This essay will discuss how Mark Twain uses superstition to develop the plot of his novel while also satirizing religious belief in the America of the 1800’s. I will discuss how the author uses his characters to reflect his own views and uncertainty in this subject while also discussing how these superstitions relate to real-life.
Superstition runs though Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and is infused into the plot and character development process. Often, the superstitious qualities relate directly to the ideas of hope and fear and the characters tend to equate their actions with having an effect on how their path continues. Almost immediately in chapter one, Huck tells us about how he accidentally flicks a spider into the flame of a candle: “I didn’t need anybody that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck…” (Twain, 1885, p 4) Huck then performs an extraordinary dance in trying to undo his misfortune: “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, to keep witches away.” (Twain, 1885, p 4) This scene instantly creates the image of Huck Finn as being superstitious and being genuinely concerned with the consequences of this action which suggests he does believe in superstition.
Arguably, the book parodies religion by using superstition to represent the beliefs of people in real life, and the extent which they would go to in order to avoid bad luck. Much like religious people do in real life, Huck and Jim use superstition to explain away inexplicable events; they take credit when something good happens but when something bad happens, they seem keen to blame it on their bad luck instead. This is often the case with religion, although people tend to take the view that good and bad things happen because God saw fit to do so. It is through religion that Twain manages to link the superstition of the novel to real life superstition: he compares the two and suggests that religion is on a par with superstition, which would have been a very controversial view in the 1800’s.
Potentially another link to religion is the superstition concerning the snake skin. A well-known Biblical story tells of Eve being approached by the snake in the Garden of Eden; eating the apple and cursing the human race for eternity. This connects to Jim’s belief that it is unlucky to touch a snakeskin with your hands. In chapter ten, Huck endeavours to dissuade Jim of this belief and says, “Well here’s your bad luck! We’ve raked in all this truck and eight dollars besides. I wish we could have some bad luck like this every day, Jim.” (Twain, 1885, p 56) The mocking tone suggests that Huck does not believe in Jim’s superstition to quite the same extent but he is proven wrong when later in the chapter, Huck plays a trick on Jim by placing a dead snake at the foot of his blanket. However, by the time they retire to bed, the dead snake’s “mate” is waiting and bites Jim. This suggestion that superstition is both silly but also realistic suggests that Twain may well have had his doubts as to whether it was real or not, but that he didn’t want to flaunt his uncertainty in case he was wrong, like Huck. This is often the case in real life with both superstition and religion. A lot of uncertainty surrounds both areas and the majority of people would prefer to hedge their bets rather than commit to definitely or definitely not believing.
Salt has a lot of lore attached to it concerning luck and misfortune: supposedly, it is good luck to throw some salt over your left shoulder. The Ancient Greeks considered salt to be sacred and as a source of life, and in some cultures, salt was used to purchase goods. In chapter four of Huckleberry Finn, Huck spills some salt at the breakfast table and worried about the potential bad luck, he wants to throw some over his shoulder but can’t because Miss Watson won’t let him. Huck says, “The widow put in a good word for me…” meaning that she would pray for him, “but that warn’t going to keep off the bad luck.” (Twain, 1885, p 16) This suggests that Huck puts more faith into superstition than he does religion, unlike Miss Watson who clearly thinks that by praying for him, his bad luck will be kept at bay. Huck adds that he was “on the watch out” (Twain, 1885, p 17) presumably, for any bad luck. This suggests Huck has a heightened concern when regarding superstition: he does not want anything to bad to happen to him because he knocked over the salt shaker. Salt is a common form of superstition in real life and even today, a lot of people bother to throw some salt over their shoulder to counter-act any misfortune. This particular sign holds up a mirror to the contrast between Huck and Miss Watson’s beliefs: both believe in something which potentially has no real basis in reality but still affect show they live their day to day lives.
Huck and Jim both lead lives that are following a very negative path. Jim is a slave and Huck’s Father is the town drunk and so both of the boys are born into lives which are destined to be difficult and heart-breaking. Arguably, the two boys would like to believe that their fate is controlled by a series of superstitions and by doing things such as throwing salt over their shoulder; they feel as though they are controlling that fate and hopefully diverting it on to a more positive route. As they are unable to change their fate directly, the boys will resort to superstition as a desperate attempt to change their fortune. This is often the case with religion: people who suffer a great deal of misfortune will often pray to God in the hope that this will change their fate, although both religion and superstition are, arguably, faith-based and therefore there is no proof that either of these things help to change a person’s fate. Jim, in particular seems keen to focus on his belief in superstition as being the answer to all his troubles: nearly everything he encounters is passed off as being superstition-related. Because of this, Huck becomes cynical about superstition (as demonstrated by the aforementioned snake incident) and it begins to show Huck’s thoughts that Jim is gullible and naïve. Huck’s views point to Twain’s point of view of superstition and religion (because the links made between the two throughout the book) as being nonsense and the beliefs of less intelligent people. That said, Jim uses his superstition to lure Huck into fully accepting his own stereotypical beliefs about Jim as a black slave in order to hide his real intelligence and ability to manipulate.
However, the superstitious signs do also play a big part in Huck’s life, for example in chapter four, Huck notices footprints in the snow: “There was a cross in the left bootheel made with big nails, to keep off the devil.” (Twain, 1885, p 17) This gives us a big insight into Huck’s inner-mind: his Father is religious and Huck is quite cynical about religion and to some extent, superstition so we are led to believe that Huck is perhaps actively acting against his Father’s beliefs. Huck’s Father is an alcoholic and an un-fit parent and as such, Huck would not be to blame for wanting to be the opposite of his Father. The sign of the cross is a religious symbol which represents Christ’s crucifixion in the name of his Father. The connection between the cross’ meaning and it appearing in the boot prints of Huck’s father is unlikely to be a coincidence. The repetition of superstitious signs throughout the book is designed to satirize religion and when Huck notices the cross, this is Twain quite blatantly making that connection and commenting on his own attitude towards both.
The superstition in this novel often pre-empts plot developments; for example, when Huck decides to escape he deliberately makes a note of the June rise on the river because this rise has always brought him luck and it does here too; he finds a canoe which allows him to make his escape. Twain refers to luck as bringing good fortune like this on a number of occasions and seems to be keen to present a Janus-faced view of superstition as he seems keen to suggest that good omens and signs bring good fortune when recognised such as when Huck finds the canoe; but alternatively, he also gently mocks it through Huck’s voice such as when Huck mocks Jim with the dead snake. Twain also regularly relates superstition to religion and appears to be actively satirizing it: he is saying that religion (and superstition, in turn) can mean absolutely nothing but that it can mean the world to some people; if you want to see something, then you will. Huck represents Twain’s cynicism and Jim represents his optimism but it is unclear whether Twain has fallen down solidly in either camp. He relates superstition to events in the plot as a way of inducing the reader into relating to the text; everyone has a small superstition of some nature which they either allow to guide them or comfort them.
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