Parenting and the Narrative Imagination in Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson

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  Parenting and the Narrative Imagination in Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson
  Parenting and the Narrative Imagination in Twain’s Pudd’nhead WilsonMark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson is, in its most basic form, a fable, one that is at once humorous and a commentary on racial stereotypes and social divides in the pre and post !ivil War era" #lthough there are many e$amples of Twain’s ideas regarding race relations to analy%e, one of the more subtle and simultaneously most effective narratives in Pudd’nhead Wilson is the role of parenting" Twain bridges the racial and social gap between black and white society, despite glaring differences in social status and vernacular, by showing the reader that the parental motives of both an #frican#merican slave woman and white, prominent male have the same  base" #s a conse&uence, these very different characters are sympathetic and relatable to the  predominantly white readers of the era, constructing what Martha Nussbaum would call the 'narrative imagination( in which readers engage with and become familiar with others through acts of storytelling" #lthough this theme in Pudd’nhead Wilson has not been studied e$tensively up until this point, there is is ample evidence to support that, through the common theme of  parenthood, Twain creates a spectrum that unites seemingly opposite characters, thereby challenging his readers to develop sympathy and empathy in a move towards improved citi%enship and better understanding of cultural 'others"( In her book !ultivating )umanity, Nussbaum argues that storytelling begins with a  parent and a child and is the starting point for most moral interactions and understanding among  people, especially as they grow, develop, and learn new stories *+-" .he argues that children’s stories interact with readers’ 'own attempts to e$plain the world and their own actions in it" # child deprived of stories is deprived, as well, of certain ways of viewing other people( *Nussbaum +-" Therefore, the responsibility of the writer in employing the narrative imagination is to flesh out the e$perience of their characters in order to create a story, a   background, and an e$perience that allows the readers to 'put themselves in someone else’s shoes( and develop a greater understanding of human e$perience" Through this kind of narrative, the audience may participate in what /iana Meyer calls 'imaginative reconstruction,( an alternative form of empathy by which 'to empathi%e with another"""is to construct in imagination an e$perience resembling that of another person( *0-" Therefore, via the narrative imagination and imaginative reconstruction, and with the understanding that, 'traditionally, the assumption has been that good fiction for children and adolescents has a positive influence on society( *1ukenbill 02-, Pudd’nhead Wilson cultivates positive citi%enship by eliciting sympathy and compassion from its readers towards characters that they may not otherwise be able to relate to" In their various roles as storytellers, authors create depth that both complicates characters’ situations and gives readers something to be compassionate about" In Pudd’nhead Wilson, Twain creates uni&ue opportunities for compassion by giving authentic voices to characters who may not otherwise have had a chance to speak in his era3 a woman, an #frican#merican, and a pair of Italian immigrants, to name a few" The effectiveness of this narrative construction relies on what !hristine .ylvester calls 'empathetic cooperation,( or, the way in which people become 'relationally rather than reactively autonomous with those we have defined as unmistakably other, with those who are not inside 4our’ community, our value system( *22-" 5urthermore, 'empathy enables respectful negotiations with contentious others because we can recogni%e involuntary similarities across difference as well as differences that mark independent identity( *22-" In this way, 'the arts play a vital role, cultivating powers of imagination that are essential to citi%enship( *Nussbaum +6-" 7y creating relatable circumstances involving unfamiliar characters, a narrative can cross social divides and open up new possibilities for more inclusive citi%enship, both socially and legally"  It is critical to acknowledge that both 8o$y, the poor and uneducated #frican#merican slave, and 9udge /riscoll, the town leader and 5irst 5amily :irginian *5"5":"-, are set up as devoted parental figures" 8o$y makes the choice to switch Tom and !hambers because she is trying to do what is best for her son from her limited position as a black woman in a  predominantly whitemale society, one typical to many small, southern, slaveholding towns  before the !ivil War" .he is terrified that Percy /riscoll will sell her son down the river and so she switches the two boys, hoping to secure a better fate for her son; 'oh thank de good 1ord in heaven, you’s saved,( she says, 'you’s saved< = dey ain’t no man kin ever sell mammy’s po little honey down de river now<( *Twain 2>-" #s Myra 9ehlen notes, 8o$y’s options within her social  position are limited and,'given those alternatives, her stratagem appears righteous and even fair, despite its concomitant enslavement of the white baby" Without condoning this but simply by focusing on 8o$y and her child, the story enlists the reader wholly on their side( *?