Racial Devaluation in Pudd’nhead Wilson

Realism:  Racial Devaluation in Pudd’nhead Wilson

Literary realism is, using its best and simplest definition, a technique in which writers use every-day life, not a “romanticized” version of life, as the background for their work.  Often depicting characters, setting, and theme in a stark matter-of-factness, realism became popularized during the period of time between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I.  Mark Twain is regarded as one of the most influential American realists because his novels contained strong and identifiable characters, offered unfiltered views into complex societal issues of the day, and did not pretend to portray a scenario or a culture in any light other than what was “real”.  Twain’s 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson takes a hard edge on the issues of race and slavery, using these strong characters and naked insight to illustrate the hypocrisy of both issues.  And in doing so, Twain hits his reader with the sturdy realization that these cultural elements (slavery and the social implications of race in general) exist to de-value certain human beings and deny them their individual liberties and freedoms.

In studying this particular novel, two main elements of literary realism comprise its analysis:  1) character and the development of character play a much more crucial role in Pudd’nhead than plot or action, and 2) by indirectly exposing the indecencies of slavery, Twain reveals the hypocrisy attached to it.  By interpreting these two elements and how they establish Twain’s commentary on slavery, we can gain a more complete understanding of race, its implications in 19th century America, and the social injustice it represented.

 In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain has created such buoyant characters as Roxy and Tom, and developed them to such an extent, that the story’s plot becomes merely an elemental and minor extension of the characters.  This is to say that the plot depends on and results from the “roundness” of their characters, especially given the fact that they are not 100% white – despite their outward appearance.  Of Roxy, Twain writes “…one sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show…her complexion was very fair” (Twain 12).  This is true even against the point of action in the novel.  For example, Tom’s behavior throughout, his significant personal traits – such as being a “bad baby”, a “usurper”, and “fractious and overbearing” (Twain 22-24) – all foreshadow his later actions as an adult.  They carry throughout the novel, much like Roxy’s maternal and sometimes selfish characteristics, which do more to create divisiveness in terms of race than they do to provide any positive results.  Even David Wilson’s character, the unwavering horizontal evenness of it, shows us much more than the plot does.  Despite the eventual change in the town’s perception of him (going in their eyes from a “dam fool” (Twain 9) to receiving a “deafening explosion of applause” (139) and the mayorship of the town), he remains the same entirely. 

The illustration here brings up this initial point:  How does the “element of character” trump that of action or plot in relation to the race issue?  Simply put, Twain introduces us to the idea that humans are a product of their environment much more than they are their biology.  The Driscolls are shown to be “respected, esteemed, and beloved” (Twain 7), while the non-white characters are given traits such as “meek” and “humble” (Twain 13).  Ambiguous patterns of speech and dialect are also assigned to the black characters; even in the case of the switched (and white) Chambers.  With him, despite his white biological heritage, he has every attribute of the slave (language, dress, social status, etc).  Such character development is important because it supersedes, or yet defines, why certain actions take place.  For example, Roxy switches the babies out of fear of being sold “down de river now” (Twain 19).  A white character in the same time and place would not have these same fears.  To contrast, Tom grows up in a life of privilege and honor – not because of his blood (which is 1/32 black – but because he is the perceived heir to the Driscoll fortune.  Nothing portrays his blackness to the town, which is yet another way Twain establishes the marked differences between the races in 1850 Missouri.  To be black in this culture was to be denigrated, glory-less, and a “nigger”  (Twain 27). 

As the plot progresses, and the eventual secret of the boys’ races is revealed, an analytical reader will notice that without the racial aspect of the story, the plot wouldn’t hold up as interesting prose.  Here it is also important to note that neither of the black characters in the novel is 100% black.  As a matter of fact, they both look white (each having only a fraction of black blood in them), which makes this social division stand out even greater against the culture of the day.  In other words, from Dawson’s Landing’s point of view, despite their outer white appearance, they must be treated in the exact same segregated manner that a person of complete “blackness” must be treated.  As Harryette Mullen points out in her essay Optic White:  Blackness and the Production of Whiteness, “…whiteness is produced through the operation of marginalizing blackness (Mullen 74).  This is very much the case in Twain’s commentary; as the town, its prominent citizens, and even the slave characters are part of (in Mullen’s words), “…a race-class-gender system that inexorably reduces individuals to their functions within an economic mode of production (Mullen 71-72). 

