Interpretation of Pudd’nhead Wilson Through Marxist Ideas
America has undeniably come a long way from its dark adolescence prior to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in becoming a global icon of ethnic diversity. No longer are African Americans relegated to indentured servitude or the “black” water fountain. Indeed the establishment of civil rights has brought a better way of life for not only Americans of different color, but also women and people of different religious beliefs. American history does not glamorize our past misdeeds with slavery, and our literature from the time lives on to tell the tales of those on the oppressed side of that nineteenth century dichotomy. A good example of such literature would be Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a novel set in antebellum America on the banks of the Mississippi. In the piece Twain portrays the human rift created by color and miscegenation through the opposing notions of wealthy landowners and their slaves.
On the surface, the text certainly seems to reinforce the theme of human value based on skin color. However reading Pudd’nhead Wilson from a Marxist perspective raises questions of Twain’s motives. From this avenue of analysis, the text becomes more difficult to dismiss as simply a caricature of racial conflict, but instead supports a disparity of socio-economic proportion. From a Marxist perspective, Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson was not a rendering of racial selectivity, but rather a depiction of the dark side of American commodification.
Twain introduces the ideology of material wealth and its social importance early in the text. In the description of what makes a perfect home Twain writes: “A home without a cat – and a well fed, well petted, and properly revered cat – may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title?” (Twain 3). Twain makes a statement about the sign value of the homes in Dawson’s Landing, alluding to the fact that a household cannot be complete without the possession of a pet. This passage initiates the course of the text by laying down the unspoken social code for Dawson’s Landing; a code that institutes a hierarchical value system according to conspicuous consumption.
The material circumstances circumscribing Dawson’s Creek depict a socio-economic machine built upon the foundation of slavery; however, as George Spangler writes in his essay “A Parable of Property”, a major key in interpreting Twain’s piece lies in the “obsession with property as a vitiating and reductive influence on human beings” (Spangler 29). Such a statement makes sense, especially when considering the base nature of slavery itself. The idea of owning a group of people to perform the arduous duties of maintaining a farm or plantation indicates a sense of property. For instance, near the end of the piece, the character Roxy actually walks around with her own bill of sale in her pocket as a personal assertion that she was indeed no one’s property other than her own. A re-occurring statement throughout the text; one that was issued as threats by multiple characters and hung over Roxy and the other slaves warn of being “sold down the river”. The idea that a person could have an exchange value and that bad behavior on the part of the slaves could very well warrant relocation to an undesirable master reinforces the notion of human life as a commodity. And although the dynamics of the system of slavery in the setting of the novel prove to be a flagrant example of the theme of “ownership”, the behavior of the characters within the text often provide glaring examples of the slave-master relationship in people as well as property.
One such character in Pudd’nhead Wilson that serves to typify the rampant commodification throughout the text is that of the “false” Tom. From the time Roxy switched the infants, the new Tom learned to crave material objects. As Twain writes of the false Tom, “He would call for anything and everything he saw, simply saying ‘Awnt it!’ (want it), which was a command” (Twain 19). And as Tom grew up, his materialism got him into severe gambling debts. Several passages in the book explain his subsequent behavior as fulfilling a need to preserve his status as the sole heir to the Driscoll fortune. For instance upon finding out his true identity as a usurper, Tom submits to Roxy’s demands and relinquishes half of his monthly allowance to her to keep the secret. This morally bankrupt Tom, who as Spangler notes has become a slave to his property, or rather the lie that propagates his link to material wealth, turns to petty thievery in an effort to pay off his debts. (Spangler 35). His actions begin a sequence of events that ironically lead to Tom himself ending up as property. Roxy selflessly gives herself up her freedom to keep Tom from being disinherited; an opportunity that Tom takes advantage of even though his mother is going to be “sold down the river”. This action illustrates Tom’s value system of property and wealth over human well being. The exchange value of his mother enables Tom to pay off the gambling debts and return to the comfort of his lie. However, after Tom’s secret is revealed in court, the irony in the material consciousness in the town is illuminated in the following passage:
“Everybody granted that if ‘Tom’ were white and free it would be unquestionably right to punish him – it would be no loss to anybody; but to shut up a valuable slave for life – that was quite another matter…As soon as the Governor understood the case, he pardoned Tom at once, and the creditors sold him down the river” (Twain 121).
The entire path of Tom’s character supports the theory that Twain’s motives for Pudd’nhead Wilson were not to show the plight of the slaves, but rather to illustrate the notion of being a slave to one’s property.
Other characters in the text that substantiate this claim are those of the twins and their benefactors, Aunt Patsy and Rowena. According to Henry Chapin’s article “Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson”, the slave-master relationship in the text is purposely juxtaposed when the town listens to the twins and their “masterful” piano playing (Chapin 61). The narrator of the text calls their music “prodigious slam-banging”, however those in attendance “were astonished and enchanted with the magnificence of their performance … They realized that for once in their lives they were hearing masters” (Twain 33). This passage insinuates that the town itself was ready to accept these foreign nobles as “masters”, and in effect, redefining the particulars of the slave-master relationship. In addition, the twins themselves are viewed as property by their benefactors. In fact Rowena is so excited in their foreign guests that she exclaims “And to think, they are our – all ours!” (Twain 32). Rowena is so satisfied with the guests that “she knew now for the first time the real meaning of that great word Glory, and perceived the stupendous value of it …”(33). These lines illustrate the social value carried by the “possession” of these two self-purported noblemen, furthering the theme of conspicuous consumption and commodification throughout the text. Yet another example in the piece of the human slavery to wealth connection is spelled out by the twins early in the novel. On describing the death of their parents and the subsequent financial devastation their deaths brought, the twins explain that they “were seized for the debts occasioned by their illness and their funerals … It took us two years to get out of that slavery” (31). This, according to Spangler, is the exact type of “slavery that Twain is talking about in Pudd’nhead Wilson” (Spangler 36-37).
Throughout Pudd’nhead Wilson, the idea of being a slave to material possessions and the debt that these objects create repeats. Twain seems to be telling the reader that these characters are more concerned with the obsession over property than actual human value. Such a statement is blatantly obvious in regard to Tom; however, each of the characters in the book in some way displays a pervasive proclivity toward the material – toward the exclusion of all other aspects of the human condition. Even Roxy – devoid of nearly all material wealth – needed to satisfy her reflection before attempting suicide. Indeed, the behavior of the characters explains Twain’s motives in a much more complex, coherent light from a Marxist perspective. In many ways it seems as if there was intentional solace in the silent voices of the slaves in the text. For although miserable and plighted, they do not succumb to the obsession with material wealth and social elitism. They have what Twain might be saying is the greatest commodity of all. They have the lavish freedom of being spared the burden of material accumulation.
Chapin, Henry B. “Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson”. Explicator, 21, 8 (1963): 61. Periodicals Index Online. UMUC’s Information and Library Services.6 Jun. 2006. http://pao.chadwyck.com.ezproxy.umuc.edu//articles/displayItemFromId.do?uid=1753
Spangler, George M. “A Parable of Property”. American Literature, 42, 1 (1970) 28-37. JSTOR. UMUC’s Information and Library Services. 6 Jun. 2006 http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9831CO%3B2-P
Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins. New York: Norton, 2005.
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