Pudd'nhead Wilson

For the film adaptation, see Pudd'nhead Wilson (film).
Pudd'nhead Wilson

First edition
Author Mark Twain
Country United States of America
Language English
Genre Humor, satire, alternate history, science fiction, fantasy
Publisher Charles L. Webster & Company
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
Pages 337 pp

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a novel by Mark Twain. It was serialized in The Century Magazine (1893–4), before being published as a novel in 1894.[1]


The setting is the fictional Missouri frontier town of Dawson's Landing on the banks of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century. David Wilson, a young lawyer, moves to town and a clever remark of his is misunderstood, which causes locals to brand him a "pudd'nhead")—a nitwit. His hobby of collecting fingerprints does not raise his standing in the townsfolk's eyes, who see him as an eccentric and do not frequent his law practice.

Pudd'nhead Wilson moves into the background as the focus shifts to the slave Roxy, her son, and the family they serve. Roxy is only one-sixteenth black, and her son Valet de Chambre (referred to as "Chambers") is only 1/32 black. Roxy is principally charged with caring for her inattentive master's infant son Tom Driscoll, who is the same age as her own son. After fellow slaves are caught stealing and are nearly sold "down the river", to a master further south, Roxy fears for her life and the life of her son. First she decides to kill herself and Chambers to avoid being sold down the river, but then decides instead to switch Chambers and Tom in their cribs so that her son will live a life of privilege.

The narrative moves forward two decades, and Tom Driscoll (formerly Valet de Chambre), believing himself to be wholly white and raised as a spoiled aristocrat, has grown to be a selfish and dissolute young man. Tom's father has died and granted Roxy her freedom. Roxy worked for a time on river boats, and saved money for her retirement. When she finally is able to retire, she discovers that her bank has failed and all of her savings are gone. She returns to Dawson's Landing to ask for money from Tom.

Tom meets Roxy with derision and Roxy tells him that he is her son, and uses this fact to blackmail him into financially supporting her.

Twin Italian noblemen visit the town to some fanfare, and Tom quarrels with one. Then at last, desperate for money, Tom robs and murders his wealthy uncle and the blame falls wrongly on one of the Italians. Thereafter the story takes on the form of a crime novel. In a courtroom scene, the whole mystery is solved when Wilson demonstrates, through fingerprints, that Tom is both the murderer, and not the real Driscoll heir.

The book ends in bitter irony. Although the real Tom Driscoll is restored to his rights, his life changes for the worse, for having been raised a slave, he feels intense unease in white society, while as a white man he is forever excluded from the company of blacks.

In a final twist, the murdered man's creditors successfully petition the governor to have Tom's death sentence overturned. Now that he is shown to be black, he is a slave, and as such, is rightfully their property. His sale "down the river" helps them recoup their losses.

Major themes

Mark Twain's satire humorously and pointedly lambasts everything from small-town politics and religious beliefs to slavery and racism.[2]

Irony and small-town life

David Wilson makes a joke that is misunderstood by the townsfolk of Dawson's Landing, who take Wilson's words literally and deem the subtle, intelligent Wilson a simpleton.[2] Word of the joke spreads quickly and David Wilson later becomes "Pudd'nhead" for being a fool in the eyes of the townspeople.

Racism and nature vs. nurture

The hypocrisies of racism in antebellum Missouri are directed to phenotypically white people with traces of African ancestry. Along with how nature and nurture are displayed as Roxy switches baby Chambers with baby Tom, it doesn't matter that the new Tom is 1/32 non-white; he is raised FFV (by one of the well-respected First Families of Virginia)—and grows up corrupt, self-interested, and distasteful.[2]

Technology and subversion

Technological innovation and the subversion of expectations form plot twists via the novel's unique inclusion of fingerprinting. "The reader knows from the beginning who committed the murder, and the story foreshadows how the crime will be solved. The circumstances of the denouement, however, possessed in its time great novelty, for fingerprinting had not then come into official use in crime detection in the United States. Even a man who fooled around with it as a hobby was thought to be a simpleton, a 'pudd'nhead'." (From Langston Hughes' introduction to the novel)



Roxana is a slave, originally owned by Percy Driscoll and freed upon his death. Roxy is only 116 black, and with her fair complexion, brown eyes and straight brown hair, could easily pass for white based on appearance alone. However, due to societal conventions, she is considered black, and she herself considers herself black, speaking the dialect of slaves in the antebellum South. She is the mother of Valet de Chambre and acts as nanny to Thomas Driscoll. Due to her son's light skin and Percy Driscoll's inattention as father, she is able to switch the children's identities as infants, thus guaranteeing an upper-class upbringing for her own son.

