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Deceiving Appearances and Labels Have Profound Consequences!
on 28 June 2004
Do others ever misjudge you? Did you, as a result, ever have a nickname you didn't like? Did you appreciate that experience? How did you overcome it?
What if you had been switched in the baby nursery at the hospital for another child? How might your life have been different?
These are the kinds of thoughts that will occur to you as you read Pudd'nhead Wilson.
I was attracted to the story after reading about its genesis in the new illustrated biography of Mark Twain.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is a tragic story about the consequences of two children being switched at birth in the slave-holding society of the American South. Those who admire the eloquent portrayal of common humanity among African-Americans and whites in Huckleberry Finn will find more examples of this point to delight them in Pudd'nhead Wilson.
Pudd'nhead Wilson was a novel that gave Mark Twain a great many problems. The book started as a short story about Italian Siamese twins with a farcical character, as the drunken twin caused the Prohibitionist one to get into trouble with his woolly headed sweetheart. As Twain turned the story into a novel, the most important characters began to disappear in favor of new characters. Stymied, Twain realized that he had written two stories in one novel. He then excised the original of the two stories in favor of the tragedy, while leaving many satirical and ironic characteristics. Part of this switch no doubt related to Twain's growing pessimism as he grew older and to the personal tragedies and financial difficulties dogged his efforts and life.
Perhaps it is this deep plot difficulty that caused Twain to leave the novel with two rather large flaws, which vastly reduce its effectiveness. I'm sure you'll spot them, so I won't mention the problems further.
Pudd'nhead Wilson has many brilliant sections that strikingly portray how the concepts and realities of slavery corrupted both African-Americans and slave-holders.
But the story is much broader than that. Pudd'nhead (a derogatory term somewhat like "featherhead") Wilson is thought to be a fool by the townspeople because of something he said about a dog when he first came to town. Because of that perception, his legal career is delayed by 20 years . . . even though he is actually quite bright. The story in places reminds me of Shakespeare's many comedies and tragedies about misperceptions being harmful to all concerned.
Although you will not think this is one of Mark Twain's best books, it is one that will encourage you to have many valuable thoughts about questioning labels and assumptions that we apply to one another. For example, if someone is not very quick to grasp certain widely-accepted points, we may feel the person is stupid. The person may actually be able to grasp many nuances that make the situation ambiguous, and be the opposite of stupid. Or someone who is slow in one way may be a positive genius in other ways. Yet a label may be attached that is the opposite.
Keep an open mind, and observe vastly more about what is going on . . . and be able to create vastly better results!