Magic & Superstition in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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      Introduction: The novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn abounds in superstition, right from the beginning. Besides being amusing, a mention of these superstitious beliefs also provides the breadth to associate the story with the times. In his "Preface" to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain wrote, "The odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story - that is to say, thirty or forty years ago".

      Huck and Jim are the only two characters in the novel who are not able to relate to the society that they live in. They are very different from all the other characters in the novel, not only in their social standing, but also in their compassion and perception of humanity. Numerous episodes in the novel bring us face to face with the level-headedness and sagacity of both these characters. Nevertheless, as soon as they encounter trouble, superstitious beliefs prevail and they seem to lose this rationality. As Daniel Hoffman, in his book, Form and Fable in American Fiction, writes, "Twain's usual assumption is that white persons of any status higher than trash like Pap have little knowledge of, and no belief in, superstition". This, probably, explains why, of all the characters in the novel, superstition is mainly believed and practiced by Huck and Jim.


      (a) Killing of the spider: In chapter 1, when everyone in Widow Douglas' house goes to bed, Huck hears some sounds that forewarn him of a bad omen. In his edginess, he happens to flip off a spider into the candle flame. Before he can do anything to retrieve it, it gets "all shriveled up". Considering it to be a definite sign of ill-luck, he gets all the more jittery and apprehensive of forthcoming events. "I didn't need anybody to tell me that that was an awful bad sign and would fetch me some bad luck...". He tries all tricks to ward it off. "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 But I hadn't no confidence".

      (b) Incident of the Spilt Salt: Ancient Greeks had the belief that salt was a sacred thing. Due to its preservative qualities, it was believed to be a storehouse of life itself. They also regarded it as a symbol of friendship. Due to such reverence accorded to the item, if any was spilled, it was supposed to be a precursor for the end of a friendship. There were also beliefs that evil spirits had their home on the left-hand side of one's body and, therefore, the custom of spilling salt over that side was believed to result at the end of these evil spirits.

      In chapter 4, during his breakfast, Huck accidentally spills some salt Believing the above-mentioned superstitious belief, he tries to throw it over his shoulder to "keep off the bad luck" but Miss Watson intercepts the act and doesn't let him execute it. She chides him for the mess you are always making". Widow Douglas is more tolerant towards the boy and makes her sister mellow down.

      Huck later admits that he is not satisfied with what the widow had done for him and says "The widow put in a good word for me, but that wasn't going to keep off the bad luck, I knew that well enough. I started, after breakfast, feeling worried and shaky, and wondering where it was going to fall on me, and what it was going to be". He s extremely nervous about ill-luck befalling him. This shows his insecurity and how much he fears his fate in his current life with "civilization".

      And, sure enough, Huck soon has reason to believe the truth of evil. In chapter 4, when Huck perceives Pap's footprints on the snow, he is petrified at the prospect of having his father back. Immediately, he runs to Jim and asks him to foretell whether Pap is back or is it a figment of Huck's imagination. Jim gets a fist-sized hairball and starts the procedure of determining facts through the power of magic. Jim believes that the hair-ball, which has been retrieved from the stomach of an ox, has magical powers to foretell one's fortune.

      Initially, the hair-ball refuses to answer. When Huck hands a counterfeit quarter to Jim, the hair-ball tells him that his father may or may not stay. It prophesizes Huck's impending good as well as bad times. You're father don't know yet what he's a-wine to do. Sometimes he specs he'll go 'way', en den again he spec he'll stay... You gwyne to have considerable trouble in yo' life, en considerable joy. Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you's gwyne to git well again. Dey's two gals flyin' 'bout yo' in yo' life. One uv 'em's lighten t'other one is dark. One is rich en tother is po You's gwyne to marry de po one fust en de rich one by en by. The fact that the "prophecy" balances the "good" and the "bad" and doesn't predict anything specific, is evidence enough of its unreliability. It is merely an element of a child's play and imagination.

       (d) The 'Rattle-Snake' Incident: In chapter 10, Jim also cautions Huck that talking about a dead body would lead to ill-fortune. Huck agrees with him this time. But, when Jim warns Huck that touching a snakeskin brings bad luck. Huck doesn't believe him because, earlier in the same chapter, Huck and Jim had already run into good luck. They had found eight dollars in the pocket of an abandoned overcoat. Jim persists in his belief and says, "Never you mind, honey, never you mind. Don't you git too peart. It's a-comin'. Mind I tell you, it's a-common". As expected, bad luck ensues when Huck kills a rattlesnake and curls it up at the foot of Jim's blanket when the snake's mate discovers it there, it bites Jim on the heel. This gives the two reasons to believe the superstition.

