Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain: Identity Concerns in the Novel
Identity in Pudd’nhead Wilson
Race is certainly the central issue of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, but the novel also provokes many questions about the origin and nature of identity. Does nature or nurture have a greater influence? Is there a link between identity and a person’s reputation or race? Is a person’s nature inescapable, or is there hope for change? These are challenging questions to answer and they suggest that the concept of identity is a difficult one to put into words. The character Tom Driscoll struggles through these very same issues and shows us how life can cast a person’s sense of self in doubt.
“Tom” is born Valet de Chambre, or Chambers as his mother Roxie informally calls him, and looks as white as the real Thomas Driscoll, but because his mother is a slave, that dooms him to the same life. In order to spare him from that fate, Roxie switches Chambers with the infant Thomas. Roxie’s carries out her deception with the best of intentions for her son, feeling justified for robbing the real Thomas of his birthright, but both boys are doomed to pay the price for her sin. From infancy, “Tom” is raised to believe that he is Roxie’s master rather than her son. At first, this is just an elaborate performance for Roxy, but over time, that performance becomes reality, as seen in the following passage:
“Deceptions intended solely for others gradually grew practically into self-deceptions… the little counterfeit rift between imitation slave and imitation master widened and widened, and became an abyss, and a very real one – and on one side of it stood Roxie, the dupe of her own deceptions, and on the other stood her child, no longer a usurper to her, but her accepted and recognized master. He was her darling, her master, and her deity all in one, and in her worship of him she forgot who she was and what he had been” (18).
As seen here, identity becomes a serious concern early on in this novel when Roxie’s scheme works too well. She almost forgets that she is Tom’s mother and he is her son and treats him like she would any other slave master. The narrator tells us that Tom and Roxie stand on opposite sides of an abyss, but as the lines between truth and lies, master and slave blur, it is more like they are pulled into the abyss. The line between nature and nurture also becomes blurred. Tom was a very difficult baby with very bad habits, including screaming, biting, and grasping for things he shouldn’t have. He possessed what Roxie called a “fractious” temperament. The combination of Tom’s volatile nature and his nurturing as Roxie’s master and deity can be credited for making him into the tyrannical, entitled, prodigal son he becomes in adulthood.
Roxie falls on hard times after being a free woman for years and expects to find help from Tom, seeming to forget that she has transformed him from slave into master. Tom responds to her with abuse and she retaliates by revealing the truth to him and threatening to expose him. With this leverage, Roxie shatters her son’s sense of mastery. Tom feels unsure of himself and behaves in uncharacteristic ways, as if he really has become a slave. He gets off the sidewalk when other white people approach, he meekly refuses to shake their hands, won’t enter a home until told, and won’t eat at the white man’s table. Tom laments that white and black people were created differently and that blacks are condemned to slavery, sentiments he had never felt before. Tom’s brief identity crisis abates and he reverts to his real self (whatever that is) in the following passage:
“…Tom imagined that his character had undergone a pretty radical change. But that was because he did not know himself. In several ways his opinions were totally changed, and would never go back to what they were before, but the main structure of his character was not changed, and could not be changed… Under the influence of a great mental and moral upheaval his character and habits had taken on the appearance of complete change, but after a while with the subsidence of the storm both began to settle toward their former places. He dropped gradually back into his frivolous and easy-going ways and conditions of feeling and manner of speech, and no familiar of his could’ve detected anything in him that differentiated him from the weak and careless Tom of other days” (48).
A storm rages in Tom’s mind. The “mental and moral upheaval” Tom experiences leads him to believe that his character and habits have or should change in order to match the truth of his being the son of a slave. The storm subsides when he realizes that though his opinions may have undergone a radical change, he is still the same “weak and careless” Tom in character and no new revelations can change that. The habits of whiteness and mastery are the only ones Tom truly knows, regardless of any fractional blackness, but for the first time, he seems to wonder what his life could’ve been if Roxie had raised him in slavery. He wonders why life has to be so different for whites and blacks and why blacks are condemned to suffer the indignities of slavery. Tom hates that his uncle, Judge Driscoll, is part of the slave owning establishment, but it can be argued that the latter is only a concern for Tom because the judge could sell him down the river if he knew the truth.
The way this passage ends makes it sound like an open and shut case, but the choice of words in this passage still raises questions. Is Tom really so self-aware that he can admit to being weak, careless, and frivolous, or is Twain’s narrator more subjective in his characterizations than we might believe? A reader could assume the former stance, but awareness of such glaring character flaws would likely lead someone to make an effort at self-improvement, and there isn’t any sincere effort on Tom’s part. Consider the first line of the passage: “Tom imagined that he had undergone a pretty radical change.” In reality, Tom’s supposed epiphany has barely changed him at all, as evidenced by the paragraphs that follow, in which Tom returns to gambling and thieving in order to pay his debts. In describing all these bad habits, the narrator paints an unflattering portrait of Tom and invites harsh judgment from the reader. It is true that Tom’s opinions on slavery and race may have changed (in that he actually has a discernible opinion now), but the change does not extend much deeper. In other words, his personality and bad habits had only “taken on the appearance of complete change.”
The narrator can read much more deeply into the characters, and boils the problem of Tom’s identity down to the fact that “he did not know himself.” He knows himself as a white man and as the heir to the Driscoll fortune, but has no idea who he is independent of his family name and inheritance. Tom has done nothing to make a name for himself, at least not a good one. He grew up believing the “fiction of law and custom” (7) that one drop of black blood made someone a slave. In other words, Tom believed his white blood made him who he was and that it entitled him to a life of privilege, but failed to consider that it was actually the way he was raised (as Roxie’s master and the Driscoll’s “angel”) that had a greater impact on his development. As noted previously, life would have been very different for Tom had Roxie not switched him with “Chambers”. Tom is sentenced to just such a life after he is outed as Judge Driscoll’s killer and as a “black” man, or rather a piece of “erroneous inventory” (122). Whoever or whatever Tom may have been no longer matters when his own humanity is taken from him under the fiction of law and custom.
Mark Twain offers no definite answers to the questions I posed in my introduction, and some readers may fault him for writing Pudd’nhead Wilson in such a cryptic way, but I give him credit for attempting to tackle such weighty subjects as race and identity. As I said in my introduction, identity is not an easy concept to put into words and my analysis shows that. Twain suggests that a person’s basic nature makes them who they are and cannot be changed, but nurture makes a person what they are. In real life, we tend to judge and label people based on outward appearances or actions, rather than really learning who they are. Perhaps we should all spend more time getting to know ourselves as well.
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