English and Literature
Submitted By airzon
10th Grade/Period B
In John S. Whitley’s article, “Mark Twain and the Limits of Detection,” Whitley argues that Twain, the author of Pudd’nhead Wilson, deliberately deviates from the most important characteristics of detective fiction in order to convey the limits of the genre. Whitley writes that the ending of detective novels restores harmony to society. However, Pudd’nhead Wilson ends in tragedy. Whitley also remarks that Pudd’nhead Wilson’s murderer, Tom, avoids execution, differing from most detective literature. Whitley also says that the reader knows the murderer throughout the novel, another rule broken for detective novels. As a result, Whitley argues that Twain’s deliberate evasion of the detective novel characteristics shows the limits of detective fiction because of Twain’s certain circumstances. Whitley correctly interprets that Pudd’nhead Wilson stands as a parody of a detective novel. Twain’s novel contains many examples of satire made to criticize society, people, and a lot of other things. Also, at the end of the novel exists an overly dramatic court scene, hinting at satire of detective novels. In his article, Whitley remarks that Pudd’nhead Wilson “needs to be understood as a serious, indeed, tragic parody of a detective story” (Whitley 55) and “is deliberately allowed to work against its normal function as a detective novel” (Whitley 56). He suggests that Mark Twain intentionally avoids parts of the standard mold of detective novels in order to demonstrate the limitations of detective literature. As an example, Whitley writes that the ending of a classic detective novel restores harmony to society. However, Pudd’nhead Wilson ends exceedingly differently than a standard work of detective literature. Roxy ends in heartbreak with Tom’s arrest. Chambers returns to his proper white status but ends up lost. Also, the twins flee back to Europe. Whitley points out that the society in the novel “cannot be restored to a state of grace because they were never in it” (Whitley 66). Dawson’s Landing represents a corrupt society where rituals cover ignorance and brutality. Therefore, Whitley argues, the society is incapable of being restored back to grace, which shows the limitations of writing detective literature. Also, the author writes that in a classic detective novel the murderer must be punished, mostly likely by execution. Whitley argues that “Tom has murdered, however, not in a society capable of being returned to grace, but one which harbors a great crime, slavery, and whose greed and immoral concern for property is clearly reflected in Tom’s thieving” (Whitley 69). Tom, instead of execution, faced being “sold down the river” because Dawson’s Landing hides crimes and slavery solely to keep their reputation untainted. Also, the author states that execution conveys forgiveness to the murderer because they will not live through the misery of jail or in Tom’s case, enslavement. Whitley also argued that “there is no concealment from the reader” (Whitley 69). Detective authors conceal identities of the murderer. Without concealment, people would not consider detective novels as detective novels. In the novel, Twain dictates the murder of Judge Driscoll and the reader knows that Tom murdered him. Twain avoids arguably the most crucial part of detective novels, concealment of the murderer. Whitley argues that Twain avoids key characteristics of detective novels in order to show the limitations of the popular genre. Whitley correctly interprets that Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson represents a parody of a detective story. Pudd’nhead Wilson stands as a novel full of satire. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Twain starts to describe Dawson’s Landing. He says that Dawson’s Landing “was a snug little collection of modest one- and two-story frame dwellings whose whitewashed exteriors were almost concealed from sight by climbing tangles of rose vines, honeysuckles, and morning-glories...Dawson’s Landing was a slaveholding town” (Twain 1-2). Twain, at first, builds up a positive impression of Dawson’s Landing with words like “snug” and “modest”. However, shortly after, Twain writes that “Dawson’s Landing was a slave-holding town,” considered morally wrong by society in the early 1900’s because of the abolishment of slavery. Irony exists in Pudd’nhead Wilson because Twain builds a positive of impression of Dawson’s Landing and shortly abandons the positive impression on the next page. Pudd’nhead Wilson stands as a novel of satire and Twain will stand satirical about society, people, and genres. At the end of the novel, a melodramatic court room scene shows that Twain thinks detective authors overdramatize their novels. For example, in parts of David Wilson’s speech, he pauses randomly. Twain writes that, “He waited yet one, two, three moments, to let his pause complete and perfect its spell upon the house” (Twain 116). Wilson pauses for an extended period of time to make the courtroom suspenseful and add tension. At the beginning of the quote, Twain writes “one, two, three” to greatly exaggerate the pause and mocks the overdramatic suspense in standard detective novels. Soon after the pause, Wilson says that he will reveal the murderer. Twain describes, “Stunned, distraught, unconscious of its own movement, the house half rose, as if expecting to see the murderer appear at the door, and a breeze of muttered ejaculations swept the place” (Twain 116). The audience of the court rose as if the murderer would reveal himself right in front of them, a scenario that seems impossible and preposterous. Twain shows the audience’s stupidity and how he thinks detective authors overdramatize their novels. On the same page, Wilson explains that fingerprints differ from every person. Twain writes the audience’s response, “Every man in the room had his hand up to the light, now, and his head canted to one side, and was minutely scrutinizing the balls of his fingers; there were whispered ejaculations of ‘Why, it’s so-I never noticed that before!’” (Twain 116). The audience looks at their fingers, not knowing that each finger differs from the other. Detective novels usually contain fingerprints. Knowledge of fingerprints prove crucial in detective novels in novels like Sherlock Holmes which were very popular at the time Puddn’head Wilson published. However, the audience in Pudd’nhead Wilson does not have knowledge of unique fingerprints. Twain mocks the audiences of detective novels by remarking the stupidity of them. With the exaggerated suspense and dull-witted audiences at the end of the novel, Twain ridicules detective novels and remarks the weaknesses of the overused detective formula, which includes harmonic endings and execution. John S. Whitley explains much of why in Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain avoided the detective novel formula in order to convey the limits of the genre. He writes that Twain avoids key characteristics of detective novels such as happy endings and concealment of the murderer. He argues that Twain shows that there are certain circumstances, such as a closed society, where writers cannot follow the formula for detective novels. Twain failed to make a harmonic ending with the closed society and also execute Tom as a punishment. Whitley makes sense of Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain intended Pudd’nhead Wilson as a satirical novel. Twain’s novel contains many criticisms against society, people, and genres. The ideas of the novel will most likely stand satirical. Pudd’nhead Wilson’s last scene contains many overdramatic pieces such as unprecedented moments of silence and an overly unintelligent audience. Throughout Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain pokes fun at detective novels and remarks the weaknesses of the overused detective formula.
Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson. New York: Dover Publications, 1999.
Whitley, John. "Pudd'nhead Wilson: Mark Twain and the Limits of Detection." Journal of American Studies 21.1 (1987): 55-70. JSTOR. Cambridge University Press. 10 Mar. 2010.…...