The four best known novels of Samuel Clemens are "Tom Sawyer", "Huckleberry Finn", "The Prince and the Pauper", and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". All four were turned into films on several occasions. His fifth best novel is "Pudd'nhead Wilson", written in 1894, which is his last novel set in the Mississippi Valey he grew up in and loved.
Set in 1835 to 1856, "Pudd'nhead Wilson" is (like "Huckleberry Finn") a serious look at slavery and it's effects on all people. Twain is trying to show that it demoralized everyone, and just wrecked lives. In fact, it makes the situation facing the escaping slave Jim in "Huckleberry Finn" look relatively irritating but almost bearable - and Jim is separated from his wife and kids by the system. In "Wilson", a slave Roxy is almost sold down river (to the harsher plantations of the deep south) when suspected of theft. She has had a baby, and she realizes what an uncertain future Chambers (short for "Valet de chambres") faces. Her mistress has just died in childbirth, giving birth to Tom Driscoll. He and the light skinned Chambers looks very similar - so she switches them. She reasons that later on she will reveal the truth to the real Chambers, and he will be grateful for what she did.
But her son becomes a spoiled brat, and a wastrel. Why shouldn't he be, when he lives in a system where he commands all these slaves? He even stabs "Chambers" (the real Tom) for displeasing him at one point. Roxy tries to control him - but "Tom" (the real Chambers) is uncontrollable. When he does learn the truth he tries to shut her up by selling her downriver.
As for "Chambers" (the real Tom) he becomes a downtrodden slave - he is a good person, but he lacks education, and he is frightened of his safety around the clock. Twain's point is brilliantly developed - in a slave culture nobody prospers.
"Tom" (the real Chambers) is heir to his uncle, Judge Driscoll. He really frightens "Tom" because of the threat of disinheritance - especially as "Tom" is a physical coward. The threat of his fighting a duel with one of a pair of Italian twins who have moved to the area leads (briefly) to his being disinheritance. But "Tom" manages to give a sophistic excuse that his uncle accepts.
The story has other interesting aspects, including the first use of "fingerprinting" in a novel to solve a crime. And it is loaded with the humorous aphorisms and saying of Puddn'head Wilson himself. Pudd'nhead is actually David Wilson, a lawyer who moves to the town and practices their. A comment he makes labels him a "Pudd'nhead" because the yokels don't realize he has a clever ironic sense of humor. He really is not a "puddinghead" (a fool) and actually rises to be town mayor as well as the person who reestablishes justice at the end of the story.
This television version was part of the series of Mark Twain stories that appeared in the early 1980s and is (so far) the only modern version of the story on film. Ken Howard was quite good as "Pudd'nhead" and Steven Weber gave a good performance as "Tom" (the real Chambers). The film is well worth catching if you can see it. It is a worthy version of Twain's novel.
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