In terms of how Twain used Pudd’nhead as an indictment of slavery and its flaws, there are several themes running through the novel that point to this.  His use of irony, for example, in how Roxy deals with “protecting” her son, is a strong illustration.  Despite her best efforts, well-laid plans, and careful maneuvering, the culture of the time still wins out.  Tom is still “sold down de river” in the end, and denied by the town-folk because of his fractious blackness.  It mattered not to them that his biological father was the esteemed Cecil Burleigh Essex of the “highest quality” (Twain 55).  This example is perhaps irony at its best:  the depiction of a willful and determined attempt (Roxy’s switching of the infants) to rise above what is granted an individual by birth.  From a reciprocal standpoint, her attempt doomed the rightful heir to a station in life below his birthright.  This in itself shows the extreme dichotomy race represented in this era.  As Twain introduces us to the Italian twins, we once again see the town’s perception that the brothers are property, squelching the ideal of liberty:  “…Italians, how romantic…and they’re all ours!” (Twain 33).  Their inclusion in the narrative serves to show that injustice and certain prejudices were evident in all aspects of life at this particular time and place.  That Luigi Capello was found innocent of murder (despite initial perceptions) reinforces the realistic element of hypocrisy being exposed. 

Another example of how Twain indicts the establishment of slavery is found in the title character of David “Pudd’nhead” Wilson.  Perhaps it does not reconcile itself perfectly in the slavery debate, but his part in the story reveals societal prejudices and how they can “label” an individual despite what is true.  As the novel climaxes with Wilson’s triumph and election as the town’s mayor, we are reminded that he was written off by the citizens 25 years earlier as the most “downrightest fool in the world (Twain 8).  His character shows us that a person can, and often does, vertically progress up the ladder of social standing.  To the slaves of that era, this was an impossible progression, their fate being decided by the mere color of their skin and their “misfortune” of it being dark.  Wilson also represents the element characterized in realist literature of human beings controlling their own destiny.  As mentioned before, his character remained true to himself the entire story, and even though it took 25 years for society to realize his un-Pudd’nhead-like qualities, the truth eventually was revealed.  The hypocrisy here should reveal itself plainly, and Twain’s mastery at character development illustrates it well.  David Wilson represents the initial narrow-mindedness of the era, and the fact that everything is not as it seems on the outer surface.  As Twain provides this descriptive piece of prose “…for all his (Wilson’s) sentences were golden now, all were marvelous…he was a made man for good” (Twain 143), we see the turn-around in perception, the realistic aspect that the truth will come out, and the illustration that discrimination of any kind is undesirable and must be eradicated.

To conclude a study such as this is to reveal a number of things that tie in specifically with the racial overtones of Pudd’nhead Wilson.  It is indeed a “stinging indictment of a legal tradition (slavery)” (Mullen 71), one represented with strong, round characters which shape the novel in spite of plot.  In any discussion of the question as to how the realist Twain exposes this injustice, we are reminded of the concept of ideology; one that Barbara Fields encapsulates in her essay Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.  Fields writes, and this is as relevant to the study of Pudd’nhead as anything so far in terms of context, that “…ideology is impossible for anyone to analyze rationally who remains trapped on its terrain” (Fields 100).  The citizens and culture of Dawson’s Landing were trapped in this terrain, partly because of what Mullen called the “legal tradition” mentioned earlier, but also in part because of their racial ignorance and intemperance.  Thus, Twain’s commentary and exposition of slavery and all of its ugliness is complete.  His main characters, by no means black in appearance, are developed to illustrate the deep racism that existed in the mid-19th century.  By using the realist elements of this character development and his indirect “shots” at what was considered status quo, Twain created a work that some claim to be his first “real” novel, and one in which the slavery as a “flawed construct of culture” is laid bare.  Fields perhaps balances the entire race debate with this well versed explanation – “…although it is now frowned upon to attribute biological disability to those designated to be a race, it is eminently fashionable to attribute biological disability…to those demonstrated to be racists” (Fields 117).  In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain rips into the establishment of slavery, and writes a relevant novel pointing out its injustices, social mutations, and its lasting implications.

Works Cited

Fields, Barbara Jeanne. “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review May/June 1990: 95-118.

Mullen, Harryette. “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness.” diacritics Summer-Fall 1994: 71-89.

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Other Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009.


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