      (e) Other Minor Incidents of Superstition in the Novel: In addition to these superstitious happenings, there are numerous other incidents in the novel that talk of Jim and Huck's superstitious beliefs. These stem, primarily, from folklore and traditional beliefs of lands all over the world.

      In Chapter 1, Huck hears "an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody dead, and a whippoorwill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me...Then away out in the woods I heard that kind of a sound that a ghost makes when it wants to tell about something that's on its mind and can't make itself understood, and so can't rest easy in its grave, and has to go about that way every night grieving".

      In Chapter 3, Huck says that "a drownded man don't float on his back, but on his face." Legend has it that a drowned woman floats face up while a drowned man does so face down. Magical and powerful items demonstrate their power in the novel. Jim wears a five-cent piece on a string around his neck that is supposed to have the power to summon witches and cure many diseases. His hairball can foretell one's future. In Chapter 8, Jim comments that it's a sign of impending rain when young chickens flock together.


      Though critics and other "literate" people have argued, from time immemorial, that superstition is not based on logic and common sense and that it leaps from misinterpreted religious beliefs, it can also be interred that superstition, in the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn represents the pessimism in the life of people who believe in them. It is related to the concepts of hope and fear.

      We have witnessed that it is only Jim (and other minor nigger characters like Nat) and Huck who have faith in superstition. Jim is a runaway slave for whom the most cherished dream is to attain his freedom and be reunited with his much-adored family. Anything that results in a hurdle in achieving this aim is to be warded off. Faith in superstition is his only connection with hope which is, otherwise, quite bleak. This faith buys him to believe that he will wake up one morning and achieve all that he has always wanted. The fear in his life is being sold off to cruel masters in New Orleans or worse still, being separated from his family.

      Similarly, hope is a rarity in Huck's life as well. He has a desperate need to escape from society, if he has to maintain his sanity. By clinging to superstitious beliefs, he hopes to achieve his goal. It is an element of fear that makes him hang on to these beliefs. If he doesn't manage to escape society, he shall be condemned to life, either with Widow Douglas or Miss Watson, or, worse still, with his father, Pap. No way, does he want this fate for himself and, in his desperation, would believe anything that offers him some solace, some hope of happiness and security.

      It is, in all probability, for this reason, that, in the "salt-spilling" incident, despite Widow Douglas' possible assurance that her prayers would bring about no harm, Huck finds the fear of superstitious beliefs to be stronger. His beliefs stem from fear and insecurity; it arises from the fact that he is discontented with the existing state of personal affairs. Through his superstitious and illogical actions (which are not so to him), he Ties to ensure that he gets what he hankers after - his much sought-after freedom from the constricting efforts of society. All that happens seems to signal ill-luck because, for Huck, continuing his life with these "civilized" people around him is nothing less than a curse.

      This reasoning gives us an insight into why we, despite being educated, sometimes, cling to superstition. Assuming that a black cat crossing our path will bring about bad luck and if we are lucky we should say "touch wood" are instances of our own superstitious beliefs that arise from a sense of trepidation for the unknown.


      The "white" lot has nothing to do with these superstitions. They sneer at whatever is detached from them. Nevertheless, it makes us conclude that the "superstitious" bunch of people is, at the end of the day, better off than those belonging to the superior "civilized" class. The former, after all, do not fall prey to the malice of the Sherburns or the viciousness of the likes of the "royal" King and the Duke". They are not "harsh" like the Miss Watsons or ravenous and brutal like Pap. They, to say the least, do not succumb to atrocities like those encountered by Buck or Boggs.

      Jim, as a result of his superstitious beliefs, entices slaves "from all around" to witness the five-cent piece that is believed to have been given to him by the devil. These fellow niggers are fooled into believing what the brainchild of Tom's mischievous pranks. Nonetheless, this trickery faced by them, as well as Jim, is comparatively harmless to what the Wilks girls go through at the hands of the king and the duke. It is relatively less detrimental than the "religious", "white" people at the camp meeting who get tricked of eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents for having believed the evil designs of the "reformed" pirate of the Indian Ocean. "When we got back to the raft and he comes to count up he found he had collected eighty-seven dollars and seventy-five cents. And then he had fetched away a three-gallon jug of whisky, too, that he found under a wagon when he was starting home through the woods". (Chapter 20)

      Though Huck is also superstitious to a certain extent, Jim is, definitely, more so. Critics have pointed out what anthropologists say about incapable and feeble people. They seem to resort to such supernatural beliefs as a support system for themselves. Despite having been brought up in a similar social milieu, Jim and Huck have different reactions to these superstitious beliefs. While the former recognizes these beliefs as true, they are unheard of by Huck (he, belongs to the white community while Jim is a nigger).

University Questions also can be Answered:

What is the place of superstition in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
How is the presence of 'magic' and 'superstition' relevant in the context of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

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