Tension is evident between the concepts of nature and nurture as they pertain to race in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson. Natural predetermination was widely accepted in the early nineteenth century; most white people considered African Americans naturally inferior. As an increasing amount of the American population challenged the institution of slavery, the idea that character was determined by situational conditioning and upbringing, not race, grew in popularity. For example, proponents of nurture could argue that African Americans were not unintelligent, they grew up uneducated and thus emitted the sense of ignorance. Mark Twain wrote Pudd’nhead Wilson in the early nineteenth century when the discussion between nature and nurture was debated. Many writers of this time pursued a progressive stance in pointing out the moral evils of slavery. Although Mark Twain tries to assume a progressive stance on nature versus nurture, the novel suggests that African Americans are naturally inferior to whites, which seems to contradict Twain’s goal.
The narrator, a supposedly reliable voice, makes several racist comments about Tom to hint that African Americans are naturally inferior to whites. For example, the narrator refers to (fake) Tom as “usurping little slave” (17) rather than words that both whites and African Americans could be described as (such as an imposter or fraud). Twain also uses the derogatory term “nigger” consistently throughout the novel. Though this may have been the social norm in the nineteenth century, the use of the term undermines his attempt to discredit the one-drop rule. The one drop rule categorizes a person as black if they have even one drop of “black blood.” Furthermore, after (fake) Tom found out that he was Roxy’s son the narrator blames the reason for Tom’s behavior on his black ancestry. The narrator states, “It was the ‘nigger’ in him asserting its humility, and he blushed and was abashed. And the ‘nigger’ in him was surprised when the white friend put out his hand for a shake with him. He found the ‘nigger’ in him involuntarily giving the road, on the sidewalk, to the white rowdy and loafer” (75).
These racist, stereotypical comments undermine the progressive voice of the novel. There is a deliberate contrast between the “black” and white characters in the novel; the African American characters all possess allegedly immoral flaws while the white characters are presented as beacons of virtue. One is led to the conclusion that the novel supports a racist slant. The only two African American main characters, Roxy and (fake) Tom, were the antagonists of the story. Tom was described as being a bad baby from the beginning who grew up into a lying, stealing murderer. Roxy, though claiming to be devout, was sneakily divisive and cunning. She switched her baby with another couple’s baby, threatened to blackmail her son, and was an accomplice to Tom’s murder of Judge Driscoll. Twain’s reasoning as to why these characters are the “bad” ones is shown when Roxy says to Tom, “’It’s de nigger in you, dat’s what it is. Thirty-one parts o’ you is white, en on’y one part nigger, en dat po’ little one part is yo sould’” (109).
This suggests the reason for Tom’s behavior is because of the “black” blood in him, even if this comprises just a small part of his ancestry. Although the novel offers evidence to suggest that Twain tried to make a statement highlighting the absurdity of the “one-drop” rule, his adherence to racist stereotypes of the African American culture leads the reader to the conclusion that the African American characters are immoral because of their race and skin color. Twain asserts the inferiority of African Americans by exemplifying Tom’s inadequacy as a white male juxtaposed with Chamber’s natural superiority. Twain wrote on (fake) Tom’s personality, “Tom was a bad baby from the very beginning of his usurpation” (19). This suggests that Tom was naturally of bad character because the readers already know who Tom truly is. Several pages were dedicated to describing situations in the boys’ childhood that insinuated Tom’s natural inferiority.
For example, when the boys were ten the narrator highlights the differences between Tom and Chambers saying, “Tom did his humble comrade these various ill turns partly out of native viciousness, and partly because he hated him [Chambers] for his superiorities of physique and pluck, and for his manifold clevernesses” (21). Twain’s peculiar wording in this quote further support the notion that Twain describes Tom as naturally inferior. Using words like “native viciousness” suggested Tom was innately mean. Also, Twain associates words like “humble comrade,” superiorities of physique,” and “manifold cleverness” with Chambers, whom the readers know to be white. Chamber’s physique and wit were not accustomed traits; they were traits he inherited from his parents and traits that Judge Driscoll believed his nephew should have. Judge Driscoll’s relationship is another great example of Tom’s inadequacy as a white male. Driscoll is continually let down and disappointed by Tom.
Upon learning of (fake) Tom’s cowardice in shying away from a duel with Luigi, Judge Driscoll states, “’Do you mean to tell me that blood of my race has suffered a blow and crawled to a court of law about it? …A coward in my family! A Driscoll a coward! Once more you have forced me to disinherit you, you base son of a most noble father’” (71-72). The relationship between (fake) Tom and Judge Driscoll highlights Tom’s inadequacy as a white male because he fails to stand up for his family’s honor. Driscoll is incredulous that someone of his own flesh and blood could possess such cowardly traits; his repetitive reference to “blood of my race” and “my own blood” suggests that someone of Driscoll’s blood could not retain cowardice. The readers must conclude that Tom’s cowardice and thievery results from his race as an African American because they already know that Tom is not blood related to Driscoll.
A couple drops of “black blood” is the only difference separating the white and the African American characters in the novel; this leads the reader to the conclusion that Tom does not possess the honor, dignity, and courage that Driscoll, (fake) Chambers, and the twins have because he is African American. Along with the characterization of the white and African American characters, the ending of the novel seems to suggest that a racist order in society is natural and right. The novel tells the story of two boys who each lead a life not divinely intended for them. As a result, at the end of the novel Pudd’nhead uncovers the truth stating, “Valet de Chambre, negro and slave—falsely called Thomas Becket Driscoll—make upon the window the finger-prints that will hang you” (137). The implication that arose from Twain deliberately switching the twins back suggests that African Americans should not, and could not, thrive as equals in a white society.
Pudd’nhead also refers to Valet de Chambre as a “negro and slave” even after (the real) Chambers lived as a white male for over twenty years, implying that race remains a defining characteristic despite upbringing. Ultimately, Tom and Chambers were ultimately returned to their predestined lives. Tom was sold down the river (which was ironically the reason Roxy switched the boys in the first place) while Chambers inherited his family wealth. Returning Tom and Chambers demonstrates that through Twain’s eyes African Americans were naturally inferior to whites and should not have been mainstreamed into society in the nineteenth century. Despite hidden racial biases, Twain does not adhere too strictly in support of either concepts of nature or nurture. While there is certainly evidence to support nurture, there are many examples that insinuate the racist undertones.
Perhaps Twain’s upbringing in the deep-south Mississippi played a role in the development of the racist stereotypical characters and themes of Pudd’nhead Wilson. The novel is said to be startlingly autobiographical of Twain’s life and childhood in Oxford, Mississippi. Twain was certainly exposed to racism in that setting; although he attempted to highlight the ridiculousness of the institution of slavery through satire (along with the definition of what it means to be “black”), many racist stereotypes surfaced in his characterization and novel development that contradicted the seemingly progressive message. Twain’s depictions of Tom and Chambers after they were switched back demonstrates the stereotyped state of the African American characters in literature.
Toni Morrison explained the mischaracterization clearly when she stated, “…through significant and underscored omissions, startling contradictions, and heavily nuanced conflicts, through the way writers peopled their work with the signs and the bodies of this [Africanist] presence…” (Playing in the Dark, 6) Through these “startling contradictions” and “underscored omissions” Twain contented his moral itch by pointing out the absurdities of slavery but still maintained the notion of white supremacy. Though these contradictions are present throughout Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain is still a loved American satirist and writer crucial to the development of American culture.