Pudd’nhead Wilson and the impossibility of an autonomous identity

"A Most Embarrassing Circumstance"

Essay, 2014

5 Pages, Grade: A


Published in November 1894 when “the death rattle of reconstruction” (Ross “Virtuous Mess: A Study of Racial Identity in Pudd'nhead Wilson”) echoed throughout America. Mark Twain explores a land ravaged by racial turmoil in Pudd'nhead Wilson. The construction of race and the effect of the environment on the individual by swapping two nearly identical infants, one "white" and the other "black." Though slavery had been supposedly abolished for three decades, for blacks freedom was still far from a privilege. The greatest men in American history Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther dreamed then same dream, the dream of a democratic nation. American Political history tells us that from beneath the pains of their heart at the loss of President Lincoln the black people had to deal with the murder of any hope they had left. For, it was immediately after the assassination of Lincoln that the rights of former slaves were restricted.

In the prevailing years, several laws to promote racial equality were passed, but the mindset of the white Americans never changed. While the nation’s government attempted to give blacks a purely American identity, militant members of society sheltered the racial divide. Twain found himself, during the last decades of his life, in a perplexing time in American history. His confusion is echoed in Pudd’nhead Wilson, as the author questions the logic of racial oppression and weaves a “virtuous mess” (Ross) of a tale. By exploring the lives of Tom Driscoll and Chambers, Twain examines the nature of racial identity. As infants, Tom and Chambers have no personalities. Race is the one difference between them and not a noticeable difference. It is no accident, then, that Chambers’ mother is only 1/16 black, nor is it a coincidence that the children are born in the same house, on the same day. All of these points allow Roxy to switch the babies’ identities successfully.

Derek Royal Parker points out, “Perhaps no other work better reveals the double-minded impulse in Mark Twain than does Pudd'nhead Wilson. Not only do the twins make up the structural core of the tale, but the composition history of the novel is a case study in Twain's narrative double-play.” Opening with “Those Extraordinary Twins”, a short section built around Italian-born Siamese twins, the idea developed into something more than Twain thought he could handle. What initially began as a charade quickly turned into a tragedy of “a most embarrassing circumstance,” (Twain, 137) according to the novelist. It was not one story, but two interwoven tales that “obstructed and interrupted each other at every turn and created no end of confusion and annoyance,” (137). Twain was left with a literary mission of surgical magnitude: "I pulled one of the stories out by the roots, and left the other one—a kind of literary Cæsarean operation" (137).

The issue of identity is seen throughout the novel in a variety of forms. Identity concerns arise with Luigi and Angelo, and symbolically, with Tom and Chambers. By including twins in the novel, Twain questions whether these identical siblings enjoy their own separate identities, or if they unite into one single personality. There are some differences between the Italian brothers; one twin being slightly darker than the other and Angelo is a teetotaler, while Luigi revels with rum. Apart from these minor differences, the two merge into a single character. As the novel advances, Angelo’s significance diminishes as he turns into an accessory for Luigi. Though the novel continually refers to the "twins," it is only Luigi who has relevance to the story. Luigi owns the knife, he is the one who kicks Tom, contest Judge Driscoll, and is accused of being a murderer. While Angelo's character fades away from the story.

The other pair of twins in the novel symbolic of course is Tom and Chambers who raise a whole new issue of identity. In the antebellum South, a person's position did not come from merit or success, but from lineage and race. The racial composition of one’s blood should not have the power to send an individual to the bottom of the social ladder. In Roxy’s case, she and her child both appear white and have very little black blood, but are still deemed slaves. We see that during the pre-Civil War racial identity was sharply defined. Whites were the ruling class, while African Americans as well as those with just a fraction of black blood were downgraded as the slave class. Twain uses Tom and Chambers to attack this bizarre and unjust notion of racial identity. He illustrates how callous and constructed racial divisions are, by demonstrating how effortlessly a black man and white man exchange destinies.


Excerpt out of 5 pages


Pudd’nhead Wilson and the impossibility of an autonomous identity
"A Most Embarrassing Circumstance"
M.A Hons. English Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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pudd’nhead, wilson, impossibility, autonomous, identity, most, embarrassing, circumstance
Quote paper
Noella Pereira (Author), 2014, Pudd’nhead Wilson and the impossibility of an autonomous identity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/272506


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