Mark Twain's Pudd Nhead Wilson Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson," by Mark Twain. Specifically, it will trace the different types of irony that Twain used in the book. What are they, and why did Twain use them? Twain's use of irony throughout Pudd'nhead Wilson vividly illustrates Twain's feelings on race, religion, and small town America, and helps bring his characters to life.


Be virtuous, and you will be eccentric." - Mark Twain

The story of Pudd'nhead Wilson seems simple enough at first glance. David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson comes to the small town of Dawson's Landing to begin a career as an attorney, but the townspeople do not understand him, or his sense of humor, and they ostracize him. He does not get work as an attorney, and has to take odd jobs around town. He has an interest in fingerprinting, and studies that in his off time.

Dawson's Landing is an idyllic town, "it was a snug little collection of modest one -- and two-storey frame dwellings whose whitewashed exteriors were almost concealed from sight by climbing tangles of rose-vines, honeysuckles, and morning-glories" (Twain 5), except it is a town that allows slavery. Roxy is a slave woman who lives in town, works for a prominent family, the Driscolls, and looks white. She gives birth to a child who is one-sixteenth black, and can pass for white. She trades her child with her master's child, who was born on the same day. Her child is now called "Tom," and she raises her master's son as a black child, who is now called "Chambers." She knows that her son will be raised as white, and have a better life than she could give him.

The central themes of the book are evident from the start of the novel, and they are anything but simple. The action all takes place in this small town, where newcomers are not welcome.

When the reader is first introduced to the world of Dawson's Landing, everything appears to be in order and everyone is carefully controlled: women are firmly deposited in their "sphere," African-Americans know their "place," and the upper class treats the lower strata of society with benign neglect (Skandera-Trombley).

Immediately we see Twain's views on slavery, and ironies that still existed after the emancipation of slaves at the end of the Civil War. Twain wrote this book in the 1890s, when slavery had been outlawed for over thirty years. He set it in the 1830s, when it was still legal, to show that even though slaves were free, nothing much had changed. Blacks were still treated as second-class citizens, not much differently than he portrays them in the novel.

Even though Tom is raised as a member of the Driscoll family with every advantage, he does not turn out well. He begins a life of robbing houses to pay back gambling debts he owes. In another ironic twist, the gambling debt he owes, $200, is enough to buy his own "nigger," and his mother Roxy is stunned. "Now the irony, indeed the wit, here lies in the fact that the $200 Tom has gambled away are $200 he would fetch, being himself 'a tollable good second-hand nigger' (Jehlen 115). He ends up killing his own uncle, Judge Driscoll, in a botched robbery attempt. He uses the Italian twins' knife to kill the man, and the twins are discovered with the knife, so the townspeople believe they killed the judge. Wilson defends them, and discovers fingerprints that lead to Tom. He also discovers that Tom is really Chambers, and that he is really Roxy's son by comparing fingerprints he has taken throughout the years. "But his enjoyment was brief. He stared a considerable time at the three strips, and seemed stupefied with astonishment. At last he put them down and said: 'I can't make it out at all. Hang it! The baby's don't tally with the others!'" (Twain 131). Chambers is found guilty of the murder, and the real Tom takes his place in the plantation owner's family, but he has been raised as a black child, with black language and mannerisms, and he does not fit in either world now.

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 (Twain 144).

The twins are two Italians who come to Dawson's Landing, and try to settle down. Of course, the gossips in town are at first enthralled. "Italians! How romantic! Just think, ma -- there's never been one in this town, and everybody will be dying to see them, and they're all ours! Think of that!'" (Twain 33). They claim they are related to noblemen, but they tell Wilson that they once killed a man who tried to steal their beautiful knife. Tom steals their knife, and kills the judge with it. After the trial, they leave the town.

After the trial, Pudd'nhead is considered a successful lawyer and the townspeople finally respect him. "Troop after troop of citizens came to serenade Wilson, and require a speech, and shout themselves hoarse over every sentence that fell from his lips -- for all his sentences were golden now, all were marvellous" (Twain 143). He is elected mayor of the town, but his friends are all gone, and he has no one with which to enjoy his success. "And this is the man the likes of us have called a pudd'nhead for more than twenty years. He has resigned from that position, friends. Yes, but it isn't vacant -- we're elected" (Twain 166).

Twain's views come out clearly in this novel, and he uses heavy irony to make sure the reader is aware of what he is trying to say. "The deepest iron in the irony of this book is the iron plot in which Mark Twain contains the action. Far from being the slave and fool of a narrative current beyond his control, as he claims in his authorial account, Mark Twain visibly rigs every move" (Cox 18). The town of Dawson's Landing is a "perfect" town, with charming white houses, surrounded by picket fences. Ironically, the people are not as perfect as their town. They ridicule Wilson when he first comes to town because he makes a funny remark about a dog, and from then on, he has a reputation of a "fool, or a pudd'nhead," that he cannot live down.

Twain is showing the inhumanity of man, as well as how people make assumptions about someone, without even knowing them. Wilson is a sympathetic character because he is a good man, and the citizens treat him very poorly, almost as poorly as they treat the Blacks, who they threaten with "selling down the river" if they do not behave. Politics play a large part in the relations in a small town, and Wilson got started off on the wrong foot right away. His politics were not in order, and so he paid the price. The irony here sets the pace for the use of irony throughout the entire novel. Dawson's Landing is introduced on the first page of the book, and is the strong setting for the entire novel. If the people of the town are ironic, then certainly everything that happens in the town will reflect this irony, and the actions are indeed ironic. There is a black person mixed up with a white person, people who speak of Christianity, but gossip about people behind their backs and keep slaves, and a good and decent man ostracized by the community. All of these replicate the irony of the town itself, and the inhabitants.

The villagers, exemplified by Aunt Patsy Cooper, Aunt Betsy Hale, and Rowena -- the "lightweight heroine" whom Mark Twain described as stupid, irritating, and "nauseatingly sentimental " -- were to demonstrate the curiosity, the envy, and the jealousy of the village while showing its reaction to foreigners and to freaks (Bellamy 303).

The community is full of gossips that spread rumors about anyone and everyone. No one is safe from their speculations, and this is the politics of a small town, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Twain shows these people as petty and self-serving, so he shows us how he really feels about busybodies and gossips.

Best of all, he had taken the hated twins down a peg with the community; for Blake would gossip around freely, after the manner of detectives, and within a week the town would be laughing at them in its sleeve for offering a gaudy reward for a bauble which they either never possessed or hadn't lost. Tom was very Well satisfied with himself (Twain 98-99).

At the core of the book is the switching of the two babies. One is raised white, when he would be…

Cite This Term Paper:

"Mark Twain's Pudd Nhead Wilson" (2002, November 19) Retrieved January 16, 2018, from

"Mark Twain's Pudd Nhead Wilson" 19 November 2002. Web.16 January. 2018. <>

"Mark Twain's Pudd Nhead Wilson", 19 November 2002, Accessed.16 January. 2018,