Pudd'nhead Wilson

The Ruse of Race: Problematizing Binaries

Mark Twain’s Pudd'nhead Wilson and Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars both problematize the concept of race by demonstrating to the reader that subscriptions to stereotypes warranted by skin color are ambiguous and consequently not at all as concrete, nor as correct, as comfortably believed. Both authors dramatize the destruction of the socially constructed binary system of black and white by introducing to the reader the ambiguously raced character: the mulatto. While Chesnutt gives us Rena and John, Twain gives us Roxy and “Tom.” Both authors, through their depictions of these characters, illustrate the constructed and not at all biological foundation from which racism sprouts; thus, deconstructing the cultural binaries of what black and white presumably mean.

In the antebellum South, a person’s perceived identity predicated first and foremost, neither from merit nor achievement but rather, from lineage—from race. The racial composition of an individual’s blood was believed to determine their social worth and, consequently, their overall value. This is evidenced through Twain’s Roxy and Chambers. Both appear white and have very little black blood, but are treated like sub-humans and are slaves. "For all...

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