In Pudd'nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain, the character David Wilson makes a remark that results in the townspeople writing him off as a "pudd'nhead".

He had just made the acquaintance of a group of citizens when an invisible dog began to yelp and snarl and howl and make himself very comprehensively disagreeable, whereupon young Wilson said, much as one who is thinking aloud--

"I wish I owned half of that dog."

"Why?" somebody asked.

"Because I would kill my half."

Like the townspeople, I am rather literal minded and can't really understand what the character is getting at. Can someone explain?

4 Answers 4


The part about "half" a dog is to lure the townspeople into the joke. If he had just said he wished to own the dog, it would have been too obvious, and not interesting enough. This way of phrasing it forces people to ponder what he means, and what possible reason there could be to want only half of a dog.

Once people have fallen into the trap, he springs the punchline, "so I could kill my half!" Obviously, this would kill the whole dog, so the whole thing is just a deliberately convoluted way of expressing that he wants to kill off the dog to shut it up. (Elaborate circumlocutions were popular comedic devices of the time.)

It's a faux-sophisticated young-person's joke, that probably would have left young men in the frat houses at Wilson's college convulsing with laughter, but it is badly misjudged for this stolid audience. It's Twain's way of establishing the distance in perspective between Wilson and the townspeople.


At its most basic, the "joke" is simply the expectation created by the initial remark, followed by the anticlimactic punch line.

This could also be alluding to some of the racial themes explored in the novel. The irrationality of owning half a dog can be compared to the irrational implications of then-present ideas about race. For example, the character Roxy is considered to be property due to having one-sixteenth black ancestry, despite having both the appearance as well as the intelligence and strength of character attributed to whites at the time.

Additionally, this can be seen as a metaphor for society. Society in Mark Twain's time was deeply divided along racial, political, social, and economic lines (much like the present day). Yet this joke can be taken to mean that it would be impossible to simply separate the good from the bad without destroying the whole.


Let's re-organize the phrase: "Because (of the fact that) I would kill my half, I wish I owned (only) half of that dog."

It's really the act of ownership that's the issue here, and with it responsibility. Wilson's joke is like saying "I like plants but I can't own them because I'd forget to water them and they'd die". But Wilson wouldn't own the other half, so he wouldn't have to have full responsibility; someone else would take care of the dog for him. It's a joke, a kinda meta-joke and not a very good one, so no wonder he gets ragged on (even if the townspeople are, generally, ableist garbage).

His joke's logic is also why being an aunt/uncle is great: you still get lil kids, but you don't have to, like, be their parents.

  • +1 but I don't think "ableist" is the word you want.
    – Mike
    Sep 5, 2017 at 1:45

It's perhaps a literary foreshadowing of the primary storyline of the book, what happens to the twins. Each has two "halves" of their personal identity, the genetic and the social (often called nature and nurture). The discovery of the switch changes one-half of the identity, genetic/nature. The townsfolk and all the rest think the other half, the socioeconomic role, would just automatically go along with too, but of course it doesn't.

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