From Bondage to Freedom: The Use of Religion and Superstition in Huckleberry Finn

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From Bondage to Freedom: The Use of Religion and Superstition in Huckleberry Finn

Jillian Davis

Religion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, is "the service and worship of God or the supernatural" or "a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith". Superstition, on the other hand, is defined as "a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of the causation" or "an irrational abject attitude of mind towards the supernatural, nature or God resulting from such a belief". Both of these concepts are dealt with extensively in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, but the ways in which they are approached and viewed do not necessarily run parallel to their given definitions. The question, then, is "How are religion and superstition used in Adventures Huckleberry Finn, and how does that use define their meaning?"

Simply put, Twain's use of superstition and religion as opposites in Huckleberry Finn is all about character; creating a character, defining a character, predicting a character's actions, and so on. He approaches this in two ways, the most basic being to set up juxtaposition between opposing character beliefs. From the very beginning of the novel, we see Huck living at odds with the refined Widow Douglas and the devout Miss Watson. The Widow Douglas begins her interaction with Huck by calling him down to supper, and reciting grace over the food, which he comments he can't see the point in (the results, no doubt, of having grown up without religion, as Pap reveals in subsequent chapters). After dinner, she reads him the story of Moses which, according to the footnotes, she is using as a metaphor to preach to Huck about the state of his own life, and the good work she has performed by taking him in (14). Through it all, Huck is either bored or uncomfortable, in either case not understanding the value in what the Widow is telling him. The problem only escalates during his discussion with Miss Watson about Heaven and Hell, when he declares he'd rather not be where she is in the afterlife, particularly if it means being separated from Tom Sawyer (15-16). In these few, short paragraphs, the use of religion makes it abundantly clear just how different Huck is from the more 'sivilized' characters in the novel.

Once the reader understands what Huck isn't, she can then begin to discover what he is, the second of Twain's uses of religion (or, in Huck's case, lack of) and superstition. Where Miss Watson, the Widow Douglas, and (presumably) a fair number of the townspeople (the new judge in town, the people whose children Huck went to school with, Judge Thatcher) were pious, or at least put some stock in the idea of a God and a Heaven, Huck (like Tom, and Jim, and many of his other friends) counts on his cache of folk knowledge, myth, and superstition to guide him. A good deal of this he learns from Jim; for example, when the two of them first encounter each other on Jackson Island, he asks Jim about ill luck omens:

Some young birds come along, flying a yard or two at a time and lighting. Jim said it was a sign it was going to rain...I was going to catch some of them, but Jim wouldn't let me. He said it was death...And Jim said you mustn't count the things you are going to cook for dinner, because that would bring bad luck. The same if you shook the table-cloth after sundown. And he said if a man owned a bee-hive, and that man died, the bees must be told about it before sun-up next morning, or else the bees would all weaken down and quit work and die (56).

Conversely, Huck has his own knowledge of signs, mostly related to death and the dead, which are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. For example, following his first night with Miss Watson and the widow Douglas, Huck retreats to his room, and while sitting there alone in the dark, listening to the nighttime sounds, begins to dwell on some truly superstitious notions. First, he talks about the sound out in the dark, describing how he "heard an owl, away off, whoo-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill [sic] and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me...I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something...and so can't rest easy in its grave..." (16). Minutes later, he accidentally kills a spider, and immediately breaks into a cold sweat, shaking all over because he knows, without being told, that the incident was a bad omen. "I got up and turned around in my tracks three times and crossed my breast every time; and then I tied up a little lock of my hair with a thread to keep witches away...You do that when you've lost a horse shoe that you've found...but I hadn't ever heard anybody say it was any way to keep off bad luck when you'd killed a spider" (16).

These fears and superstitious thoughts dominate a good portion of Huck's (and Jim's) decision making in the novel, which, if you're a believer in the idea that your actions define you, says a lot about who he is as a person. In that light, he appears dependent, fearful, and somewhat directionless; like those who cling to religion, he needs to believe in something outside of himself as having the power to control their destiny (though unlike the pious masses he encounters on his travels, he believes in struggling against fate rather than accepting it). Also, the tendency for the majority of the omens referenced to have some kind of negative connotation speaks, I feel, to the lack of happy circumstances in the character's life, and as such, his inability to believe that good things may be in store for him. As far as he is concerned, life is about living with and dodging misfortune, not moving from happy time to happy time with a few down periods in between. Case in point: when Huck asks Jim if there are any good omens, Jim replies (and Huck accepts), "Mighty few—and dey ain' no use to a body" (56).

The question, then, is why does Huck feel this way? Simply put, he is someone who believes very strongly in the power of evil in the world, probably a result of his upbringing. It may a result of genuine naïve belief, or it may be a way of coping with all the terrible things that have happened to him in his life. In class, we talked extensively about his misfortunes; his mother's death, living with an abusive alcoholic father, feeling alone and abandoned—all things which would necessitate growing up faster than the average child. Initially, we decided that the fact that he treats life like a game, or one of Tom Sawyer's adventure novels, and seems to think that he himself is invincible, is his way of coming to terms with the things that have happened to him—if they're all part of some fairytale, then he can't be hurt by them. However, I believe that his superstitious nature is also part of that coping device. As we discussed, human beings have a strong need to see patterns, to organize and make sense of things that otherwise wouldn't make sense, and which we wouldn't be able to process. Superstition seems to be Huck's way of making sense of why terrible things continue to happen to him.

All of this same reasoning is often applied to explain why people seek out religion; why the feel they need to believe in something. However, in Huckleberry Finn, this does not appear to be the case. The characters in the book who have religion are depicted as 'sivilized', well adjusted, happy, and without fear. When bad things befall them, they are able to view them as a divine act of God, something that was meant to happen and should be accepted, not feared or mourned as a travesty. This contrast again serves to set Huck apart, to make him part of a very visual (from the reader's perspective) minority, and something of a rebel. By defying conventional religion and religious standards, he is also defying the society he so desperately wants to escape, setting himself up as an individual (however disadvantaged) pursuing his own passions and staking a claim on his future.

Knowing all of this, one must question, then, just what religion and superstition mean in the larger context of the book. Summarily, Twain's point seems to be quite clear: religion is a source of bondage, something to constrict the individual and bring him down out of the realm of possibility. It is representative of everything in the world that Huck desires freedom from; it is the metaphor for the source of his troubles, and the very reason he's constantly on the run. Superstition on the other hand, both the fantastical, magical scope of it, and the imaginative capacity to believe in it, is his Promised Land. It is freedom from constriction, and freedom from all his misfortunes; it is, on a grand scale, exactly the liberation that Huck is in search of, the telltale fireworks of his personal Independence Day.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc.,

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