Personal Development: Nature vs. Nurture in Pudd’nhead Wilson

March 24, 2019 by Essay Writer

It is often debated whether one’s character is instilled at birth, or through the environment in which one is raised. Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson argues the latter through describing the development of two boys of the same age, Chambers and Tom. A slave woman by the name of Roxy raises both boys, but while she is able to discipline Chambers, her own son, she is forbidden to punish her master’s son, Tom. Thus, as the boys develop into adults throughout the course of the story, it becomes apparent that while race and natural factors may slightly impact one’s development, it is primarily one’s upbringing and environment that determines the quality of one’s adult character. When the boys are infants, Roxy switches them so that her son Chambers grows up as Tom, and Tom as Chambers. The boys both have very light skin and are the same age, so nobody notices the switch, and the true Chambers easily passes as a white Tom. The false Tom is an obnoxious child right from the moment they are switched. He cries constantly, scratching and hitting anyone that comes within his reach. However, rather than reprimand him, Percy Driscoll, Roxy’s owner and the real Tom’s father, forces Roxy to ignore Tom’s outbursts and to indulge his every whim. “He was indulged in all his caprices, howsoever troublesome and exasperating they might be” (Twain 76). In addition to having a doting mother in Roxy, Tom has a personal bodyguard in Chambers. Thus, although Tom is widely disliked among his peers, he is not often heckled because he has the almost constant protection of Chambers. Thus, Tom becomes an adult believing he is capable of getting away with any infraction, and this belief ends up being his downfall. Needing money to pay off gambling debts, Tom accidentally murders his father as he is caught stealing from him. However, as a pair of Italian twins whom Tom despises is brought to trial for the murder instead of him, Tom grows complacent as he believes that there is no way he can possibly be caught. Tom even goes so far as to mock Pudd’nhead Wilson, the defense attorney for the twins. As Pudd’nhead attempts to throw some light upon the case using his collection of fingerprints, Tom exclaims to him “Hello, we’ve gone back to the amusements of our days of neglect and obscurity for consolation, have we” (Twain 207)? It is at this point that Tom leaves a fingerprint upon one of Pudd’nhead’s glass strips, leading Pudd’nhead to the revelation that it is Tom’s print upon the handle of the knife used in the murder. This complacent behavior stems directly from Roxy’s permissive parenting during Tom’s upbringing. As Tom has never been punished for a wrongdoing in his life, the idea that he could be caught for the murder does not seem feasible to him, and he spends his time admiring the ingenuity with which he has escaped suspicion in the case. Conditioned by his youth to hide and let others take the fall for his wrongdoings, Tom is shocked when the story he is hiding behind caves in and he is held accountable for his actions for the first time. Chambers’ childhood is starkly different from Tom’s, as he is forced to tolerate Tom’s constant abuse. While Tom is conditioned to believe that he is superior to everyone else, Chambers is beaten into a docile submissiveness. When Tom hits him, rather than fight back, Chambers must meekly bear the hitting, scratching, and cuffing or face punishment from Percy Driscoll, his master: “He (Percy) told Chambers that under no provocation whatever was he privileged to lift his hand against his little master. Chambers overstepped the line three times, and got three such convincing canings from the man who was his father and didn’t know it that he took Tom’s cruelties in all humility after that…” (Twain 78). If he were allowed to fight back, Chambers would likely grow into an adult as prone to violence as Tom. However, he learns quickly that violence for any reason other than protection of Tom leads to a beating, so he instead becomes a submissive, docile young man. Roxy’s opposite stance in parenting each boy leads to opposite temperaments in the two as men, thus suggesting environment largely determines the person one becomes. Roxy blames Tom’s misbehavior upon his blackness, because as her son, he is thirty-one parts white and one part Negro. However, Roxy is one sixteenth Negro and although she does several dishonest things throughout the course of the novel, she is driven to do them by necessity, as she is an inherently decent person. When freed by Percy Driscoll, Roxy attempts to earn an honest living working as a chambermaid aboard a steamboat. After eight years she is forced to retire due to rheumatism in her arms, but she retires having earned a reasonable fortune. She wishes to live honestly and independently, not having to answer to any boss or master, or rely upon anyone for anything. “She would be independent of the human race thenceforth for evermore if hard work and economy could accomplish it” (Twain 100). It is not until her bank crashes and she loses this fortune that she is forced to ask Tom for assistance, which she eventually blackmails him into giving her. While it is often argued that Roxy’s blackmailing Tom shows a similarity between her and her son, as both are extremely manipulative, there is a major difference. Roxy manipulates others because she has nothing and her son, a genuinely bad person, refuses to assist her. Tom, on the other hand, has everything given to him but manipulates and steals from others anyways. Roxy is inherently a decent person, and it is this decency, which proves that Tom’s adult behavior must be the product of his upbringing rather than his mother’s genes, or his “blackness.” Pudd’nhead Wilson depicts nurture as being the primary developmental force in shaping one’s identity, morals, and actions. Although one’s genes play a role as well, the novel argues that it is primarily the stark contrast between the parenting techniques used upon Tom and Chambers that leads to their extreme dissimilarity as adults. While permissive parenting of Tom molds him into a manipulative adult who is used to having others fix his problems for him, the authoritarian approach used upon Chambers turns him into a docile and obedient adult. Although Roxy claims that it is the blackness from her genes that leads Tom to misbehave, her own decency of character as a black woman shows that this is not the case. Thus, the conclusion gathered from Twain’s novel is that it is nurture, or the environment which one is placed into during development, rather than one’s genes or more importantly one’s race, that plays the lead role in defining one’s traits as an adult.

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