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Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jan 22nd, 2022


Pudd’nhead Wilson is an American tragedy written by Mark Twain. It depicts a tragic situation within a tragic environment: slavery in the American South. It is a well-documented collection of the physical suffering also that the Afro-Americans were subject during slavery. That is the primary contribution of Arthur Pettit in his critical essay of the opera of Mark Twain. This short paper will try to resume the critical review that Anthony Pettit made to Pudd’nhead Wilson and the technique he used to analyze the tragedy. Finally we will try to take a step back and contemplate the role of literature in life and the role of critics in interpreting literature.


Arthur Pettit moves in center of its analysis the role of Roxy, the African-American slave woman. He builds his analytical model of the novel by Mark Twain trying to narrate it from the viewpoint of a woman. Immediately, the first thing that Pettit points out is the detailed description of physical suffering that the slaves endured during that era. There is an important note to be made here. As Pettit clearly points out, Mark Twain wanted his reader to give attention to the physical pain of the slaves and not focus only on the spiritual side of such situation. As Pettit states in his essay:

“In fact, no black man would ever do thework done by slaves unless he had a number of life-threatening threatshanging over his head every moment of every day.” (Pettit, 346)

But slavery is also an institution build on norms and social rules. It is quite similar to other social institution that the American South had in it at the time. As such, this institution had an effect on people’s minds and souls. Pettit points out that Twain wanted his reader to critically think about this issue. What seemed to be a normal societal situation in appearance would result in an abnormal situation if each individual goes through a process of critical analysis of the facts. Pettit points out that social institutions and norms in themselves were not good or evil, but it was the attitude people had toward them which turned them into good or evil. As such, miscegenation was not a wrong doing in itself, but the attitude of the American white men toward it was wrong. Such attitude would become the basis of an evil use of a social norm. Pettit thoroughly analyses such crime, miscegenation, of that period as presented in the novel. He notes that fact that Mark Twain had a personal deep respect of Afro-American culture despite their being enslaved. Pettit concludes his critique by stating that Mark Twain “was convinced that the greater tragedy of the South was not miscegenation, but the curse that white Southerners had placed upon it” (Pettit, 352).


Literature has been used throughout the ages as a form of alternative reality expression in various societies. Many times authors have expressed in their literature works what they could not otherwise express due to various forms of censure. In the case of Pudd’nhead Wilson Mark Twain has expressed in it what otherwise would have been difficult to be expressed in the South at the time. The role of literature criticism is to attract our attention to such viewpoints that authors have encoded in their operas.

Works Cited

Pettit, Arthur. The Black and White Curse: Miscegenation and Pudd’nhead Wilson New York: Norton Publishers, 1980.

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