Thomas "Tom" Driscoll

Thomas à Becket Driscoll is the son of Percy Driscoll. Tom is switched with Roxy's baby Chambers when he is only a few months old, and is called "Chambers" from then on. Chambers is raised as a slave and is purchased by Judge Driscoll, childless and sad, when the judge's brother Percy dies, to prevent "Tom" from selling him "down the river". Chambers is a decent young man who is often forced to fight bullies for Tom. He is kind and always respectful towards Tom but receives brutal hate from his master. Raised as a black man, he speaks in the black dialect spoken during slavery.


Valet de Chambre is Roxy's son. Chambers is 132 black, and as Roxy's son, was born into slavery. At a young age he is switched by his mother with Thomas à Becket Driscoll, a white child of similar age born into an aristocratic family in the small town. From then on he is known as "Tom", and is raised as the white heir to a large estate. Tom, the focus of the novel, is spoiled, cruel and wicked. In his early years he has an intense hate for Chambers even though Chambers protected Tom and saved his life on numerous occasions. Tom's feelings and attitude portray him as the embodiment of human folly. His weakness for gambling leads him into debt, and his uncle (and adoptive father) Judge Driscoll, frequently disinherits him, only to rewrite his will yet again.

The Capello Twins

Luigi and Angelo Capello, a set of near-identical twins, appear in Dawson's Landing in reply to an ad placed by Aunt Patsy, who is looking for a boarder. They say they are looking to relax after years of traveling the world. They claim to be the children of an Italian nobleman who was forced to flee Italy with his wife after a revolution. He died soon afterwards, followed by his wife. One of the twins is said to have killed a man, and thus develops the reputation as a killer. One of the twins kicks Tom because he made a joke about him at a town meeting, and as a result Tom's uncle challenges Luigi to a duel.

David "Pudd'nhead" Wilson

Wilson is a lawyer who came to Dawson's Landing to practice law, only to find himself unable to set up a profitable law practice due to the townsfolk's low opinion of his intelligence and common sense. He nevertheless settles down to a comfortable life in the town, acting as a bookkeeper and pursuing his hobby of collecting fingerprints. Although the title character, he remains in the background of the novel until he becomes prominent in the final chapters.

Those Extraordinary Twins

The characters of Luigi and Angelo Capello were originally envisioned by Twain as conjoined twins, modeled after the actual late-19th century Italian conjoined twins Giovanni and Giacomo Tocci. They were to be the central characters and the novel was to be titled Those Extraordinary Twins.

During the writing process, however, Twain realized that secondary characters such as Pudd'nhead Wilson, Roxy, and Tom Driscoll were taking a more central role in the story than he had envisioned. More importantly, he found that the serious tone of the story of Roxy and Tom clashed unpleasantly with the light tone of the twins' story. As he explains in the introduction to "Those Extraordinary Twins":

The defect turned out to be the one already spoken of  two stories on one, a farce and a tragedy. So I pulled out the farce and left the tragedy. This left the original team in, but only as mere names, not as characters.

The characters of Luigi and Angelo remain in Pudd'nhead Wilson, as twins with separate bodies. Twain was not thorough in his separation of the twins, and there are hints in the final version of their conjoined origin, such as the fact that they were their parents' "only child", they sleep together, they play piano together, and they had an early career as sideshow performers.

"Those Extraordinary Twins" was published as a short story, with glosses inserted into the text where the narrative was either unfinished or would have duplicated parts of Pudd'nhead Wilson.


A movie in 1916 and a made-for-TV movie in 1984 were based on the book.

In The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., an episode ("Brisco for the Defense") is loosely based on the novel. The novel is also featured in the episode as the inspiration for the final twist, though anachronistically – the episode takes place in 1893, a year before the book was published in the novel form in which it is seen in the episode.

See also

Notes and references

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Mark Twain
  1. 1 2 The Tragedy of_ Pudd'nhead Wilson and The Comedy, Those Extraordinary Twins.djvu "Facsimile of the first edition" Check |url= value (help). Retrieved November 30, 2016 via Wikimedia Commons.
  2. 1 2 3 Podgorski, Daniel (November 17, 2015). "Nature, Nurture, Nightmare: On Mark Twain's Other Ironic Masterpiece, Pudd'nhead Wilson". The Gemsbok. Retrieved November 30, 2016.
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