Pudd’nhead Wilson was published by Mark Twain in 1894. It was written during “Mark Twain’s later, darker period… the unhappiest decade of his life” during which he lived in Europe for seven years  following multiple financial crises (Malcolm Bradbury 9). Because of Twain’s refusal to represent any absolute morality in Pudd’nhead, Leslie Fielder describes the novel as “morally… one of the most honest books in our literature, superior in this one respect to Huckleberry Finn.”

This novel grew out of Twain’s original plan to write a novel titled Those Extraordinary Twins, which would’ve focused on the Italian twins Luigi and Angelo Capello, who were originally imagined as conjoined twins. However, Twain realized that the serious narrative of Roxy, Tom, and Chambers clashed with the light farce of the twins. He also discovered that these secondary characters, along with Wilson, were becoming more central to the story than originally imagined. Twain therefore “pulled out the farce and left the tragedy” and instead wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson. 

Plot Summary

The setting is the fictional Missouri frontier town of Dawson’s Landing on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century. David Wilson, a young lawyer, moves to town and a clever remark of his is misunderstood, which causes locals to brand him a “pudd’nhead” (nitwit). His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the eyes of the townsfolk, who consider him to be eccentric and do not frequent his law practice.

“Pudd’nhead” Wilson is left in the background as the focus shifts to the slave Roxy, her son, and the family they serve. Roxy is one-sixteenth black and majority white, and her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as “Chambers”) is 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her inattentive master’s infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and are nearly sold “down the river” to a master in the Deep South, Roxy fears for her son and herself. She considers killing her boy and herself, but decides to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs to give her son a life of freedom and privilege.

The narrative moves forward two decades. Tom Driscoll (formerly Valet de Chambre), has been raised to believe that he is white and has become a spoiled aristocrat. He is a selfish and dissolute young man. Tom’s father has died and granted Roxy her freedom in his will. She worked for a time on river boats, and saved money for her retirement. When she finally is able to retire, she discovers that her bank has failed and all of her savings are gone. She returns to Dawson’s Landing to ask for money from Tom.

Tom responds to Roxy with derision. She tells him the truth about his ancestry and that he is her son and partially black; she blackmails him into financially supporting her.

Twin Italian noblemen visit Dawson’s Landing to some fanfare, and Tom quarrels with one. Desperate for money, Tom robs and murders his wealthy uncle and the blame falls wrongly on one of the Italians. From that point, the novel proceeds as a crime novel. In a courtroom scene, the whole mystery is solved when Wilson demonstrates, through fingerprints, both that Tom is the murderer, and not the true Driscoll heir.

Although the real Tom Driscoll is restored to his rights, his life changes for the worse. Having been raised as a slave, he feels intense unease in white society. At the same time, as a white man, he is essentially excluded from the company of blacks.

In a final twist, the creditors of Tom’s father’s estate successfully petition the governor to have Tom’s (Chambers) prison sentence overturned. Shown to be born to a slave mother, he is classified as a slave and is legally included among the property assets of the estate. He is sold “downriver”, helping the creditors recoup their losses. 1

Notes & Quotes

  • There are many doubles throughout the novel and its history. First, Twain discovered that there were two novels (the farce about the conjoined Italian twins and the tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson); there are the two men- Chambers and Tom- who were switched in their infancy; there are the Italian twins, Luigi and Angelo; and, finally, there are the two inner selves that exist within both Tom and Chambers, one black and one white. Doubles are a basic feature of the gothic mode.
  • Perhaps more interesting than the presence of doubles is Twain’s use of destabilized selves, a familiar feature of the specifically American gothic. After discovering that he is actually the son of Roxy and therefore a black slave rather than a white heir, his understanding of his self is thrown into confusion: “If he met a friend, he found that the habit of a lifetime had in some mysterious way vanished- his arm hung limp, instead of involuntarily extending the hand for a shake. It was the ‘n***er’ in him asserting its humility, and he blushed and was abashed… the ‘n***er’ in him made an embarrassed excuse and was afraid to enter and sit with the dread white folks on equal terms…Tom imagined that his character had undergone a pretty radical change. But that was because he did not know himself. In several ways his opinions were totally changed, and would never go back to what they were before, but the main structure of his character was not changed and could not be changed” (118-9). Similarly, once Chambers discovers that he is actually Tom (not a black slave but a white heir), he has a difficult time becoming his new self: “The real heir suddenly found himself rich and free, but in a most embarrassing situation. He could neither read nor write, and his speech was the basest dialect of the negro quarter. His gait, his attitudes, his gestures, his bearing, his laugh- all were vulgar and uncouth; his manners were the manners of a slave. Money and fine clothes could not mend those defects or cover them up, they only made them the more glaring and the more pathetic. The poor fellow could not endure the terrors of the white man’s parlor, and felt at home and at peace nowhere but in the kitchen. The family pew was a misery to him, yet he could nevermore enter into the solacing refuge of the ‘n***er gallery’- that was closed to him for good and all” (225). Not only is Twain using these characters to show that morality and identity is socially constructed rather than natural, but he is also building two common fears of 19th century American life into his narrative: (1) The fear of the confidence man. Tom (born Chambers) is not only an artifice of his self, but he also dons numerous disguises (including that of a woman) throughout the novel and repeatedly manages to cheat and steal his way out of his gambling debts. The confidence man was a terrifying prospect to early America because of his ability to pervade American democratic life and infect innocent generations with his vile immorality. (2) The fear of the destabilized self. Both Tom and Chambers experience a total reversal of identity and experience a divided self (i.e.: when Tom grapples with his inner ‘n****r’). Even when Chambers discovers that he is actually Tom, and therefore gains a positive reversal of his fortune and liberty, it is terrifying in his sudden social dislocation and inability to know himself. These selves were destroyed not by some supernatural force nor by the sudden realization that they were not who they thought they were; rather, they were destroyed and refused by an American society that allowed institutions like slavery and racial surveillance to exist.
  • This brings me to my next note. In his introduction to Pudd’nhead Wilson, Bradbury states that Leslie Fiedler labeled the novel “an anti-detective story- it has a plot that turns on detection, but the denouement of the mystery leaves us not with the usual sense of communal innocence, but rather with a feeling of universal exposure. What were are exposed to is an experience of the world in which the fatalities of life totally overshadow our character and our claims to personal identity, moral independence, and social meaning” (27).
  • Finally, there is a local haunted house in Pudd’nhead Wilson that is vital to the plot, as it is where Roxy and Tom (born Chambers) hold secret meetings and where Tom (Chambers) discovers his true ancestry and identity. This allows for the repressed truth to fully return and destabilize Tom (Chambers). It is also the site where plans are laid by Roxy for Tom to financially support her and “aveng(ing) their crimes against her race” (82).

This was a two-storey log house which had acquired the reputation a few years before of being haunted, and that was the end of its usefulness. Nobody would live in it afterward, or go near it by night, and most people even gave it a wide berth in the daytime. As it had no competition, it was called the haunted house. It was getting crazy and ruinous, now, from long neglect. (111)

  1. Plot summary from Wikipedia.

Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.