Superstition is a recurring theme in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Superstition is defined in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance. ” Mark Twain effectively uses superstition to both foreshadow events and to contrast the personalities of the characters in the book. The “more sivilized” characters of the book do not believe in superstition, but the less educated characters, such as Huck and Jim, often make decisions based on their belief in superstition.
While several of the lesser characters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn believe in superstitions, it is Huck and Jim, the two main characters of the novel, who reveal that they live according to their superstitions. For example, in Chapter 4, Huck, who is then staying at Widow Douglas’ house, sees a spider crawling up his shoulder. He flicks the spider and it lands in a burning candle, shrivels up and dies. “I flipped it off and it lit in the candle; and before I could budge, it was all shriveled up.
I didn’t need anyone to tell me that was an awful bad sign” (p. 3). According to Huck, killing a spider can bring bad luck. In an effort to reverse the bad omen, Huck turns around three times, each time crossing his breast, and then ties up a little lock of his hair to keep the witches away. Huck isn’t even sure this ritual will work for killing a spider, as it was intended for another bad omen, but he feels compelled to try to do something, so strong are his superstitious beliefs. Huck encounters another superstition Chapter IV of the novel.
Huck, who is living with the Widow Douglas, spills the salt and immediately tries to reverse the bad luck by tossing the salt over his left shoulder. Miss Watson, who has recently come to live with her sister, the Widow Douglas, stops him, however, and this causes Huck to worry because he cannot finish his ritual. “I reached over for some of it as quik as I could to throw over my left shoulder to keep off the bad luck…feeling all worried and shaky, and wondering where it was going to fall on me, and what it was going to be” says Huck (p. 13).
Miss Watson, along with Widow Douglas, along with many of the more civilized people of the novel do not believe in superstitions the same way as do slaves and less civilized people. Miss Watson will not let Huck toss the salt over his shoulder because she is trying to provide him with a good civilized and educated upbringing. According to Jim, one of the worst things you can do is touch a snakeskin. Huck does just this after faking his death at the cabin and discovering Jim at Jackson Island. The first sign that the snakeskin is actually causing bad luck is when Huck decides to play a trick on Jim.
Huck takes the dead rattlesnake that he has killed and put it near where Jim will be sleeping in the cave to scare him. Huck forgets that a snake’s mate curls up beside its dead mate. When Jim got into bed that night the dead snakes mate bites Jim on the heel, causing Jim to be unable to walk for a time. Touching a snakeskin is supposed to be so bad that Jim says that he would rather look at a new moon a thousand times over his left shoulder than touch a snakeskin.
“I awluz ‘spected dat rattlesnake-skin waren’t done wid it’s work” (p.90) says Jim after his and Huck’s raft is torn apart by the steamboat. Jim, who tends to be more superstitious than Huck, introduces Huck to many superstitions he had never heard before. According to Jim, …you mustn’t count the things you are going to cook for dinner, because that would bring bad luck. The same if you shook the tablecloth after sundown. And he said if a man owned a beehive and that man died, the bees must be told about it before sunup next morning, or else the bees would all weaken down and quit work and die (p.39).
When Huck decides to catch some young birds “flying a yard or two at a time and lighting”(p. 39), Jim will not let him because he says it will bring death. “He [Jim] said his father laid mighty sick once, and some of them catched a bird, and his old granny said his father would die, and he did. ” (p. 39). It is generally believed that many of the superstitions found in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn originated with the slaves and then spread throughout the South.
Through his writing, Mark Twain infers to the reader that mainly the slaves, the uneducated, and the unreligious believed in the superstitions. Huck, being poor and uneducated, believed in them because his Pap, who was found with a cross in his boot to keep the witches away, raised him to believe that way. Likewise, Jim, who was a slave, also believed in superstitions. The theme of superstition in the book by Twain serves two purposes – it makes the reader wonder what will happen next and also accurately portrays the various levels of society of the time.