[Book Review] The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson

Title: The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson
Author: Mark Twain
Genre: Classics
Published: 1894
Source: Project Gutenberg and Librivox

WHAT’S THE BOOK ABOUT?

Here’s a description from Goodreads:

It begins with the act of a young slave girl exchanging her light-skinned child, fearing for its safety, for that of her master’s. From this reversal of identities evolves a suspenseful murder mystery and courtroom drama.

The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson is everything one would expect from a novel by Mark Twain. On the surface it is a witty and satirical tale but as one digs deeper a biting social commentary of racial inequality can be found.

WHAT DID I THINK OF THE BOOK?

I began reading the eBook format because I couldn’t find a real book around here. But I’m a very, very, very slow eBook reader, so it took me ages to move past chapters. And then I got a hold of its audio book, and listened to it during my commute from work to home. It only took me about three days to finish it. I should’ve checked for an audio book version at the very beginning!

The story is a bit slow at first to establish the setting and characters, but it does have an intriguing enough plot. Two children switched a few months after birth. A lawyer who made a careless comment that marred his reputation and ended up making a living being a surveyor and accountant instead. Fingerprints. A duel. Greed. Murder.

This contains some SPOILERS, so please beware.

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A QUICK 411… Roxy, a light-skinned slave woman, decides to switch her son (Valet de Chambre, aka Chambers) and her master’s son (Tom Driscoll), in order for her child to have a bright future and erase the possibility of being sold into slavery “down the river.” So Chambers is Tom, and Tom is Chambers for nearly the entire story. Thus, the boy referred to as “Tom” in the story is a fake Tom who is actually Roxy’s child Chambers, and poor “Chambers” is really a fake Chambers who is actually Tom in real life. So here, for the sake of simplicity, I shall also refer to fake Tom as Tom and fake Chambers as Chambers. Confused? No? Good. On we go!

Oh my, Tom was such a bratty child! Such a Bratty McBrat who grew up even worse. Poor little Chambers had to suffer in his bratty hands. Even Roxy suffered in his hands. Even his uncle who took care of him had to pay dearly in his hands.

I felt a bit sorry (and not at the same time) for Roxy. I understand why Roxy did what she did, but that was so not cool. She was trying to do what she thought best for her child. And then it ended up not being for the good of anyone anyway. Almost everyone was negatively affected by her actions. Especially poor Chambers and Tom. Mostly poor Chambers. He was kinda the innocent bystander who got caught in the crossfire, so to speak.

Despite being part of the title, Pudd’nhead Wilson was sort of a supporting character during most of the story, but he played a vital role. And his name is actually David, but almost everyone in town called him Pudd’nhead; an unfortunate nickname he got because of a careless comment (about having half a dog) he made when he arrived in town. That cost him his lawyering days. A pity because he’s actually a pretty smart dude. He developed a unique hobby. He collected fingerprints from almost everyone around town, I think. And this little fact would prove helpful toward the end of the story.

QUOTABLE QUOTES

All from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar.

  • There are three infallible ways of pleasing an author, and the three form a rising scale of compliment: 1—to tell him you have read one of his books; 2—to tell him you have read all of his books; 3—to ask him to let you read the manuscript of his forthcoming book. No. 1 admits you to his respect; No. 2 admits you to his admiration; No. 3 carries you clear into his heart.
  • As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
  • There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless. Observe the ass, for instance: his character is about perfect, he is the choicest spirit among all the humbler animals, yet see what ridicule has brought him to. Instead of feeling complimented when we are called an ass, we are left in doubt.
  • 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.
  • The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money.
  • When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.

TO WRAP IT UP…

It started slow and went on a bit for a while. I think the story picked up its pace when Roxy told Tom the truth about his identity. He had several chances to try and become a better man, but Tom never really did. Such a pity, really. I disliked him very much. Pudd’nhead was able to change his fate and practice law again, thanks to his fingerprint collection. I very much enjoyed the courtroom scenes and his big reveal.

I still felt sorry for Chambers. Sure, he got what was rightfully his when he turned out to be the real Tom, but it’s kinda hard to move past the fact that he lived most of his life as a slave and that he suffered through a lot when he probably shouldn’t have if the switching hadn’t occurred. He lost his chance to have a good life and be loved by his real family.

Even if the tale sounds a bit sad and tragic, there were actually several lighthearted moments and funny lines. Twain is a pretty funny guy. I like his humor. I have a couple more books of his in my shelf, and I’m looking forward to reading them this year. (Thanks for the Twain recommendations, professor!)

Oh, and I realized that if I couldn’t get my hands on a real book, I really do very much prefer audio books over eBooks.

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