Pudd?nhead Wilson is a book with many struggles and themes incorporated within the pages, but there are two topics that I found most appealing. The book deals largely with identity and nature versus nurture. Tom and Chambers struggle with their identity and the ability to fit into Dawson?s Landing. They especially deal with nature versus nurture issues. Both themes are intertwined and make up who each person is and the way their lives are lived.
Pudd?nhead Wilson argues that the environment that one is brought up in, not his or her birth, determines their character. This idea is illustrated, from the very beginning, when Roxy is frightened that her son, Chambers, will be sold down the river later in life because he has black blood in him and was born into a slave world. Initially, she believes that Chambers will be better off in heaven then being a slave down river.
She plans to kill Chambers and then take her own life.
She began to change Chamber?s clothing with Tom?s (her master?s baby who is Judge Driscoll?s brother) in order for him to look better at his death. She then realizes that she could switch Tom and Chambers without anyone noticing because the babies look identical and only she can tell them apart. Roxy justifies the plan by saying that, in church, she once heard the same story about white people doing the same thing.
?Tain?t to sin-white folks had done it! It ain?t no sin, glory to goodness it ain?t no sin! Dey?s done it-yes, en dey was de biggest quality in de whole bilin?, too?Kings!...
Now I?s got it; now I ?member. It was dat ole nigger preacher dat tole it, de tiem he come over here fum Illinois en preached in de nigger church? (15).
By telling herself that the white man, who is superior to the black, did it she justified her actions and felt guiltless. After the babies are switched ?Tom? is spoiled by his prominent, Virginian white family while ?Chambers? is treated as a slave. ?Tom? grows up as a snobbish boy, who fusses until he gets his way and uses ?Chambers? as a bodyguard. Neither child knows their true blood nor do they know their actual parentage. This makes them unaware of their true identity, therefore, they are living a lie. Their path in life is chosen by the color of their skin and the color blood they have. Roxy is the only person to know the secret that ?Tom is 1/32 black even though he lives the life of a white man. ?Chambers? grows up just the opposite of ?Tom? and that he is humble and kind.
Their characters are proven when ?Tom? is drowning and ?Chambers? rushes into the water to save him. ?Tom? shrugs it off saying that he was only pretending to struggle in the water. After "Chambers" saved ?Tom?s? life, he almost stabs ?Chambers? in a fight. That goes to show that ?Tom? takes the ?niggers? and his lifestyle for granted.
As the book progresses, ?Tom? and ?Chambers? maintain the white blood, black blood characteristics. ?Tom? goes to Yale for two years where he flunks out, wasting an education, and manages to rack up debt through gambling. The debt causes him do anything to further himself in order to get himself out of debt. ?Chambers? continues be a slave and serve the white people.
Roxy shows up in Dawson?s Landing after years of being gone working on the Mississippi River, ?Chambers? informs Roxy about ?Tom?s? behavior. She approaches ?Tom? in order to get money from him. He laughs at her and tries to send her away. He only wants her to stay when she threatens to tell the judge (his uncle who is now his guardian) her secret of which he still does not know. ?I?s gywne to tell you, for?-you ain?t go no money. I?s gyne to tell yo? uncle-en I?; do it dis minute, too-he?ll gimme five dollahs for de news, en mighty glad, too,? said Roxy (39).
Roxy instructs ?Tom? to meet her at the haunted house later in the night were she tells him her secret. ?You ain?t no more kin to ole Marse Driscoll den I is!...Yassir, en dat ain?t all! You is a nigger!? (41) With those words ?Tom?s? life would change forever. He no longer was who he thought he was, he no longer had an identity.
One could argue that ?Tom? never knew who he really was even before he learned he was a nigger. His debt led him to burglarize homes and assume a variety of disguises in order to avoid being caught. He dresses in Roxy?s clothing and pretends to be a woman. This could be interpreted as him trying to be something he is not because he never really had a sense of himself. Pretending to be someone else could have also given him meaning and a way to identify who he was, even if was a false sense of self.
Pudd?head Wilson?s fingerprinting system is what eventually led to the destruction of the men?s identities and the secret being exposed. He was trying to prove that ?Tom? was the true murderer of Judge Driscoll. The fingerprints prove that no matter what identity one assumes, they will always be the same person they were born and there is no escaping that. A question to be asked here is if criminal behavior is nature or nurture? Is it a trait you are born with or does the environment one is brought up in determine that? Once ?Tom? and ?Chambers? true identities were revealed their lives were shattered. ?Tom? starts to act less ignorant and humbled himself in front of the ?true white? people, but ?Chambers? does not change. He cannot bring himself to inhabit any form of a white man?s life. He cannot associate with the black slaves anymore and he does not feel comfortable around the white people because he cannot read, write or speak proper English. He is lost, not just in Dawson?s Landing, but in the world.
By Roxy switching the babies she may have changed their fate. No one knows for sure if ?Tom? and ?Chambers? personalities came about due to nature or nurture. ?Tom?s? malicious behavior could have been a result of something innate like his racial heritage. However, misguided wealthy white people have raised ?Tom? poorly. On the other hand, ?Chambers? is a white man who was raised as a slave in unfavorable conditions. He is a good person and by not being able to feel comfortable being a wealthy white man, it suggests that his upbringing, not his inborn qualities, had a greater influence on who he had become.
Roxy?s questionable actions could be explained by the way she was raised and her upbringing as a slave, not innate personality. Roxy also uses black blood as an excuse to explain some of ?Tom?s? actions. At one point Roxy is speaking with ?Tom? about insulting his families honor by refusing to duel, ?En you refuse? to fight a man dat kicked you, ?stid o? jumpin? at de chance!...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? soul? (70). According to Roxy, ?Tom? was born a coward because of his black blood. The nurturing he received growing up white has nothing to do with his character. He is a coward because of nature.
Just because one has black blood in them does that mean that they will behave a certain way or are they destined to live a particular life? That is what Mark Twain?s writing in this novel is asking. Twain never really answers this question, but allows the reader to come up with his or her own conclusion. Everyone has a predisposition to have certain characteristics, but nurture plays a large part in determining if one will engage in such characteristics.