Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Theology of Huckleberry Finn

I just finished re-reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  What struck me, this time, were Huck’s insights on religion and theology.  He is a not-very-educated Southern white boy who is about 14 years old, and it is the 1840s.  Because of his ignorance, youth, and personality, he is very honest about the “Christian” society he inhabits.  Here are some of Huck’s insights on various religious topics.  The italicized passages are my own words, giving a bit of context…

At the beginning of the novel, Huck is living with an old widow and her sister, both of whom are very religious.  They try to teach Huck about religion, with little success.  Here are a few examples.  Huck is the narrator...


On hell…

“She told me all about the bad place [hell], and I said I wished I was there.  She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm.  All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.  She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place.  Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.”

On heaven…

“She went on and told me all about the good place [heaven].  She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.  So I didn’t think much of it.  But I never said so.  I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight.  I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”

On Moses…

“After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

On prayer…

“Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it.  She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it.  But it warn’t so.  I tried it.  Once I got a fishline, but no hooks.  It warn’t any good to me without hooks.  I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.  By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool.  She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.”

“I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it.  I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole?  Why can’t Miss Watson fat up?  No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it.  I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was ‘spiritual gifts.’  This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself.  This was including Miss Watson, as I took it.  I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.”

Eventually, Huck runs away from home and ends up in the company of a runaway slave named Jim.  The two travel together on a raft down the Mississippi River, like outcasts from society.  Having been raised in a slave state, Huck has been taught to believe that it is his moral duty to turn in runaway slaves, but he can never bring himself to do it, because Jim is is friend.  Ironically, in doing right, Huck believes he is doing wrong.  At one point, Huck has an opportunity to turn Jim in…

On right and wrong…

“Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now?  No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now.  Well, then, says I, what’s the use in learning to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?  I was stuck.  I couldn’t answer that.  So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.”

At one point, Huck and Jim get separated, and Huck ends up staying with a family called The Grangerfords, who are locked in a very old feud with a neighboring family called The Sheperdsons.  It’s basically a fictional version of the old Hatfields and McCoys feud.  Among the many ironies of Southern culture at this time was the fact that people could be devoutly religious and full of hatred for their fellow man.  The Grangerfords and Sheperdsons attend the same church, which leads to this humorous scene…

On hypocrisy…

“Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback.  The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall.  The Shepherdsons done the same.  It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of roughest Sundays I had run across yet.”

Eventually, Huck and Jim are reunited and resume their raft journey down the Mississippi.  Having all this time together, they get talking about various questions of existence…

On creation…

“It’s lovely to live on a raft.  We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.  Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.  Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.”

Toward the end of the novel, Huck is faced with another chance to turn Jim in which, according to his southern upbringing, was the right and legal thing to do.  Huck is racked with guilt because he can’t bring himself to turn in his friend.  Again, what is ironic is that, in the society in which he lives, he is made to feel guilty for doing the right thing.  This last passage is one of the most beautiful in all of American literature, in my opinion…

“You can’t pray a lie”

“It made me shiver.  And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was and be better.  So I kneeled down.  But the words wouldn’t come.  Why wouldn’t they?  It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him.  Nor from me, neither.  I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come.  It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double.  I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.  I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it.  You can’t pray a lie—I found that out. 

So, in an effort to do the “right” thing, Huck writes a letter to Jim’s owner, telling her where he is, and then this happens…

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and knowed I could pray now.  But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how I near I come to being lost and going to hell.  And went on thinking.  And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place.  I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied for a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore her up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.  And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up on it, and the other warn’t.  And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.”

What makes this passage so beautiful and sublime is it shows how a 14 year old boy can arrive at a wisdom that eludes his elders.  It shows that society does not have the final say on morality.  And it shows that true morality comes not from some authority, but from human relationships of friendship, love, and solidarity.


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