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.
Religion and Superstition ThemeTracker
Religion and Superstition Quotes in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
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.