Why is Pudd'nhead Wilson a Tragedy?

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'' is a book written by Mark Twain in which several catastrophes join forces to create colossal tragedy for the small town of Dawson's Landing, Missouri.

To Laugh or To Cry?

A literary tragedy involves a succession of misfortunes that carry catastrophic consequences. Puddn'head Wilson exemplifies such a description. In fact, the book was originally published in 1894 as The Tragedy of Puddn'head Wilson and the Comedy of Those Extraordinary Twins.

A novel's tragedy usually occurs in five stages: contentment, establishment of a complication, escalation, helplessness, and a disastrous ending. In the town of Dawson's Landing, this particular timeline can be followed from beginning to end, although there are numerous problems leading up to the conclusion as opposed to an individual dilemma.

Tragedy Timeline

Peace of Mind: The town of Dawson's Landing is small and secluded, populated with people who are quite happy with their daily routines. The general consensus is that normal is nice and everyone is perfectly satisfied in keeping life just as it is.

Disruptions and difficulties: There are all sorts of unsettling events that shake the foundations of Dawson's Landing, beginning with the death of Percy Driscoll's wife after childbirth. This leaves Percy's slave, Roxy, to care for both her own baby, Valet de Chambers, and Percy's newborn son, Tom.

The arrival of Attorney David Wilson happens next. His thoughts and opinions are very different from the folks of Dawson's Landing so they immediately dismiss him as a ''Pudd'nhead'', a person with a soft, useless mind. Wilson is so outcast by the town that his law practices closes due to lack of clients.

Two new people arrive in town and are immediately popular. Luigi and Angelo Capello, conjoined twins, are adored by everyone in Dawson's Landing because they are viewed as a novelty and not as an intrusion.

Since both her son and Percy's son are light-skinned, Roxy exchanges their clothing to prevent her son from being sold. This results in Tom taking Valet's place to grow up in a subservient manner while Valet, usurping Tom's role turns into a spoiled, abusive criminal. After Percy's death his brother, Judge Driscoll, is given custody of Tom, who is really Valet, and disinherits him due to his rebellious behavior.

Escalation: Tension in the town swells as Judge Driscoll is murdered with a knife belonging to the Capello twins. The idea these two beloved men could be capable of such a heinous crime is inconceivable. However, Luigi and Angelo are without defense until Pudd'nhead Wilson comes to their rescue.

Powerlessness: Both the town and the Capello twins feel helpless in their current situation. The brothers know they are innocent of murder but the town's population is bewildered and reduced to playing the waiting game.

Sorrowful ending: As a collector of fingerprints, Pudd'nhead Wilson uses his legal and forensic skills in order to solve the murder of Judge Driscoll, whose killer is determined to be Tom. Pudd'nhead also proves that Tom Driscoll is actually Valet de Chambers and that Valet's biological father is a wealthy slave owner and a prominent member of society.

The Ultimate Tragedy

While Pudd'nhead Wilson's victory in court is to be commended, a stigmatic cloud still hangs over the people of Dawson's Landing. The day is darkened by the remaining fact that although justice has been served in the murder of Judge Driscoll, nothing else in the town has truly changed.

Despite her efforts, Roxy loses her son. The judge remains dead and Pudd'nhead, although having proven himself a competent attorney, will always be considered a bit of an oddball. Slaves are still seen as property with their only value lying in their service to their owners.

Such narrow-minded, inhumane beliefs are the downfall of what could have been a success story. The fact no one learned to value every human being, regardless of race or differences and learn to behave differently is the ultimate tragedy of the story of Pudd'nhead Wilson.

Lesson Summary

Mark Twain's novel, Pudd'nhead Wilson, is classified as a literary tragedy because of its adherence to the five elements of a tragic timeline: peace of mind, disruption and difficulties, escalation, powerlessness, and a sorrowful ending.

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