Friday, August 06, 2010

Review - The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

The Tragedy of Pudd nhead WilsonI've never read this entire book before but have vague memories of references to it in discussions of other Twain novels or of general turn of the century literature. The one discussion I remember most vividly was a discussion of "courtroom drama" literature and how this particular book helped set up that format and in particular helped set up the presentation of evidence, especially the concept of using fingerprints to help solve crimes.

Apart from the vague discussions about theme, I went into this novel fresh and really enjoyed it. I've always loved Twain's writing. Huckleberry Finn is one of my favorite all time books. In Pudd'nhead Wilson there is a lot of similar tone, setting, dialog and feel that made Huck Finn seem so real.

This book is set in a Missouri town (Dawson's Landing) in the early 1800s and (although I'm not an expert on the 19th century South), it felt very authentic. Once again, Twain captures great elements of dialog and mannerism and does a great job of creating vivid environments and characters.

The story is intriguing and feels at times like a Shakespearean "mistaken identity" play writ large. In the first few pages we're introduced to the townsfolk and shortly after introduction we watch a slave do the ol' switcher with two babies…her 'black' baby (1/32 black, and thus very easily confused as 'white') and her master's white baby. We stick with the worried mother Roxy for a few months and then fast forward through the childhood and adolescent lives of the switched boys. The story picks up with them in their early 20s and really kicks into overdrive as two twins arrive from Italy, vices of the switched "black" boy come to light, and murder is committed in the town. The story ends with the title character, Pudd'nhead, working to solve the crime and act as defense lawyer for the accused.

There are many themes present throughout this book. They are all presented in Twain's subtle, ironic, humorous tones. Moreso even than in some of his other books, Twain keeps the various "morales" very subtly in the background. He never seems to overtly or explicitly condemn anyone for any of their crimes, prejudices or vices. Instead, he presents a variety of situations ranging from tragic to humorous to ridiculous and lets the reader make his/her own judgment call.

So even though Roxy commits a crime in switching her black baby for her master's white baby, Twain never condemns her. He never makes any commentary on what he presents as the absolutely ridiculous practice that even a drop of "black blood" can make a person "black" and thus a slave, no matter how "white" that person really is. He doesn't even really speak out against slavery (even in the subtle way he did in Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer) though he does make is somewhat evident that he's not a fan just through the way the various interactions take place.

The closest he comes to condemnation is through Roxy's dialog later in the book as she talks with her son and reveals his true heritage to him. Through Roxy, he condemns "Tom's" behavior…his despicable treatment of blacks, his many vices, his horrific act of selling "down the river" and more and more.

Pudd'nhead acts almost as a counterpoint to Roxy's scathing comments. He seems sometimes to be the voice of reason or at least of calm, pensive thinking. Through his logical reasoning and his instinctive insight, we have a character who, although thought by his peers to be a dunce, is actually quite bright and has great wit and wisdom.

As the full title (The TRAGEDY of Pudd'nhead Wilson) suggests, this book doesn't have a 'happy' ending per se. In the end, all the crimes are resolved and the innocent parties are restored to their freedom while the guilty parties are punished. However, the tragedy seems to be in how "matter of fact" the state of affairs is presented. After the trial is complete, the wrap up is somewhat disheartening. The white boy ('Chambers') who lived his life as black is now caught between worlds, not fitting into any place. The boy's uncle (Judge Driscoll) is dead and his estate now belongs to an out of place nephew newly restored to 'whiteness.' Roxy's punishment is almost a reward. And 'Tom', who should receive one major punishment is instead set "free" in terms of 'justice' but left a "slave" because of the value of a black man.

This book is a very thoughtful and intriguing piece. It had in its underlying tone, much of the humor and irony that I really love about Twain's work. I really like the characters and the general story. I loved the presentation of the work and had a lot of fun reading this book. If I had to choose only one Twain, I'd still choose Huck, but this is another one that I'd recommend reading if you have any interest in Mark Twain, 19th century south, slavery, or American Literature in general. It's a great read.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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