Pudd’nhead Wilson contains all the elements of a nineteenth century mystery: swapped identities, role reversal, masterful disguises, a terrible crime, a detective, a courtroom drama, and a surprising, rather twisted ending to the novel. However, the bigger picture radiates from the southern culture, and the skewed moral codes of society. Mark Twain writes, “To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a Negro” (29). The real criminal is not a character in Pudd’nhead Wilson. The real criminal is society— racial prejudice, slavery, and the undercurrents of the savage treatment inflicted upon fellow human beings.
In the beginning of the novel Mr. Driscoll’s slaves are lined up and questioned about the money that had gone missing on more than one occasion. After being threatened to be sold down the river, all three of them cry out in fear: “I done it! I done it! I done it!—have mercy, marster—Lord have mercy on us po’ niggers!” (33). This is the catalyst that causes Roxana to switch the babies; she would rather die than see her son sold down the river. After having done so, Roxy justifies her action by thinking of the story about the queen. She exclaims, “Dah, now—de preacher said it his own self, en it ain’t no sin, ’ca’se white folks done it. Dey done it—yes, dey done it; en not on’y jis’ common white folks nuther, but de biggest quality dey is in de whole bilin’” (37). A black child (according to the “one-drop” rule) became a king, while the queen’s own child was sold down the river; thus, fair is fair. The white people are being whipped by their own inhumane laws. So my question, which is rather a more philosophical question of ethics, is simply this: does this make it right?