March 01, 2024

#08-841: Pudd'nhead Wilson

Publicity photo from a silent film version of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1916) (Wikimedia)

Note: We take for granted some of the most common "CSI"-type technology. But there was a time when fingerprint technology was unknown. This combines with a story of racial inequality to make one of Twain's more interesting novels.

Get Ready: What do you think might happen when a child is raised to believe certain things about himself, and discovers in his 20s that they just aren't true?

Mark Twain's best known novels center around the boys Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

But he in fact wrote numerous other novels, as well as short stories, essays, and travel stories. One of his better-known novels is Pudd'nhead Wilson.

The protagonist was a young lawyer who moved to the (fictional) town of Dawson's Landing, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi. Shortly after his arrival, this young man--born "David"--made a foolish remark and gained the nickname "Pudd'nhead" (meaning a foolish person), a name which followed him the rest of his life, though the town came to love his eccentricities.

One of these strange habits was that Pudd'nhead collected fingerprints. These marks were not known to be unique at the time; indeed, the first crime was solved using fingerprint technology only in 1892, in Argentina. Twain's novel was set from 1830 to the 1850s, and published in 1894, putting it on the cutting edge of criminology.

Anyway, the "crime" involved was this: twenty years before Pudd'nhead's arrival, an enslaved woman named Roxy had a son named Valet de Chambre, commonly known as "Chambers." As Roxy was only 1/16 black, Chambers--at 1/32--was very fair indeed.

At the same time he was born, Roxy's master's son was born, Tom Driscoll. When Tom's mother died, Roxy had care of both children. To ensure her son's future success and happiness, she switched the boys in the cradle, so Chambers was now Tom, and Tom was Chambers.

Time passed, and when the boys were around 20, Roxy tried to borrow money from "Tom" (actually her son). He refused, and mocked her, so she told him the truth about his birth, and blackmailed him into giving her the money.

Meanwhile, Tom's wealthy uncle was robbed and murdered. Pudd'nhead used fingerprints to prove that (a) Tom was actually Roxy's son, and (b) that he was the murderer.

Chambers went to jail, and the real Tom was restored as heir of the Driscoll estate. But having been raised enslaved, he was never quite comfortable in the role. And friends of the elder Mr. Driscoll, Tom's father, got Chambers released from prison so they could sell him, and he took up the life of an enslaved person.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. blackmailed
  2. cradle
  3. criminology
  4. eccentricities
  5. elder
  6. fair
  7. heir
  8. mocked
  9. nickname
  10. protagonist
  1. one who will get money when someone dies
  2. in this case the father
  3. accepted money to keep a secret
  4. the study of solving crimes
  5. strange behaviors
  6. made fun of
  7. the main character
  8. a name given by others
  9. a bed for a baby
  10. light-skinned

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 1, 2024

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. c; 2. i; 3. d; 4. e; 5. b; 6. j; 7. a; 8. f; 9. h; 10. g