The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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Religion and Superstition Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Slavery and Racism Theme Icon
Society and Hypocrisy Theme Icon
Religion and Superstition Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Freedom Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Religion and Superstition Theme Icon

There are two systems of belief represented in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: formal religion (namely, Christianity) and superstition. The educated and the “sivilized, like the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, practice Christianity, whereas the uneducated and poor, like Huck and Jim, have superstitions. Huck, despite (or maybe because of) the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson’s tutelage, immediately has an aversion to Christianity on the grounds that it takes too much stock in the dead and not enough in the living, that Christian Heaven is populated by boringly rigid people like Miss Watson while Hell seems more exciting, and, finally, that Huck recognizes the uselessness of Christianity. After all, prayers are never answered in Huck’s world.

On the other hand, Huck and Jim’s superstitions, silly though they are, are no sillier than Christianity. Huck and Jim read “bad signs” into everything, as when a spider burns in a candle, or Huck touches a snakeskin. Jim even has a magic hairball, taken from an ox’s stomach, that, when given money, supposedly tells the future. Huck and Jim find so many bad signs in the natural world that, whenever anything bad happens to them, they’re sure to have a sign to blame it on. However, one of the subtle jokes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a joke with nevertheless serious implications, is that, silly as superstition is, it is a more accurate way to read the world than formal religion is.

It is silly for Huck and Jim to read bad signs into everything, but it is not at all silly for them to expect bad things to be just around the corner; for they live in a world where nature is dangerous, even fatally malevolent, and where people behave irrationally, erratically, and, oftentimes, violently. In contrast, formal religion dunks its practitioners into ignorance and, worse, cruelty. By Christian values as established in the American South, Huck is condemned to Hell for doing the right thing by saving Jim from slavery. Huck, knowing that the Christian good is not the good, saves Jim anyway, thereby establishing once and for all a new moral framework in the novel, one that cannot be co-opted by society into serving immoral institutions like slavery.

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Religion and Superstition Quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Below you will find the important quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn related to the theme of Religion and Superstition.
Chapter 3 Quotes

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 much for me, but she told me what she means—I must help others, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself…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.

Related Characters: Huckleberry Finn (speaker), The Widow Douglas and Miss Watson
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

As part of being "sivilized," Huck is given a religious education in which he's instructed to pray. However, he gets mixed messages on this point. Miss Watson, for one, tells him to pray for whatever he wants, but Huck soon realizes we only very rarely get what we pray for. The Widow Douglas betters Miss Watson's instructions, and says that people can't get the material things they want through prayer, only "spiritual gifts." That Miss Watson and the Widow disagree suggests that religious truth is not self-evident and absolute, but dependent on interpretation. 

Huck is too practical to have much use for spiritual gifts, however. We might say that he is self-sufficient, that he has everything he needs inside of himself already. Moreover, Huck comes to think that serving others and acting selflessly isn't all it's cracked up to be: people who constantly serve society become bound by society's customs and sacrifice their freedom. Ironically, it is the untamed, unchristian Huck who develops the richest, most loving relationship in the novel, with Jim. The Christianity of the Widow and Miss Watson doesn't exactly practice what it preaches.

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