Imagery involves the use of symbols and figurative language to convey allegorical (deeper) meaning. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the author employs frequent use of biblical imagery by alluding to religious events and teachings recorded in the bible. However, Twain’s use of biblical imagery serves a bigger role than comparing the experiences of his characters with biblical events; it helps to portray the hypocrisy of Christian beliefs that glorify outward showing of righteousness. This idea portrays the condition of religion in America during the slave years, when self-professing Christians and slave owners condemned their subjects to a life of misery, in direct contrast with biblical teachings. With reference to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, this essay argues that the author uses biblical imagery to satirize the hypocrisy of American Christianity during slavery in particular and the folly of blind acceptance of religious dogmas.
In chapter 1, Mark Twain makes reference to biblical allusions by comparing Huck to a lost lamb. In the eyes of Widow Douglas, Huck’s lack of religious upbringing and non-Christian ways signifies a lost soul. She compares him to a lost lamb that, unless found by the shepherd, would wonder away from the flock and be eaten by wolves. This imagery parallels Jesus’ teachings in the bible about unsaved souls. In his parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep, Jesus says that a good shepherd who lost one of his hundred sheep shall leave the ninety nine and go search for the one he lost (Luke 15: 4). He further adds that upon finding the lost sheep, “he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home” (15: 5-6). Twain uses this imagery to compare the act of Widow Douglas in welcoming Huck into her house. Huck states that “The widow she cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb” (Twain 10). Apparently, she believes that whoever is not established in Christianity shall lose their life like the lost lamb that gets eaten by wolves. Consequently, she regards her act of teaching Huck about the bible as saving him from the lost ways of the world, its sins and un-Christian lifestyle (like smoking) which only lead to hell.
However, Twain portrays the hypocrisy of her self-righteousness by showing how she prohibited Huck against smoking but approved of snuff “because she does it herself” (Twain 5). Similarly, the American society recognized the sacredness of biological ties between family members, and thus the judge who ruled in favor of Huck’s father over his custody determined that “courts mustn’t interfere and separate families if they could help it” (Twain 32). However, it could not, with its Christianity and civilization, see the evil of selling slaves and separating them from their families as Miss Watson intended to do to Jim. On the contrary, Huck has a natural sense of justice, right, and wrong, which serves him better than Christianity serves its believers (Wieck 42). In this light, Twain mocks Christianity by portraying the hypocrisy of those who profess to be believers. He also portrays Christian beliefs as subjective and biased values whereby self-professed believers determine right and wrong on the basis of what they can approve rather than referring to principles. It is, in part, this arbitrary and biased way through which Christianity approves or disapproves of human behavior that repulses Huck to the extent of resisting Widow Douglas’ efforts to “sivilize” him.
Mark Twain makes reference to heaven and hell to portray Christianity as a myth whose full scope even believers themselves could not comprehend. Twain presents the notions that Christians hold regarding heaven and hell in a manner that suggests childish fantasy. Widow Douglas’ sister, Miss Watson, tells Huck that once in heaven, “all a body would have to do there was to go around all day with a harp and sing, forever and ever” (Twain 6). This description of life in heaven, however, does not appeal to Huck who finds it boring. Thus, he concludes that he will not have any business going there, more especially because the likes of Widow Douglas and Miss Watson will be there. He chooses the alternative of hell to avoid them and their “sivilizing” as well as the boring business of singing all day for eternity. The mockery, however, is in Twain’s suggestion that Huck, a child, is able to see through the foolishness of regarding eternal singing as a desirable life, while adults like Widow Douglas clamor for it. There is a hint that Huck does not even believe that heaven or hell exist, especially after dismissing the story about Moses upon learning that he (Moses) is long dead. With his child’s atheist mind, Huck is clever, and perhaps mature in a sense, to know that the dead are of no significant value to the living.
In contrast, Christians, however mature and “civilized” they are, are gullible enough to accept doctrines that have no foundational basis. This idea alludes to the bible verse where Jesus thanked God for revealing the truth of salvation to infants and hiding “from the wise and intelligent” (Luke 10:21).Thus, Mark Twain portrays Christians as children in mental ability, compared to Huck who criticizes and questions beliefs and moral values before embracing them. This is particularly evident when he wrestles with the moral dilemma of whether failing to report Jim to Miss Watson amounts to concealing stolen property or he should let him escape to avoid being sold and getting permanently separated from his family. Ironically, the Christian slave owners or preach brotherly love, like the Grangefords and the Shepherdsons are blind to the moral issues associated with slavery, while a wretched, uncivilized kid of poor upbringing sees the immorality of enslaving fellow human beings (Johnson 106). This form of lip-service, the hypocrisy of projecting an outward righteous image while hiding evil motives is further portrayed by the long standing enmity between the Grangeford and Shepherdson families. This is exemplified by their act of leaning their guns against the walls during church services in which sermons of “brotherly love” are preached (Twain 174), but a few days later murder each other. The hypocrisy of Christianity is emphasized when men from the two Christian families attack each other in a deadly battle, “running along the bank shooting and singing out, ‘Kill them! Kill them” (Twain 179). Huck is disgusted to the extent of having no guts to narrate the whole incidence, while Christians enjoy this bloodshed. Their actions of projecting a false righteous front are reproofed in the bible, where it is written:
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This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me . . . in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men . . . Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition (Mark 7: 6-9).
In this regard, Mark Twain mocks Christianity when its believers fail to practice its teachings (Taylor 48). The Shepherdson killers who wiped out the Grangefords are the kind of Christian hypocrites who offer lip service in church while their heats are black with evil.
In conclusion, Mark Twain uses biblical imagery in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to highlight the hypocritical nature of American Christianity during the period of slavery and the irrationality of holding to unverifiable religious myths and beliefs. Through the character of Huck, Twain portrays the superiority and reason over blindly accepted dogmas. He shows that even without the civilizing effect of Christianity, Huck could make better decisions that than the hypocritical Christians. Similarly, Mark Twain suggests that Christianity turns people into gullible believers who fail to question their actions or religious beliefs.