Pudd'nhead Wilson Themes

Instructor: Damon Barta

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

This lesson will identify some major themes in Mark Twain's 1894 novel ''Puddn'head Wilson''. We will also provide a brief analysis of how each functions in a historical context.

Mark Twain at the Turn-of-the-Century

Mark Twain's Puddn'head Wilson (1894) explores issues that would become increasingly important in America as the twentieth century approached. For example, Twain depicts the profound influence of science and technology on American society, the fallacies of race, and the effects of these ideas on old notions of honor and class. Let's have a look at how Twain expresses these major themes in Puddn'head Wilson.

Influence of Science and Technology

Early on, we learn that 'Puddn'head' Wilson has an unusual hobby. He extracts and collects fingerprints. This becomes an important plot device, but it also emphasizes the emergence of a modern world where scientific advancements would produce ways to positively identify people by their physical traces. While Twain depicts such technology to debunk ideas about the innate 'inferiority' of 'negroes,' he also draws attention to certain anxieties about the rapid advancement of science and its ability to offer irrefutable evidence of a person's physical presence and to expose any misdeeds they may commit. This new technology subverts a system that privileged the 'honor' of those with high social status with one that emphasizes empirical evidence, even if it indicts someone considered 'honorable.'

Fallacies about Race

Twain also challenges notions of race as an innate set of traits with a simple plot device: he has the Driscoll's servant, Roxy, switch her 'black' child, Chambers, with the aristocratic Driscoll's 'white' child, Tom, by simply exchanging their clothing and addressing them as if they were the other. This reversal causes Chambers to become an imperious and entitled brat, while Tom, believing he is the child of a slave, behaves meekly and crudely. We can look at this as the great theory of nature vs nurture. Since the real Tom is raised as a slave, he does not act like the superior slave owner that he was born as. This reversal not only determines the behavior of the children, but even Roxy, who knows the children's 'true' identity, begins to behave as if Chambers is her superior. Twain's simple race reversal is complicated by the fact that Chambers is 'mostly' white, though, in accordance with the ideology of the time, the presence of any 'negro' blood made one a 'negro.'

Switched in the Cradle

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