89 pages 2 hours read

Mark Twain

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1893

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Summary and Study Guide


The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, originally published in 1894, is a work of fiction written by American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, who lived from 1835 to 1910. Twain spent his early years in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and the river plays a large role in Pudd'nhead Wilson, as it does in Twain's more famous works, Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel is in the style of Realism, and explores themes of race, religion and morality, as well as the author's commentary on class distinctions and social structures. This summary uses the text of the Compass Circle edition for Kindle.

Plot Summary

Pudd'nhead Wilson is set in Dawson's Landing, Missouri, in the year 1830. The plot is comprised of three stories woven together. The first of these narrative threads is the story of Mr. Dave Wilson, a young lawyer from New York. Newly arrived in the town of Dawson's Landing, Wilson is branded a fool, a "pudd'nhead." The name sticks and Wilson's reputation and law practice do not improve until the end of the story, which takes place more than two decades later. The second thread is the story of Roxana, an enslaved woman who can pass as white. Roxana gives birth to a white-presenting, blonde baby boy, Valet de Chambre. On the same day, Roxana's owner, Mrs. Percy Driscoll, also gives birth to a son, whom she names Thomas à Becket Driscoll. Mrs. Driscoll dies a few days after giving birth and Roxana assumes care of her baby. When the babies are seven months old, Roxana makes a fateful decision to switch their identities and raise her own son as Thomas and the Driscoll baby as Valet de Chambre. The third narrative thread concerns twin Italian counts, Angelo and Luigi Capello, who arrive in Dawson's Landing when Thomas Driscoll and Valet de Chambre are in their early 20s.

In the Author's Notes at the end of the novel, Twain explains that Pudd'nhead Wilson began as a farcical story about Italian conjoined twins and a woman named Rowena who loved them, but as the work evolved, Twain "pulled out the farce and left the tragedy" (236), creating a novel that offers a commentary on the nature of American society during the period leading up to the Civil War, the injustice of slavery, and the complexity of the human condition.

In crafting Pudd'nhead Wilson, Twain revisited the plot from his earlier novel, The Prince and The Pauper, which was published in 1882. That book tells the story of two boys who look identical but are born into wildly different circumstances: one a prince, and the other a beggar on the street. A chance meeting allows them to exchange clothing and lives, just as Thomas à Becket Driscoll and Valet de Chambre do in Pudd'nhead Wilson. In both novels, Twain questions the accepted notion that the circumstances of birth, which are purely a matter of chance, should determine a person's future.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is an example of Realism, a movement that broke with Romantic ideals and looked to portray the world as it actually exists. Judge Driscoll and Pembroke Howard, who are motivated by old-fashioned concerns for honor and gentlemanly behavior, represent the outdated Romantic view of the world, while Tom Driscoll, who is motivated by greed and ego, represents a Realistic world. Realism also encouraged an unbiased examination of society, and the social norms of Dawson's Landing largely determine what the characters in the novel do and say, often to their detriment. Enslaved people remain uneducated, the townspeople are overly impressed by Luigi and Angelo's claims of nobility, Pudd'nhead Wilson is constrained by his reputation as a fool, and Judge Driscoll risks his life in a duel because he is a "gentleman."

Twain also uses dialect to convey the speech patterns of the enslaved class in Dawson's Landing, another tool common to works of Realism. While the use of dialect may strike the modern reader as racist and degrading, dialect was widely used in American literature of the 19th and 20th centuries, to convey class distinctions, regional accents, and colloquial expressions. This guide avoids using quotations from the original text that include racist language. 

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