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Pudd'nhead Wilson Symbols

Instructor: Crystal Hall

Crystal has a bachelor's degree in English, a certification in General Studies, and has assisted in teaching both middle and high school English.

''Pudd'nhead Wilson,'' a novel by Mark Twain, contains various literary symbols, which represent hidden meanings, as well as the stylistic storytelling talent of one of literature's most celebrated authors.

Symbolically Speaking

Literary symbols represent meanings other than their literal definitions. They can be presented through the use of characters, objects, speech, behavior, and events; the interpretation of symbols is generally taken from the story's context.

Dramatization and Development

The story of Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson begins in 1830, but most events transpire during the 1850s in the small, secluded town of Dawson's Landing, Missouri. There are three main events in the story: the switching of two babies, the murder of Judge York Driscoll, and the revelations during the murder trial. Each crisis represents its own agendas in which the symbol's significance can be inferred by the reader.

By Mark Twain

Symbols and Representations

Mississippi River: Mark Twain uses the Mississippi River as a representation of slavery in that both are institutions of upheaval that place limitations on people. Respectively, slaves have no rights, and the river limits the contact that the people of Dawson's Landing have with the outside world. The river also symbolizes economic expansion through the trade industry.

Two babies: Roxana, known as Roxy, is a slave to Percy Driscoll and the caretaker to both her baby, Valet de Chambers, and to Percy Driscoll's baby, Tom, after Percy's wife dies after childbirth. Both babies appear so white that even Percy cannot tell the difference so Roxy switches their clothing in fear of Valet being sold and taken away from her.

Valet, believed to be Tom, is given to Percy's brother, Judge York Driscoll, after Percy's death. Tom, believing that he is Valet and a slave, carries himself in a docile manner. Valet, behaving as an arrogant, entitled person, physically abuses Tom and gambles himself into debt. Consequently, he is disinherited by Judge Driscoll.

Valet, as Tom, steals a knife from the Luigi twins and kills the judge. The irony represented by the switching of the children is that each behaves the way society has dictated that he should; the rich kid feels superior to the slave, and the slave feels as if he is beneath the rich kid.

Race: Mark Twain uses race to explore the theories of racial classifications as either moral metaphors or social constructs. By babies of different races being switched, Twain demonstrates that people of different races have no hereditary qualities that make them more likely either to behave in a civilized manner or to act subservient. The role of nature vs. Nurture is obvious in that both Tom and Valet grow into who they believe themselves to be and not who their true ancestry says they should be. In other words, behaviors are learned and not innate.

Slavery: The practice of owning slaves is also used as a symbol of corruption in this story and slave owners as people who are not as honorable as they believe themselves to be. Patronage, the undeserved privileges of the wealthy, is also represented through slavery; Valet's biological father, a member of the First Families of Virginia and a well-to-do slave owner, is part of the hypocrisy because he treats slaves as property but impregnates Roxy, who is a slave.

Character of Pudd'nhead Wilson: The personification of Attorney David Wilson as a Pudd'nhead, a person with little or no common sense, is symbolic of society's objection to change. Because he is a stranger and an attorney with views different from their own, he is considered an outcast by the town, and his law practice fails. After he proves himself to be a competent lawyer by solving the murder of Judge Driscoll, who is his neighbor, and by revealing the true identities of the switched babies, his victory is seen as a cheer for tolerance and growth in society.

Conjoined twins: From Italy, Luigi and Angelo Capello are accused of Judge Driscoll's murder, and Puddn'head proves their innocence using fingerprints. The twins symbolically represent two different human beings bound by a single physical body. There is also speculation that the dual symbolism may also represent Twain's own struggle with separate identities.

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