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Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson Review Essay

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Updated: Sep 15th, 2021

Throughout history, the white-skinned population predominantly hailing from the western European continent has managed to enforce its dominance over darker-skinned people around the world. This was due, in large part, because of their earlier development of tools and weapons intended to help them dominate over the forces of their neighbors, who were also working to develop these tools and weapons. With their ships, gunpowder, firearms, and already established concepts of trade routes, treaties, government, and other social functions, it was relatively easy for them to gain dominance over the Indian and the African, whom they brought over to the new world to help them establish order and plunder the resources of the land. Because of this easy dominance, the white man quickly developed a sense that he was fundamentally and naturally superior to his darker-skinned brothers, an idea that was soon substantiated, so they felt, by the advances of science. Through his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain reveals the inherent racism within his society.

This is illustrated through the fingerprint evidence proving one man is ‘black’ and the other is ‘white’ despite the relative sameness of their actual skin tone, the restoration of societal perceptions of the black man as inferior in internal character and even in the rejection of the white man if he is not raised within the proper ‘European’ and superior society.

Twain’s novel resists conventional analysis in that it presents a somewhat unusual basic structure. The book tells two basic stories. The first is the story of Pudd’nhead Wilson, a lawyer who comes to Dawson’s Landing in hopes of making his name as a lawyer, but, because of an ill-timed remark, instead of wins a name as an idiot. Determined to overcome his sour name, Pudd’nhead stays in town and works numerous odd jobs to support himself for years. Throughout this time, he occupies his mind investigating the latest science of the day, particularly being interested in fingerprinting. “He carried in his coat pocket a shallow box with grooves in it, and in the grooves strips of glass five inches long and three inches wide. Along the lower edge of each strip was pasted a slip of white paper. He asked people to pass their hands through their hair (thus collecting upon them a thin coating of the natural oil) and then making a thumb-mark on a glass strip, following it with the mark of the ball of each finger in succession. Under this row of faint grease prints, he would write a record on the strip of white paper” (Ch. 2). These fingerprints would prove the method by which Wilson finally clears his name as he proves the identity of the mixed up babies from the Driscoll mansion with the order, “Valet de Chambre, Negro, and slave–falsely called Thomas a Becket Driscoll –make upon the window the fingerprints that will hang you” (Ch. 21).

While race has little to do with proving which individual is guilty of the crime, the proof of identity revealed by these fingerprints has a profound effect upon the society as it is shown that the individual they had thought was white all along was really ‘black’ while the one they treated as if he were a black man was the true son and heir to a white man’s estates now depleted by the black man. As a result of this revelation, these two men must undergo a complete reversal of fortune as one man is demoted from his exalted status to the status of slave while the other is promoted from slave to unaccepted, uneducated, no longer propertied white man.

The story of the fingerprints begins to reveal the tragedy of the story of Valet de Chambre. Through the portrayal of this character, Twain illustrates how the black man, presumably because of the black blood within his system and regardless of the minuscule amount, is constitutionally incapable of behaving according to acceptable societal standards despite his quality education. Tom a Becket Driscoll is the son of a wealthy white man who maintains a large property complete with slaves. Valet de Chambre, a name that refers to a toilet, is the son of a woman who, because she is one-sixteenth black, is, by law, a slave. “Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro. He had blue eyes and flaxen curls like his white comrade, but even the father of the white child was able to tell the children apart … by their clothes; for the white babe wore ruffled soft muslin and a coral necklace, while the other wore merely a coarse tow-linen shirt which barely reached to its knees, and no jewelry” (Ch. 2).

To protect her young son, who appears no different than the son of the master, Roxy switches the babies, thus allowing Chambers to grow up as Tom and Tom to grow up as a slave. Despite all his advantages, though, Chambers grows up as a base person, ruining his father’s fortunes with gambling and other bad habits. “He went handsomely equipped with ‘conditions,’ but otherwise he was not an object of distinction there. … He came home with his manners a good deal improved; he had lost his surliness and brusqueness … He was as indolent as ever and showed no very strenuous desire to hunt up an occupation … He brought back one or two new habits with him, one of which he rather openly practiced–tippling–but concealed another, which was gambling” (Ch. 5). Eventually, his gambling debts had him so deep in debt that he had to sell his mother, fraudulently, back into slavery just to pay off some of them.

By contrast, the real Tom Driscoll was raised as a slave but his better blood enabled him to bear his lot in life much more favorably. “Tom got all the petting, Chambers got none. Tom got all the delicacies, Chambers got mush and milk, and clabber without sugar. In consequence, Tom was a sickly child and Chambers wasn’t. Tom was ‘fractious,’ as Roxy called it, and overbearing; Chambers was meek and docile” (Ch. 3). Chambers’ other skills also far outstripped those of Tom. He was as good-looking and, although no one knew it at the time, even more white. He was charming and got along well with others. He was modest and good-natured, always taking the abuses Tom waged on him without ever losing his control or his subservient stance. These noble qualities in the boy elicit pity and concern from others in the community. One such individual was Judge Driscoll, whose concern was seemingly equally divided between concern about losing a quality house slave and concern for family honor when rumors began that Tom was thinking of selling Chambers ‘down the river.

“He had heard that Tom had been trying to get his father to sell the boy down the river, and he wanted to prevent the scandal ­– for public sentiment did not approve of that way of treating family servants for light cause or no cause” (Ch. 4). Even when Chambers is restored to his fully ‘white’ status, though, it is clear that he will be unable to adopt a proper role in society.

His speech is not the speech of a mannered gentleman and, although he spent much of his life at the heels of ‘Tom’, he was not educated sufficiently well to recover his intended holdings and had spent too much of his life as a slave to attain any kind of social status now.

Throughout the story, Mark Twain continues to suggest that the black race is inferior to the white race in every possible way. Through fingerprint theory, he uses science to prove racial inferiority in that it is the black man who has committed the crime. That this is a result of bad, or black, blood is made clear through the characters of the two boys who were switched as babies. The black baby has always been contentious, sickly, base, and mean-spirited despite being given the best of everything that money could buy.

On the other hand, the white baby who has been treated his entire life is pleasant, strong, athletic, personable, and kind-hearted. Even this is not enough, though, as Twain makes it clear that one must also be raised white to be white since Tom is never permitted to enter into his rightful society thanks to his speech and his lacking social graces. On a final note, Twain named the book after Pudd’nhead Wilson, not even mentioning the tragedy of Tom Driscoll.

Works Cited

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson: And Those Extraordinary Twins. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1916.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson Review'. 15 September.

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