Dissertation – Chapter 5 – Mulatta Mama in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (2 of 7)

Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/
Post it Notes like I used copiously while writing my dissertation. Image by Pexels on Pixabay at https://pixabay.com/en/post-it-notes-sticky-notes-note-1284667/

© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade

Mark Twain and Motherhood

Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson takes place during the early 1850s in a small slaveholding Missouri town, slightly south of St. Louis.  It relates the freedom stories of three racially ambiguous people: the slave Roxy, her son Chambers, and the master’s son Tom.  Roxy, who is only one-sixteenth black, looks like a white woman.  Her son Chambers, a mere one-thirty-second black, also appears white.  Tom, as the master’s son, stands as the only “real” white person of the trio.  Chambers and Tom share the same birthday, and Roxy, who rears them both, is the only person who can tell the two apart.  Early in the novel, Roxy switches Chambers and Tom in the crib, thus bestowing freedom on her son and enslavement on her master’s son.  She never reveals their true identities.  (From this point forward, I will follow Twain’s example and call the slave-born Chambers, Tom; and the freeborn Tom, Chambers.)  When Tom’s father dies, he frees Roxy, who becomes a chambermaid on a steamer, and Tom and Chambers go to live with Tom’s uncle.  Tom later sells Roxy back into slavery, and she escapes from an Arkansas plantation to find freedom.    

Through the character Roxy, Twain reveals the potential power embedded in motherhood and aligns his text with Stowe’s.  This understanding begins with Roxy’s given name, Roxana.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s mother was named Roxana.  Roxana Beecher was a paragon of Calvinist womanhood (Fields 6, 9).  In other words, Roxana Beecher was everything that Roxy is not.  Yet both Roxanas mother en abstentia.  Roxana Beecher died while Stowe was young; nevertheless, “‘her memory and example had more influence in moulding her family, deterring from evil and exciting to good, than the living presence of many mothers” (Fields 12).  Similarly by switching the babies, Roxy’s influence on Tom is removed yet ever vigilant and present.  Both Roxanas exert power over their children, despite their physical absence.  By making Roxy’s personal characteristics so opposite of those of her namesake, yet acknowledging that their absent mothering yields similarly powerful results, Twain engages the different yet overlapping spheres of black and white mothers.  Both races find strength in motherhood; nonetheless, black and white women must use different strategies to mother effectively.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Twain’s narrative style in his novel invites feminist readings.  Literary critics Carolyn Porter and Myra Jehlen argue Roxy’s maternal inclinations forward Twain’s work as a feminist text.  Carolyn Porter describes Pudd’nhead Wilson’s plot as a “subversive maternal one” (125).  She further describes Roxy as a “powerful weapon in Twain’s arsenal” (135).  Myra Jehlen similarly argues that the congruency between Roxy’s statuses as mother and black woman allow Twain to endow her with a degree of transcendence, that is the individual selfhood afforded to white males and their social ability to create themselves (114).  For Jehlen, this transcendence most aggressively asserts itself when Roxy holds nature and race in “abeyance” and switches the babies (117).  Twain demonstrates through Roxy the power inherent in motherhood.  Porter notes how he marks the “slave mother at once antebellum America’s most tragic victim and potentially one of its most powerful subversive agents” (123).

Porter and Jehlen both acknowledge the power embedded in motherhood as experienced by the slave Roxy.  To extend their arguments, I suggest motherhood itself as the wellspring of will, courage, intelligence, and creativity that Roxy possess and uses in garnering freedom.   Motherhood enables Roxy to conceive of freedom and emboldens her to create and act out subversive race and gender roles, through racial passing and blackface minstrelsy, in her effort to enact the liberty of citizenship.   

Privilege, Citizenship, and Race

The social structures under question stem from the predominance of US white supremacy, defined as the “radical inequality” between whites and nonwhites in every aspect of social life (Gordon 174).  White supremacy offers a standard of privileges that only certain humans can possess, simply by the accident of their birth (Gordon 175-76).  The problem of privilege is that it grants things like safety, food, and shelter – all things that should not be privileges but rather ought to stand as basic human rights.  So white supremacy, then, places humanity in the possession of whites alone (Gordon 175, 178).   Accordingly in the world of Twain’s novel, Roxy does not enjoy the guarantee of these human rights.  So in order to make a bid for these rights, these basic American freedoms, Twain has Roxy employ, with varying degrees of success, racial passing and blackface minstrelsy.  Because Roxy is fifteen-sixteenths white, she appears to be a white woman, but because she is only one-sixteenth black, Roxy is legally a slave.  Roxy’s legal status as white-skinned slave, with her potential for passing as free and passing freely into white society, challenges white supremacy and ideas of American citizenship.

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