Essay: What a Pudd'nhead Can Do for Society -

Essay: What a Pudd’nhead Can Do for Society

“Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.”
― Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

When two people are caught in the middle of some sort of debate like an argument, contest, or a lovers’ tiff, there is usually a third party involved, another person who is objective to the either side, and can make an unbiased decision. These “peacemakers” or “bridge-builders” can be highly annoying and intrusive to the losing party, but quite wonderful to nearly everyone else. Professional critics of film or books are equally appreciated since they not only bridge the gap between the creators and the audience, but since they are not directly involved in the creation, they have no debilitating biases when critiquing, at least professionally. It is therefore very pleasant when a “critic” can be found in the work itself – a sort of representative for the audience inside the actual movie or book. Mark Twain was rather fond of this technique, and in his realism novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, the eponymous character is not only not the main character, but he is also the critic. Pudd’nhead Wilson acts a proxy for the reader to relate to, basically commenting on and questioning things in his society that the readers are thinking themselves. He is involved in the characters’ lives, yet has the unique advantage of being distant, for various reasons. As such, Pudd’nhead Wilson epitomizes the value and significance of being an objective and distanced viewer of society.

Becoming a distant character naturally has to have an origin. Being burdened with a less-than-flattering nickname was Pudd’nhead Wilson’s beginning. One can hardly imagine “Pudd’nhead” to be Wilson’s Christian name, but only his close – and virtually only – friend, Judge Driscoll, calls him David proper. The moniker is first established barely twenty-four hours after his arrival in the town of Dawson’s Landing. An educated man from New York, Wilson has come seeking his fortune as a lawyer and, probably having randomly stuck a pin on a map of the United States, decides to make that little town his treasure trove and eventual home. Sadly for him, it is quite a sheltered place, not greatly appreciative of humor, least of which the highbrow kind to which Wilson is likely accustomed. As such, when he makes a witty remark – a throwaway line in the style of Oscar Wilde – about killing half of a rather noisy dog, it is not met with any sort of enthusiasm. Perhaps Wilson, back in New York, has been accustomed to sycophantic, if not at least sympathetic, laughter at his witticisms, and is therefore unprepared for any sort of small-town hostilities. In any case, he is immediately designated a “pudd’nhead” and, christened as such, now officially labeled as an outsider. Fortunately having a rather malleable constitution, Wilson goes along with it all, and although he loses any chance of having a decent career, he is able to indulge in personal eccentricities, free from criticism. His “hobbies” include palmistry, and the relatively new art of “finger-printing,” of which he has a neatly organized collection. Both actually prove to be important to the book’s plot, and one feels that it can pay off to enjoy things for the mere sake of it, instead of trying to impress others, at which Wilson unconsciously failed (Twain 9-10).

Not only is Wilson able to dabble in the mystical arts of palm-reading and forensics, but also can offer a social critique to the world of Dawson’s Landing. Taking a leaf from Benjamin Franklin’s book (or almanac, as it were), Wilson creates a calender in which he writes little witticisms of his own. These sayings range from tongue-in-cheek funny to rather scathing. Wilson is able to make such sarcastic or ironic comments freely because the only people who would understand them would be intelligent outsiders, of which there are very few, and as such, his “proverbs” are seen by the townspeople as another of “Pudd’nhead” Wilson’s lunacies – thus, of course, completely missing the message. Still, his objective skepticism in making them at all is clearly evident (32-3). “When I reflect upon the number of disagreeable people who I know have gone to a better world, I am moved to lead a different life,” states Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar (it is interesting to note the extent to which he accepts his epithet) (75). This sort of reflection is rather harsh, but anybody would at least secretly admit to it being true. If Wilson was an accepted member of his town, he would not have dared to make such a statement in the fear of losing his status. As he is at the bottom of the social ladder, and perhaps not even that, Wilson is free from that type of cowardice.

