Religion and Superstition in Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” Essay
Updated: Nov 6th, 2020
Two belief systems influence the character of Tom Sawyer in The Adventure of Tom Sawyer – religious dogma and superstition. Religion may be defined as the worship of the Supernatural or God. Superstition stems from ignorance and fear of the unknown. The question that arises is if Tom’s religious beliefs are the same as his superstitious beliefs or are they in conflict. Does an analysis of Tom’s beliefs redefine the two terms? The examination of Tom Sawyer’s character shows that Mark Twain used religion and superstition as compatible forces.
Tom’s Religious Opinions
In the novel, the adults in the fictional village of St. Petersburg, where Tom lived, gave importance to religious practices. They insisted on practicing religion seriously and so the children of the village were made to attend Sunday school and visit church. Tom’s religious beliefs are not very firm. For Tom, religion is a perfunctory duty imposed on him by his guardian, Aunt Poly. He attends Sunday school not to gain religious education but to play with other children. According to the village custom, Tom had to visit a church every Sunday. However, he had no interest in sermons. Instead, he merrily laughed at the yelping dog that interrupted the sermon being delivered in the church (Twain 47-48).
Tom does not always adhere to religious customs like saying a prayer before bed. However, religion has a moral effect on him. He feels guilty of stealing as his understanding of religion had taught him to believe so. He thinks stealing is a sin and is conscious of the divine consequences that incite fear in him. Thus, Tom’s religious beliefs were based on his idea of sin, punishment, and retribution.
Clearly, religion for Tom was a duty imposed by society. The religious beliefs were not strongly internalized. However, the fear of sin had created a strong impression on the young mind and the religious code had taught Tom about moral righteousness. Tom can be considered somewhat religious as he showed some understanding of the religious moral code of conduct. However, he did not feel that religious rituals were of great importance and could be ignored as per convenience.
Superstition had a stronger influence on Tom’s character. Religion was a mere obligation to Tom, but superstitious beliefs helped him to make decisions. Tom’s belief in witches, devil, ghosts, and evil create a strong impression on the young mind that influences many of his actions. For instance, when Tom’s tricks to find the marbles fail, he is shocked to find that his superstitious belief had failed. Therefore, he uses another superstitious belief about witches to explain the initial failure.
Though it took him some time to find his lost marbles, yet, he was convinced that he had found them with the aid of the trick enshrined in his superstitious belief. This shows that Tom had many superstitious beliefs, which were open to interpretation. In another instance, Tom refuses to go out for a swim with his friends out of fear when he loses his bracelet that was supposed to protect him from cramps (Twain 135).
Further, Tom and his friends had a strong belief in the magical powers of dead cats (Twain 54). They believed it was a cure for warts and could be used to reveal hidden information. The incident when Tom and Huck went to the graveyard to perform a cure with the aid of a dead cat, they witnessed the murder of Dr. Robinson (Twain 189). This incident set in motion the other events in the novel. Thus, the juvenile superstition of Tom became the catalyst for the unraveling of the main plot of the story.
Tom’s superstitious beliefs influenced his decisions. He sincerely believed in his superstitions and was willing to act upon them that resulted in the unraveling of the main plot of the novel.
Are these two belief systems compatible or in conflict
Religion to Tom is a compulsion, imposed upon by the society. For him, religion is a mandatory obligation that forces the boys to leave their merriment to visit Church. Tom’s understanding of religion is mostly restricted to divine justice and retribution. His religious belief was an outcome of fear. However, religion did not have a strong effect on his decision-making. On the contrary, his belief in superstition influenced his actions. Tom, like the other boys of his age depicted in the novel, had an imaginative mind that believed in ghosts, witches, treasures, and magic. He believed that fantastical creatures and events were evil and must be feared.
Thus, Tom’s religious beliefs and superstitious beliefs arose from fear. Mark Twain writes in the preface to Tom Sawyer that the “odd superstitions” depicted in the books were “all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story” (Twain 2). This confirms that superstitious beliefs were present among most children of the time when religion dictated the way of life in most villages. Tom’s religious beliefs create the root of his superstitious beliefs. Hence, religious and superstitious beliefs are compatible forces in the novel.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Penguin, 2010.
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