All society is based on imitation, repetition, and self creation. Roxy utilizes the same strategies of the dominant society, but is still considered a slave. As a result, it seems that law is very distinct from custom. Characteristics of blackness clearly become articulated early in the book, as a wall of difference is built. It is only once she creates the subversive fiction regarding Tom and Chamber’s race, that the structure of society is at all questioned. Playing off the concept of imitation and custom, Roxy is able to suggest the identity of the boys, and convince the residents of Dawson’s Landing that they are their opposite.
By blurring the lines between written and unwritten law it becomes clear that the ideas of society towards race are not clearly written down, but instead created through imitation and repetition. The paradoxical changing of race, as seen by Roxy in Pudd’nhead Wilson, points out the inconsistencies between custom and law, as well as disrupt the common belief that race is an inherent binary, by smudging any clear distinction between natural and artificial, through the central theme of imitation. It would be too much to jump in immediately with Roxy’s strong character acting against society.
Instead, Twain uses the language of the people in Dawson’s Landing to narrate the ways in which race separates. “From Roxy’s manner of speech, a stranger would have expected her to be black, but she was not. Only one sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show. ” (9) Already, it seems fuzzy to what extent she biologically fits into a racial category, but clearly she is a slave regardless, making it clear that heredity only truly applies to non-slaves. Roxy herself, falls into a seemingly similar trap of racial categorization, when talking about her own child Chambers. Bless yo soul, Misto Wilson, [Roxy says] it’s pow’ful nice o’ you to say dat, caze one of ’em ain’t on’y a nigger. ” (10)
Her apologetic tone towards her child’s race seems to re-entrench societies’ feelings toward black inferiority. Later, during Tom’s realization of his true identity, Pudd’nhead Wilson, continues to build up the racial categorizations, by using Tom to perpetuate the common stereotypes and racial language. “It was the ‘nigger’ in him asserting his humility… the ‘nigger’ in him was surprised when the white friend put out his hand… he ‘nigger in him was ashamed to sit. ” (49)
Tom, in coming to terms with his own identity, hates himself for the same reasons the dominant white culture hates black people. By this point, it seems almost as if Twain’s black characters create the sense of inferiority that plagues blacks in society, but shows how the rest of society enacts such racial separation. These very methods which act as signifiers of the dominant racial categorization, also function to point out the contradictions, and ways in which such binaries are completely constructed by society.
The settler’s and descendents in Dawson’s Landing consider themselves to be rich and dignified descendents of the highest stock. Each man describes himself through his lineage of family, all connecting to the original, high powered First Families of Virginia. Without any context of the landing, it would seem that it was anything but a small settler town.
It seems that these people are not so much concerned with putting down black people, but instead simply creating their own power, through a connection to the F. F. V. Twain thus introduces this idea of imitation early on to establish a sense of gray area, and confusion between what identities really means in the novel. After setting the stage of racial categorization through both Roxy’s descriptions and that of the town, and leaving the reader to “just another antebellum story” the subversive aspects become prevalent. The twins, Tom and Chambers, clearly form the central anecdote of imitation, but they serve this function in a very unique way. Unlike Roxy and the master’s imitation, these boys imitate without any knowledge of it.
They easily become what the other “should” be, while tricking all the residents. Such ease of switching identity disrupts society’s idea that lineage, and precise blood is what creates one’s race or position in society. People cannot determine any difference between Tom and Chambers. Identity is instead created through repetition, and habit not through clear characteristics. “[It] had moved her to such diligence and faithfulness in practicing these forms that this exercise soon concreted itself into habit. (20) Roxy, in switching the twins, puts them through the motions of their everyday life, literally making them into the other’s identity. The novel is pointing out the shallowness of racial identity.
