Pudd’nhead Wilson and The House of Mirth are both tragedies which concentrate on the miseries of women who are the victims of either their own expectations or the society’s expectations of them.
In true Twain tradition, Pudd’nhead Wilson deals with the tragedy, thickly laced with his characteristic satire. It is believed that Twain wrote this during one of his dark periods in life when he was going through pessimism created by his financial debacles. The protagonist of the work, Roxy is a slave who can pass of as a white (though she is one sixteenth black). And she is brave.
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.” ( Twain, 36)
In order to create a better life for her son, she exchanges him at birth with the son of her white master. But as fate would have it, her son turns out to be unworthy of the white man’s inheritance and his life goes astray. He even sells her forcibly to a white man in exchange for his gambling debts.
In the House of Mirth, Edith Barton takes the readers through the life of highly desirable Lily bart, who sabotages the prospects of many suitors only to find herself decline into squalid dinginess, only to die of a sleeping draught overdose (perhaps accidentally). Most of the novel is the pursuit of money.
“Society is a revolving body which is apt to be judged according to its place in each man’s heaven;” (Wharton, Chapter 4, Book I)
Lily suffers because of two factors. She is incapable of following her heart and removing money as a vital point of the equation, therefore she suffers the constant heartburn of rejection. She is also not completely efficient in her manipulation of the society around her that she is not entrenched enough to counter the allegations of Bertha against her (of adultery with her husband)
Paradoxically, both novels deal with freedom and slavery. While Twain deals with literal slavery and the lengths to which a mother, Roxy can go to ensure that her son escapes the clutches of slavery that she suffers, Barton talks about slavery to the pursuit of money. In the house of mirth, Lily starts feeling free when she has money and starts feeling enslaved when she does not have sufficient money. But the irony is she is always enslaved to the concept of money.
Human folly led by social pressures and an inability to follow one’s heart are the causes of the tragedy of Lily, while several unfortunate incidents that start with a noble intention form the crux of Roxy’s tragedy. She is freed by her white master whom she deceives by exchanging her son with his and she is again sold off by her own son who does not know the truth. This is one of the best dramatic and tragic elements used by Twain in any of his works.
Perhaps the most glaring similarity between the two novels is the way in which debts ruin a person’s judgment and lead him/her progressively towards more dreaded consequences. Lily’s unintentional debt to Gus when she starts being lavish imagining the money he gives her to be her own returns from the stock market marks the beginning of her end. Similarly “Tom” gambles heavily and this leads him into finding shadier and indirect means to repay these debts, resulting in a murder of his own uncle.
In spite of the fact that neither Edith Wharton nor Mark Twain try overtly to convey any message to the readers, both these novels work as a danger signal posts which need to be looked out for to avoid any pitfalls related to monetary judgment and human judgment as a whole.
Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson. NewYork: Courier Dover Publication, 1999
Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. NewYork: Norton, 1990