Pudd Nhead Wilson by Mark Twain Term Paper

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PUDD'NHEAD WILSON

Mark Twain was a great writer with perfect blend of wit and humor. While his work focused on the humorous aspects of every day life, he would often bring a touch of earthly wisdom to it, thus perfecting the art of story telling. Twain would often use the latest trends of his time and base a story on them in such a manner that it would give a whole new dimension to the original idea. This is what he did in Pudd'nhead Wilson too. In this novel Pudd'n head is the word used for the leading character of the novel, a man named David Wilson. While his real profession is that of a surveyor, the man is interested in other things as well such as palmistry. But for some odd reason, he becomes interested in finger marks and decides to save people's fingerprints to see each one was different from the other.

We need to understand why Twain wrote this novel. It was written way back in 1893 when slavery was still an important issue even though the Civil war had ended and with slavery had been abolished. Slavery and black community an its fears have been some of the pressing issues discussed in this novel though it was written 40 years after the Civil war. But the reason why Twain wanted to discuss these issues could be the racial segregation and discrimination that as prevailing in the United States during Reconstruction. In this paper, we shall study the novel from sociological perspective of race and how it undermines one's true worth and subjects him to inhumane treatment. Twain has shattered many stereotypes to prove that race is simply community-crafted phenomenon and it doesn't determine anyone's character or destiny. With the help of various sub-themes such as identity crisis and fingerprinting, Twain challenges many 'established lies' in connection with race.

The novel thus deals with the pertinent contemporary sociological issues while trying to expose the absurdity of prevalent definitions of race. Twain wanted to prove that race was a socially constructed phenomenon and racial differences were inherent. Nguyen (2000) writes: "The idea that races are socially constructed is an old one. Mark Twain's 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, for example, was in part about social definitions of race: "To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one-sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. "And her son, born by a white father, "was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by fiction of law and custom a Negro. He had blue eyes and flaxen curls."

The technique of fingerprinting plays an important role in addressing social problems of race and poverty in the novel. With the technique, Twain gets an opportunity to challenge the carefully constructed racial stereotypes and shows that skin color or race does not determine a person's character. When the true identities of Chambers and Tom are revealed, the two switch places and this further helps the author throw light on the issue of social stratification on the basis on race.

Chambers is not black though he is made to believe that he is a slave. Similarly "TOM" is not a white master but he roams around wearing a white mask which is where the conflict steps in. The reason Twain gave Tom's character a negative shade is because he wants readers to understand that it is important for both white and blacks to retain their identities. This may raise pertinent questions in the minds of the readers. Some may think that the reason Tom is shown as bad person is because he has black blood running in him. But it is important that we dismiss and disregard the cliched assumptions. Twain's real purpose was to highlight the importance of one's true identity.

The issue of race identity must have been a compelling problem when Twain wrote this novel. With equal rights for blacks, a major identity crisis emerged where people simply could not come to terms with the new reality in which they had been thrown in. In the concluding pat of the novel, this issue comes to light in a forceful manner when Twain comments on the uncomfortable and rather undesirable situation of the real Tom as he discovers that he was actually a white master and not a black slave. His situation is undesirable because he was now required to behave like a white master whereas all his life he had been treated like black slave boy.

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 beating, his laugh -- all were vulgar and uncouth; his manners were the manners of a slave. Money and fine clothes could not mend these defects or cover them up, they only made them the more glaring and the more pathetic." (114)

The major characters of the novel are Wilson, Roxy, Tom, Chambers, the Two twins named Luigi and Angelo and the judge, Justice Driscoll. Roxy was a slave servant who bears a child named Chambers while at the same time; a son is born to her master named Tom. Roxy is though a member of the black community but her skin color is almost white. It is only because her ancestors had been black that she is treated as a slave. This is where the complex issue of slavery and identity step in. Roxy switches her child with that of her master's because her child Chambers is white and doesn't look like a black slave. What Twain wants to discuss in the novel is the role played by one's history and ancestry, as Tom was later brought up as a slave boy while Chambers enjoyed all the luxuries and comfort.

This shows that the boys had been switched, as there was no difference in the skin of their color then the only reason why one is considered a slave and the other a master is precisely because of their ancestors. While Twain has used the technique of finger printing to create a light hearted witty story, he actually wanted to discuss some compelling contemporary issues such as slavery and race relations. This is evident from the character of Tom who was originally Chambers. The novel dwells on the idea that a person does not become good or bad because of his blood but because of the way he is brought up. In this story, Chambers who was brought up as the master's son turns out to be a cruel person who later murders his uncle when a robbery attempt was foiled. Twain describes the character of Tom in the following words,

Tom was petted and indulged and spoiled to his entire content -- or nearly that. This went on till he was nineteen, then he was sent to Yale. He went handsomely equipped with "conditions," but otherwise he was not an object of distinction there. He remained at Yale two years, and then threw up the struggle... He was as indolent as ever and showed no very strenuous desire to hunt up an occupation."

Pudd'nhead Chapter 5)

Slavery and the injustices prevailing in the society were two most dominant themes, which are to be read between the lines, as the novel on the surface is more of a witty humorous story about finger printing. The injustices and prejudice were rampant in the American society of 1890s is evident from the character of Roxy. The woman is treated as a Negro because she had a black mother even though the color of her skin as white as anyone else's. The woman…[continue]

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