Pudd'nhead Wilson

by: Mark Twain

Study Questions

1

In Pudd'nhead Wilson, is it "nature" or "nurture" that makes a person what they are? What is the role of innate qualities in what a person becomes in this novel? What is the role of environment and experiences? How might the answer to this question relate to Twain's analysis of slavery?

Twain never really answers this question. Roxy and others suggest that "Tom"'s malicious behavior is a result of something innate, in this case his racial heritage. However, "Tom" has been raised poorly, by a series of sentimental but misguided wealthy white people. Which of these factors is responsible for his personality is left a mystery. "Chambers", on the other hand, is a white man who is raised as a slave, in less-than- optimal conditions. He is a decent person. At the novel's conclusion, though, when he has been returned to his rightful position as heir, he is unable to assume the role of wealthy white man, which suggests that his upbringing and not his inborn qualities have had the greater influence on whom he has become. Twain is careful to point out the extreme circumstances behind some of Roxy's more questionable actions, which hints that perhaps he feels that the horrors of slavery, not innate personality, are the cause of her and other characters' desperate actions.

2

Roxy is one of the most intelligent characters in the book. How does her cleverness contrast with her social position? Why is she seemingly punished for it twice: when the bank fails and again at the end when she loses her son?

By making Roxy highly intelligent but unable to succeed based on her intelligence alone, Twain places the blame for her fate on the system of slavery. If Roxy were to succeed based on cleverness, Twain's readers would be forced to think that anyone can succeed in this world, and that those who do not either aren't smart enough or aren't trying hard enough. Twain wants to show that it is the constraints placed on identity, and not individual ability, that leads to success or failure for an individual. This is also the reason for the multiplicity of characters and plot lines in the book: Twain wants to make it impossible to extrapolate anything about personal characteristics from the rise or fall of any one character.

3

How does the Mississippi River function in this novel? What is its importance to the plot? What is its symbolic value?

The Mississippi is important as a symbol of constrained mobility. Characters can escape from where they are, but they can only go either "up the river" to the anonymity of the big cities or "down the river" to a place of brutality and decreased opportunity. Those like Roxy and the twins who can use the river as a conduit for constant movement often fare the best: Roxy makes a great deal of money working on riverboats and is able to use her connections on the river to escape the plantation to which she is sold, while the twins are able to make use of their celebrity without being caught by their reputation or overstaying their welcome in any one place. The Mississippi is a symbol of commerce, of mobility, and of alternate possibilities for the people of Dawson's Landing; it keeps them at once isolated from and connected to the larger world.