These two boys, fairly easily, switch roles, which makes the reader question how deeply engrained racial identity could possibly be, considering it was so easy for Tom and Chambers to take on an opposite role. After Roxy returns from New Orleans because of her complete loss of savings, she is talking to “Chambers” about Tom losing his will. Take it back, you misable imitation nigger. ” (39) When Roxy reveals to Chambers his place of origin, he makes a comment which is incredibly poignant on the aspect of what makes him white or black. “Yah-yah-yah! Jes’ listen to dat! If I’s imitation, what is you? Bofe of us is imitation white-dats what we is-en pow’full good imitation too. ” (39) Ironically, Chambers is legally white, yet because of being switched and repetitively being put into the position of slave, he becomes black. Twain is making it clear that race is an ideology, not an inherent truth.
As Barbara Jean Fields states, “an ideology must be constantly created and verified in social life, if it is not, it dies, even though it may seem to be safely embodied in a form that can be handed down. ” (28) This connects to Tom’s realization regarding his race, when he acts ashamed toward himself. On one hand he is racist against himself, but his comments are disruptive in the sense they make it clear that the belief of racial hierarchy is simply due to upbringing. Even a man who is black can hate black people if that is what he has been told.
Twain is making it clear that these binaries do not happen accidentally, they are created from habit and repetition of these characteristics, until society at large believes them to be unquestionable truths. Within this culture of imitation coupled with custom, the problematic social structure is subverted through the switching of Tom and Chambers. The F. F. V. utilize elite names and imitation of European elite to posit themselves on top of society. In a similar way, Roxy traces her family tree back through dignified people, in an attempt to separate herself from the average slave.
She says that her family begins with Essex blood, and then traces her lineage through John Smith, Pocahontas, and an African king. Regardless of this dignity, Roxy is still considered a slave; the lowest rung on the ladder of society. Twain makes it clear, through this point, that it’s questionable not only whether race is observable, but whether it can naturally even come about. It seems that Roxy and other blacks are artificially excluded based on what the townspeople want to believe. If they simply observed a person, Roxy would clearly be considered white.
Her description early on surrounds the fact that she seems completely white, and if it wasn’t for the law she would be considered such. The problem that arises though is whether that law is inherently true, or completely defined by custom. This aspect of Roxy’s identity description makes it seem impossible that the law of Dawson’s Landing is anything other than custom and local beliefs.
Not only does Roxy’s creation disrupt the idea that the law surrounding race is true, but it also subverts the laws themselves which have been created under the guise of a natural legal system. The dupe of her [Roxy’s] own deceptions, and on the other stood her child, no longer a usurper to her, but her accepted and recognized master. ” (20) Society’s standards are turned on their head, here, considering the fact that it is relatively easy for Roxy to switch the children and even trick herself. The fiction she creates here is a falsity that is the fear of all those in Dawson’s landing; the idea that race could become not clearly binary.
Suddenly, the codes of authority which seem so clearly defined, the slave codes, and the fractions of blood, all become blurred, solely by the act of Roxy. Her ability to create so much change contrasts greatly against the stagnant white men of Dawson’s landing. While she actively creates a fiction, the slave owning fathers fall lifeless in comparison, making it clear that Roxy’s power runs far deeper than the race attributed to her. The paradoxical creation of Tom and Chambers creates complete instability to Dawson’s Landing.
The inability to tell them apart ultimately calls into question the very distinctions that guide these slave owner’s lives. By denying the ways in which race is not an obvious distinction, the entire concept of identity breaks down, since no one’s race seems to be very static. Through this a circuit of power is both created and broken down. White males have power, and then temporarily lose it through the switch. This loss comes as a result of the exposure of the secret history of miscegenation, which completely contradicts the idea that a drop of black blood makes a person black.
In the end, power is restored when Tom is convicted as a killer, but there is no doubt that power relations have been changed in the sense that it is no longer clear what is natural and what is not. What once was assumed to be inherently true, the idea of racial separation, now seems somewhat impossible considering the entire town has been duped. Law and custom is seen as ritual reenactment, and contradictory, much like the laws and customs which dictate narrow minded thinking in relation to race.