Discussion Questions on Pudd’nhead Wilson
1. In what way is Pudd’nhead Wilson’s remark about the dog the key to the whole book?
2. Which has the most influence on character, nature or nurture?
3. Twain began with a Siamese twins plot. What evidence do you see of the “sutures” where this plot was excised?
4. Why are Angelo and Luigi in this book? What other instances of twins, doubling, and pairing of characters occur here, and what is their purpose?
5. How many episodes of masquerade, cross-dressing, identity theft, and disguise can you find in this book, and what function does each serve? What do they collectively suggest about the nature of identity and the body? Do all of the masquerades succeed, or do some fail?
6. Why does the book focus so heavily on the culture of the Old South and its interest in aristocracy, genealogy, and genetic inheritance? What are some examples of this? How is the myth of the Old South presented here, and how are its customs and habits viewed?
7. The novel poses several oppositions—black versus white, nature versus nurture, rationality versus superstition, and freedom versus slavery, for starters. Discuss one of these.
8. Aligned with the novel’s investigation of the nature of truth (and justice) is its interest in science. What forms of science or scientific techniques (empirical observations, deductions, logic, testing, and so on) does the novel present, and what kinds of validity do they have? In what sense is this emphasis on science Twain’s attempt to expose the preconceptions and prejudices of its characters (and, by extension, his readers)?
9. Roxy is often called Twain’s most fully realized and complex female character. Discuss her function in the book.
10. As part of the nature/nurture debate, Pudd’nhead Wilson contains plenty of examples of parenting and meditations on the mother-child relationship in both races. What are the parent-child relationships in this novel (symbolic as well as actual), and what do they reveal about this idea?
11. For a short book, this novel includes a lot of crimes: theft, assault, and murder are a few of the more prominent ones, but various forms of fraud and deception are also important. Discuss these elements and what part they play in the work.
12. The theme of writing is central to this book. Marks on paper, the lines on a hand, letters, wills, newspapers, false bills of sale, and fingerprints are just a few of the instances in which writing advances the plot and also the novel’s larger ideas, and Pudd’nhead Wilson’s calendar—the epigrams—provides a key to each chapter. Identify several of these and explain their function in the novel.
13. In terms of genre, Pudd’nhead Wilson combines the whodunit detective story with the courtroom drama as well as other types of fiction. How is it a detective story? What features does Twain borrow from the detective story or other forms? To what extent does this make the novel successful?
14. Was the ending of the novel satisfactory for you to read? In what ways is it logical or emotionally satisfying (or unsatisfying)?
15. Is this a racist novel? Why or why not?
16. Who is the hero of Pudd’nhead Wilson? Does it have a hero? What makes him or her heroic?
17. What is the role of the body in this work? How are bodies read or misread through the application of social customs? How do features associated with the body, such as race, light or dark coloring, facial similarities, gestures, speech patterns, sexuality, and the commission of (or marks of) violence affect what happens in the novel? In what ways are people not what their bodies say they are?
18.. One of the key oppositions in this book is between law and justice, right and wrong. How do characters in the novel see the law, and is the law always the way that they choose to administer justice? In what ways is “wrong” enshrined in law? In what ways might the idea of a “fiction of law and custom” apply to several elements of life in Dawson’s landing? Pudd'nhead Wilson proposes several skewed or alternative systems of administering or settling disputes, including fighting, duels, whipping, and lynching. Why does the novel rely so much upon these alternative systems of justice? How do they reflect or comment upon more traditional forms of law? For that matter, why are there so many lawyers in this book?