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.
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.
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.
Characters in this novel assume a variety of disguises. These range from "Tom"'s passing as a white man to Roxy's dressing as a man to the dresses "Tom" uses when he's robbing houses. How does the use of literal disguises relate to the use of racial "disguises"? How does the use of disguises provide a commentary on identity? On race?
How do the excerpts from Pudd'nhead Wilson's "Calendar" fit into the text? Do they provide direct commentary? Why are they there? What previous literary work or works do they reference?
How does Twain contrast the twins, Angelo and Luigi, with the near-twins, Tom and Chambers?
Science--Pudd'nhead Wilson's fingerprinting--and public opinion or tradition are opposing forces in this novel. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Which triumphs in the end? Are the two aligned in some ways?
At a few points, as when Roxy tells "Tom" that it is his blackness that makes him a coward, Twain seems to support racist views. Choose a few of these uncomfortable moments and analyze them. Does Twain actually share some of the racist views of the townspeople, or is he simply being provocative? Why do these moments occur? How might our contemporary understanding of race be different from Twain's?
How does Dawson's Landing work as a setting? Why did Twain choose not set this novel in St. Louis or another large town? Why not set it on a plantation "down the river"?
What is the function of comedy in this text? Choose a section where farce or comedy is particularly prominent (like the anti-temperance meeting) and try to explain how it functions in the larger plot. Does comedy distract from the more serious parts of the text?