@-" 5urthermore, 'the subversive act that 8o$y commits against white society is no less a confirmatory one( *!arton +6-, since its necessity reiterates the oppressive divisions of race and class in /awson’s 1anding" If this act is 8o$y’s only solution, then its inevitability promotes within the reader a reconsideration of socially constructed divisions based on identity and the  potential impacts of these divisions on the lives of children = both black and white, as witnessed through Tom and !hambers’ respective fates" Importantly, although 8o$y’s decisions may be morally flawed, they come from an arguably sympathetic source" #s a parent, 8o$y, and arguably most parents, make choices to  provide what they believe is best for their children" Twain cleverly Au$taposes 8o$y’s role as a  parent with that of 9udge /riscoll who, along with his wife, was 'very nearly happy, but not &uite, for they had no children( = that is, of course, until the 9udge adopts Tom *Twain 6-"  Indeed, when Wilson discusses Tom’s adoption later with 1uigi, after Tom has run into some trouble with the law, Wilson describes Tom as the 9udge’s 'doll = his baby,( and furthermore capitulates, 'Bne must make allowances for parental instinct,( referring to 9udge /riscoll’s lenient nature with his adoptive son *Twain +-" Twain draws parallels between 'maternal Austice and patriarchal right( in order to e&uali%e the roles of parents in the novel in such a way that classifications of race, gender, and class are not considered essential *9ehlen 6?-" 8ather, the most important aspects of parenting are the decisions parents must make given their relationship to and understanding of society and their children’s place within that society" The tendency of the white and educated reader, the most common audience in Twain’s time, might be to fault 8o$y for her choices because she is an uneducated, #frican #merican woman; however, Twain shows his reader that 9udge /riscoll’s treatment of Tom is not any more effective in bringing him up 'right( = in fact, the 9udge himself says of Tom3 ')e is worthless and unworthy but it is largely my fault" )e was entrusted to me by my brother on his dying bed, and I have indulged him to his hurt, instead of training him up severely and making a man out of him( *Twain C0-" 8o$y’s actions seem e$treme until the reader is made to understand that 8o$y fervently believes that what she is doing is the best choice for her child, Aust as 9udge /riscoll  believed that providing for every need of his adopted son was the right choice" 8o$y’s action, which may have otherwise been dismissed as irresponsible or immoral, is thereby clothed with sympathy, as she can now be seen through the lens of parenthood" Twain, in constructing a story that compels narrative imagination, depends on one parent’s compassion for the measures taken  by another parent, for the sake of good parenthood, apart from whether that parent is actually good or not"  Parenthood crosses all social and racial lines, as most parents would be sympathetic or compassionate toward another parent who has made drastic and lifechanging decisions for the  betterment, or attempted betterment, of his or her own child" In the end, the tragic fates of Tom and !hambers again force the reader to see the similarities between both characters3 'Tom( is eventually sent down the river, despite 8o$y’s greatest efforts to protect him, and '!hambers,( finally acknowledged as a white man, is unable to Aoin white society because he has been too fully sociali%ed as a black slave" Insofar as neither parent is ultimately successful, Twain makes an important distinction between being a good parent and being a relatable parent3 neither 9udge /riscoll nor 8o$y is a te$tbook 'good parent,( since the decisions they make apparently doom their children, but because they are in a parental role widely understood by the latenineteenthcentury audience, they are still able to function as sympathetic characters" In fact, to reflect once more on Nussbaum’s view of the role of vulnerability in eliciting sympathy and compassion, it seems that by failing as parents, 8o$y and 9udge /riscoll are even more effective in e$tracting the sympathies of audiences that may fear similar parental failures" With these considerations of the role of readership in mind, it is important to note that women were the most active readers of the novel during Twain’s time *1yons D2D26-, something he surely would have known was key to popularity as a novelist" Eiven this, it is interesting to consider the use of parental roles in eliciting sympathy, presumably with the knowledge that women, whose positions in society were primarily focused around their roles as parents, were those also most likely to be reading and interpreting Pudd’nhead Wilson in its novel form" To &uote 9ames Machor, 'What is meant to read as a woman"""is a significant &uestion with a significant hermeneutical history, a history that assumed an especially visible shape in earlynineteenthcentury #merica, when new methods of printing, improved literacy, and changes in
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