In an interesting contrast, his friend, Judge Driscoll, is just as eccentric as Wilson, albeit in somewhat different ways, but is so high up in the eyes of the town that he is essentially too powerful to be criticized. The pair even form a society together, called the Free Thinkers – of which there are two members. What really separates the two men is the origin of their respective obsessions. Wilson, distant from the town’s quaintness and an outsider to their traditions, fancies a more scientific approach to things which is an objective and often skeptical standpoint in and of itself. Driscoll, on the other hand, depends on honor and tradition, claiming to be descended from the first settlers of Virginia, and takes a subjective viewpoint to society’s problems. Essentially then, the Judge is distant due to personal eccentricities and is not reliant on the town for approval, but is not entirely objective because he is not skeptical and is unable took past the importance on tradition and honor. This is not to say, however, Wilson does not respect Driscoll’s dependence on honor. Indeed, he supports it, notably when the elderly Judge obstinately decides to duel with a young Italian twin, a newcomer to Dawson’s Landing. The twin and his identical brother also contrast Wilson, despite being outsiders themselves. Unlike Pudd’nhead’s disastrous first day, the twins quickly charm their way into the townspeople’s hearts, and as such, are bound by their rules. As foreigners, they have a small amount of liberty in what they do or say, since anything strange would be dismissed as merely “foreign” and subsequently forgiven. However, they have a reputation to uphold and are obliged to maintain it so as not to lose their respected place in society. Therefore, the twins are objective because they are foreigners and have an outsider’s point of view, but they are not distant since they rely on the town for approval. Of course, their character can be ruined just the same as a native’s, and it is, not quite unsurprisingly. One of the twins, accused of a murder he did not commit, turns to the only kindred spirit in the town: Pudd’nhead Wilson (33, 35, 40, 101,116).

Wilson, who probably understands better than anybody the consequences of a damaged reputation, agrees to return to his long-defunct law practice and defend the twin in court. He had actually defended the same twin once before, right before the Judge decided to fight him in a duel which ended up not occurring. Even though Wilson lost that case, apparently he did a good enough job to become slightly more respected and afterward is asked to run for mayor. It is either due to his stamina for not letting gossip get him down (being distanced and all) or the people are simply impressed that he could do the job at all. In any case, it is during his second case that his objectivity-fueled eccentricities pay off, and his position in society changes. Using the new-fangled concepts of fingerprints and motives, Wilson is able to get the twin off and have the proper murderer arrested (125-33).

Realist novels usually display a fall rather than a rise, and while this happens to other characters in the book, it does not happen to Wilson. He goes from being the town loony to newly-elected mayor – and it only took twenty years. One wonders, though, how this radical change will affect him. Will he cave into society’s norms, foregoing his beloved hobbies, and be made subjective to the town’s opinion, or be powerful enough like the Judge to avoid criticism? Perhaps Wilson is too calloused to even care – or too wise. After all: “Even popularity can be overdone. In Rome, along at first, you are full of regrets that Michelangelo died; but by and by you only regret that you didn’t see him do it” (101).

Works Cited

  • Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson. New York: Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Classics, 2006. Print.

Even though NaNoWriMo is over, I’ve decided to keep posting my old essays in lieu of editing articles. I’d like to start off the new year with renewed inspiration and fresh content!

This essay was written in 2011 for my American Literary Tradition college class. I didn’t receive the highest marks for this one, and I’ve included my professor’s feedback:

You do a great job here of equating Wilson with the position of an objective character within the novel. I also think you do a good job of establishing Wilson’s place within Dawson’s Landing. However, that wasn’t the entire goal of this paper. Prompt number one asked that you: “Through an analysis of Pudd’nhead’s role in the novel, define the value and significance of being an objective and distanced observer of society.” You do a great job of defining Wilson as objective, but you never really show his value and significance in the novel. As part of your thesis statement you write: “Pudd’nhead Wilson acts a proxy for the reader to relate to, basically commenting on and questioning things in his society that the readers are thinking themselves,” and this would have been a great focus, but you don’t follow through. In particular, I think you missed an opportunity to link this idea with the relationship between Wilson’s calendar and the reader. The majority of your paper here is simply describing Wilson. Even then, much of your observations are not supported by evidence from the text, and more importantly, a number of your observations don’t really have to do with the assignment or the novel (Ex: “An educated man from New York, Wilson has come seeking his fortune as a lawyer and, probably having randomly stuck a pin on a map of the United States, decides to make that little town his treasure trove and eventual home.”). This supposition doesn’t really have a place in your essay. For the final, make sure that you focus your essay on addressing the exam questions. Try to limit your paper to an examination of the text, and make sure that you support your ideas with direct evidence from the novel/poem. [emphases mine]

Ouch, right? But she was right, of course, and the main crux of her argument is that I didn’t follow through on the ideas I presented, which is valuable advice for any essay writers. Support your theories (and don’t make snide obversations unless you’re incredibly witty and can get away with it).

“hdr_shed_final” by Roy Niswanger is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0.


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