The Code Duello and the Reified Self in Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson

By Moore, Scott | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Code Duello and the Reified Self in Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson


Moore, Scott, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


In Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, the code duello--sustained by the traditions of southern gentility and honor--has the power to trump laws, religious creeds, and moral principles. Placed highest among steps to social status, the code is a dominating cultural force in the antebellum southern town of Dawson's Landing. Based on borrowed and stagnant traditions, the code subverts the theories of growth, self-development, and self-recognition developed by Hegel, the German Romantic philosophers, and the later Frankfurt school thinkers. Rather than allow its adherents this self-development and logical reflection, the code requires self-negation and subjective regression. Aspects of the self that do not square with the code are silenced, resulting in a simplified consciousness and a diminished self-consciousness. The code, like the "commodity-structure" nature of capitalism in Georg Lukaacs's History in Class Consciousness, "stamps its imprint upon the whole consciousness of man; his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his personality, they are things which he can' own' or' dispose of' like the various objects of the external world" (100). In short, the code results in the reification of the self. The power of the code to defeat personal or legal moral standards manifests itself throughout the novel--and most dramatically in the social rise and moral fall of David Wilson.

The epigraphic calendar entry for the prefatory "Whisper to the Reader" (each chapter opens with one or two such entries from "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar") foreshadows the moral fall to come: "There is no character, howsoever good and fine, but it can be destroyed by ridicule, howsoever poor and witless" (Twain 55). Telling us that a character can be "destroyed by ridicule," even if that character is "good and fine," the calendar entry invites us to wonder who that person might be. Wilson, the most likely candidate, does indeed appear to be a good, likeable person at the novel's outset. He has "an intelligent blue eye that had frankness and comradeship in it and a covert twinkle of a pleasant sort" (59). Wilson is intelligent, forthright, and friendly--certainly qualities of a person "good and fine." The word "comradeship" deserves special attention here, because it designates an identity bound to relationships with other people--with other consciousnesses. In order to exist as an independent identity, Wilson needs the mutual recognition of those around him. What he wants, in the words of Quentin S.J. Lauer's A Reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, is to enter "the community of self-consciousnesses which is the very truth of self-consciousness" (116). When first encountering the townspeople, however, Wilson makes a "fatal remark" (59), branding him a "Pudd'nhead," a mark of unintelligence that endures for twenty years.

His unfortunate utterance concerns "an invisible dog" that "began to make himself very comprehensively disagreeable." Wilson makes a joke about this unpleasant animal, saying, "I wish I owned half of that dog ... Because I would kill my half" (59). The joke is directed against southern prejudice, criticizing the notions of racial purity sustaining the Jim Crow laws of Post-Reconstruction. Jim Crow laws had at their foundation a concept of biological reductionism, maintaining that a single drop of black blood justified identifying a person as black. All mulattoes, therefore, were legally treated as if they were 100 percent black. The laws annulled the whiteness in a man of mixed race. In other words, Jim Crow laws killed half of the man; hence Wilson's crack about killing half a dog. He is attacking racism and its proponents among the people of Dawson's Landing, alluding to their reifying practice of discarding half a man's identity, while knowing full well the impossibility of removing one half without destroying the whole man.

Wilson has potential at this early point in the novel. He seems to represent a challenge to the system. …

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