Arrogance of Faith and Atheism: Mark Twain Essay

Pages: 5 (1785 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 2  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

¶ … arrogance of faith and atheism: Mark Twain's "The Story of the Good Little Boy" and Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People"

Both Mark Twain's "The Story of the Good Little Boy" and Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" use an ironic tone to convey the author's theme that merely professing religion cannot be equated with morality or automatically signifies a character's deeper sense of spirituality. In Twain's story, the title protagonist Jacob Blivens models himself upon Sunday school heroes he has read about in moral tracts. He fantasizes about living a glorious life, sacrificing himself for others, and then dying in a pious and noble manner after making a great speech. In O'Connor's work, a superficially pious Bible salesman named Manley Pointer steals an intellectually superior woman's leg. However, the devout Roman Catholic O'Connor uses this incident to expose what she sees as the even greater secular hypocrisy of the wooden-legged Hulga, a woman so intent upon denying the joys present in God's creation she changes her given name from Joy to the false, German-sounding nihilist name of Hulga.Download full
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TOPIC: Essay on Arrogance of Faith and Atheism: Mark Twain's Assignment

Twain condemns the supercilious Jacob's refusal to take pleasure in the normal, Tom Sawyer-like mischief that he clearly sees as a natural part of a healthy boyhood. Jacob will not allow himself pleasure, so he rejects the better part of childhood: he is intent upon making a great name for himself, and dying young. Similarly the Roman Catholic philosophy of O'Connor insists upon the goodness of life and God's creation. The author is clearly repulsed by Hulga's hatred of the natural world. Hulga denies her name Joy, and denies even her last name 'Hopewell.' Unlike her mother who 'hopes well' for the future, Hulga renames herself in a way to align her life with an alien, German philosophical tradition at odds with her Southern, evangelical location. O'Connor calls this "her highest creative act," illustrating that Hulga is so arrogant and atheistic she believes she can deny God his right to create human beings, and her own mother to name her child. Twain's satire is a slightly more conventional expose of religious hypocrisy, but he too condemns Jacob's attempt to 'author' his own life by engineering opportunities for himself to be and to do good. Jacob is looking for ways to easily prove he is superiority to other boys, rather than intent upon really giving help when it is needed. At the end of the story, when Jacob really needs to take action, he bungles the event and dies in the process in a pointless fashion.

Both Hulga and Jacob have an inflated sense of their own self-importance, which is rendered with hyperbole: "Jacob had a noble ambition to be put in a Sunday-school book. He wanted to be put in, with pictures representing him gloriously declining to lie to his mother, and her weeping for joy about it; and pictures representing him standing on the doorstep giving a penny to a poor beggar-woman with six children, and telling her to spend it freely, but not to be extravagant, because extravagance is a sin." Clearly, Jacob's piety is an act of self-aggrandizement, not true faith. Similarly, Hulga's huffing and puffing around with her wooden leg, her determination to seem physically and morally ugly, and her protestation that she believes in nothing, in contrast to her mother's cheery faith and optimism, are satirized.

Although Hulga's mother, Mrs. Hopewell, is a simple woman who is easily 'taken in' by Manley's display of false faith, some of the words she says, such as her favorite cliches: 'nothing is perfect', and 'it takes all kinds to make the world' are revealed to be more truthful than Hulga's supposedly more educated point-of-view. Hulga has a PhD but cannot see that she is imperfect, that her wooden leg hobbles her. This enables Manley to leave her stranded and helpless in the barn after he takes the appendage. Hulga's judgmental view of others is less wise than the idea that it 'takes all kinds to make a world.' Jacob's acts of goodness do nothing to help other people or other creatures in a material fashion, although in Twain's world, the sunny disposition of the common people such as Mrs. Hopewell is replaced by crotchety old women who beat young boys like Jacob, and vicious dogs that resist any attempt to tame and help them. Twain's satire is more one-dimensional than O'Connor's. O'Connor can find pathos and value even in characters like Hulga's mother.

Jacob and Hulga share another trait in common: both of them are poor readers in the sense that they believe everything they read in books. Hulga believes in the German philosophy she has read, uncritically, Jacob is confused that real life seldom imitates the Sunday School books he reads, and is unable to understand the separation between reality and fiction: "When he found Jim Blake stealing apples, and went under the tree to read to him about the bad little boy who fell out of a neighbor's apple-tree and broke his arm, Jim fell out of the tree too, but he fell on him, and broke his arm, and Jim wasn't hurt at all. Jacob couldn't understand that. There wasn't anything in the books like it." Over and over again, in increasingly unrealistic but humorous incidents, Jacob is confused by the fact that his morality is not rewarded. In another example, when he is going to Sunday school one day, he warns boys who are playing truant and sailing on Sunday that they will die, but nearly drowns in the process. He is also savaged by a dog he attempts to save and carefully compares the type of dog that attacked him to the dog in his Sunday school reader: they are the same, which makes the result of his 'good' action even more incomprehensible to him.

Jacob assumes that good people will be rewarded in the world, and the wicked will be punished. This is a simplistic understanding of faith and the universe. Hulga's understanding, in its own way, is just as simplistic. She believes that her knowledge and refusal to believe in anything is empowering, but her sickness and lameness should teach her the limits of her ability to triumph over God's will. Without artificial impediments such as a wooden leg, spectacles, and a degree, Hulga is helpless. Hulga clearly thirsts for human connection; otherwise she would never allow herself to be seduced into a compromising position with Manley. But she is so spiritually blind she cannot see this, and lacks any kind of insight about herself and the vulnerability of the human condition as a whole.

Both Jacob and Hulga embrace death rather than life. Hulga is ill, and miserable about living at home because of her weak heart, so she refuses to enjoy the small pleasures present in life. Eventually, Jacob dies of his superficial goodness, after carefully rehearsing his death speech over and over again. Even on the nicest of days, Hulga tries to determinedly resist its beauty. Hulga claims that this is her honesty, her determination to see things 'as they are' which is one of the aims of secular-rationalist philosophy. But this is arrogant, given that human beings always see things through their own bias, never in an objective fashion. Only God can see things from afar, clearly. Human beings need spectacles, insight, and humility to even have an inkling of 'the truth.' And 'the truth,' O'Connor believes, can only be given by God's grace.

Hulga is judged to be inferior by O'Connor in comparison to her mother and the people who believe the Bible salesman because she sees herself as above them. She takes pleasure in learning that Manley is a hypocrite and does not believe the things he says to people like her mother. She believes that, in her wisdom, she has unmasked him, and then she comes to think that their mutual skepticism creates a bond between the two of them. But Manley's determination to expose hypocrisy only begins at religious hypocrisy -- what he really wants is Hulga's wooden leg and to expose, metaphorically, her secular hypocrisy. He is a kind of demon, a collector of appendages: this denies logical explanation, and thus cannot be anticipated by Hulga.

Hulga is revealed to be what she most fears -- she is a country bumpkin, a 'good country person' who is easily taken in by someone peddling a false ideology, just like her mother and her mother's friend Mrs. Freeman. Only she loses far more than either woman. Furthermore, these women have no illusion about who they are -- they are proud of their simplicity and goodness. Hulga is only proud of her arrogance, and sacrifices her mobility as a result. False religion and false secularism, O'Connor's story suggests, are just as damaging. False religion robs people of their money, and false secularism robs people of the crutches of ideology they use to prop themselves up instead of faith. True faith lies deeper than something that can… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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