, and at times even dangerous. Often, this was a not-so-subtle attempt to spread the propaganda that blacks were an inferior class of citizens who were unable to function independently in society, and that slavery was in fact beneficial to them. Twain, by contrast, takes a different approach in this novel. Though he acknowledges that the slaves in the story steal from their masters, he frames it not as evidence of their flawed characters, but rather as a form of social activism. These acts of thievery are justified expressions of defiance against their oppressors - not desperate acts of greed.
It is interesting that when switching the babies, Roxy justifies her deception by noting that white people have done exactly the same thing. Ironically, Roxy takes the conduct of her oppressors as an indication of proper morality. This emulation of whites seems out of her character. In these first three chapters and throughout the novel, Roxy shows a disdain for whites; here, she comments that she hates her master, Percy Driscoll, for his harsh treatment of his servants. Similarly, she often views slavery as a crime committed by whites against her race. Thus, it is not entirely clear why she would use the behavior of white people as a moral compass.