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Pudd'nhead Wilson: Summary, Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will provide a summary of Mark Twain's novel 'Pudd'nhead Wilson' (1894). We will look at some quotes from the text and offer a brief analysis of its historical context.

Pudd'nhead Wilson

Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson tells a story of children switched in the cradle, a newcomer with an unusual hobby, and a crime drama. Like much of Twain's work, his odd plots and characters tell us much about the peculiarities of American society in the late nineteenth century and ridicule the flawed logic of racial and class hierarchies in his society. Let's walk through the novel and look at some of the observations it makes about these issues.

Switched in the Cradle
Switched in the Cradle

Summary

Pudd'nhead Wilson begins by describing the slaveholding Missouri town of Dawson's Landing in 1830 and introduces us to its 'chief citizen,' the wealthy and respected York Driscoll, a judge whose 'only religion' was to be 'a gentleman without stain or blemish.' While he and his wife are childless, his brother Percy, has a child, born on the same day as that of his slave, Roxana. Percy's wife dies shortly thereafter. Roxana, or Roxy, must then care for both of the children.

That same month, a man named David Wilson moves to Dawson's Landing. Although he is educated and intelligent, he earns the nickname 'Pudd'nhead' from some townspeople that misinterpret his philosophical comments about 'half a dog' as moronic. Wilson sets up a law practice, but it is unsuccessful. He devotes most of his time to his hobbies: collecting fingerprints and writing his almanac.

Meanwhile, Roxy realizes that her son could be sold down the river by Percy Driscoll and fears for his future. She also notices that Percy cannot distinguish between her son and his own, as they both appear 'white.' She decides to switch the children's' clothes and cradles so that her child, Valet de Chambers takes the place of the other, Tom Driscoll. They are raised as if one were the other. Even Roxy finds that she is deferential towards Valet now that he is considered 'white.' As Twain puts it, Roxy 'saw herself sink from the sublime height of motherhood to the somber depths of unmodified slavery, the abyss of separation between her and her boy was complete.'

Percy dies, which frees Roxy. The children are given to Judge Driscoll. Valet, who the judge believes is Tom, is cruel and irresponsible. He beats the real Tom and gambles himself into debt. The judge disinherits him for his behavior, but then restores him with his promise that he will no longer gamble. He does it again and 'Tom' fears being disinherited again, so he kills the judge with a knife he has stolen. Luigi and Angelo Capello, two twins from Italy arrive in Dawson's Landing and board with a local widow and her daughter. They are very popular with the townspeople until they are accused of murdering Judge Driscoll.

At the trial, Wilson's fingerprint collection demonstrates both the innocence of the Capello twins and Valet's true identity. We also discover that Valet's father was Colonel Essex who, like the Drsicolls, is of the First Families of Virginia. When 'Tom' is discovered to be Valet, 'Everybody granted that if 'Tom' were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him - it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life - that was quite another matter. As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river.'

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