Friday, July 07, 2006

Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

 (Book Review)

This isn’t one of Mark Twain’s better known works, but Twain is one of those authors you can never go wrong with.

The plot is a little difficult to summarize, partly because this is, as Twain admits, a combination of different stories. And partly because most of the action takes place in the 5th act. Most of the rest of the book is just the characters positioning themselves.

So I think it is easier to just introduce the main characters instead. First is Dave Wilson, who is the smartest person in the town, and a great wit. Unfortunately no one else in the town understands irony, and so Wilson’s ironic witticisms are taken at face value, and the town people conclude he’s actually a complete idiot, thus the nickname “Pudd’nhead Wilson.”

Then there are the two babies switched at birth. One, Tom Driscoll, is the legitimate son and heir to the estate fortune. The other one, Chambers, is 1/32nd black, 31/32nd white, and thus under Southern law considered a slave and a piece of property. But no one notices when his mother switches the two babies and thus reverses the fortunes of each.

And finally two twin Italian nobles, who rent out a room in the town, and become the fascination and darlings of this sleepy Southern town.

When these three elements are mixed together, and a murder mystery thrown in during the 5th act, hilarity and Twain’s biting social commentary ensues.

According to the book’s cover jacket: “Twain’s ruminations on the issues of the day make this a novel of perpetual questions, and one of the author’s most ironic and elusive.” Which I took to mean: “We know he’s criticizing something, we just don’t know what.”

Some of the themes of the novel are easier to tease out than others. For instance an obvious point of criticism is the Southern law that 1/32nd black blood was enough to make one a slave. And the fact that these two babies could be switched and no one would ever notice hints that race is not so much a physical reality as much as a social concept. In this way Mark Twain seems to be ahead of his time. Also the fate of poor Pudd’nhead Wilson shows that genius is mocked more frequently than it is appreciated. As to the rest of the themes, I’ll leave to those more perceptive than me.

The actual story itself, I found the ending anti-climatic, and too predictable. Instead the real beauty of this book is all the humor mixed in along the way. For example each chapter opens with delightful ironic quotes from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calender,”; the kind of biting one-liners that Mark Twain is famous for. My personal favorite was: “Adam was but human -- this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.”

(For someone who didn’t believe in the Bible, Mark Twain sure references it a lot. If you don’t know the story about Elisha, the 42 youths, and the bears, you’ll miss another great one-liner. I suppose in the days of Mark Twain biblical literacy must have just been assumed.)

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Davy Crockett had a son named Rob Patton Crockett, who in 1838 administrated his father's Texas land claim after Davy Crockett's death at the Alamo.

Link of the Day
Another addition in Swagman Family Blogging. It appears my little brother has set up a blog here.

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