EXISTENTIALISM AND THE DECLINE OF RELIGION AT THE END OF THE 19TH CENTURY

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 12th grade September 2001

download word file, 4 pages 0.0

Downloaded 1779 times

EXISTENTIALISM AND THE DECLINE OF RELIGION AT THE END OF THE 19TH CENTURY During the 19th century, several ideas were developed about the decreasing power of religion and the meaning of life. These ideas were supported or rejected through numerous writings. Herman Melville's Billy Budd embraces God and the morals of Christianity while Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger reflects and supports the ideas of existentialism and a decline in religion in the nineteenth century.

Through Billy Budd, Herman Melville expresses his disappointment with the decline of power of religion at the end of the 19th century. Philosopher William Barret stated that "Religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler of man's life."�1 Although Melville accepted this, he still believed that Christianity should continue to take the largest role possible in man's life. He embodied this idea in Billy Budd. Within the short story, Melville's characters and setting represented a community which ideally (or so he believed) centered itself around religion.

Although the sailors of "the Indomitable"� rarely mention God, several Biblical allusions help create the parallel symbolism. Billy represents Christ, serving as a moralistic model for others. Nearly everyone that comes in contact with Billy adores him. "With no perceptible trace of the vainglorious about him"¦he seemed to accept the spontaneous homage of his shipmates."�2 When Billy Budd indignantly avenges his conspirator, he is hung. This extermination of the symbol of morality may represent what Melville sees happening throughout the 19th century. The men of "the Indomitable"� are not only heartbroken, but hesitant; they begin to show signs of a leaderless, revolting (probably mutinous) mob until Captain Vere sends them back to work. "For suddenly the drumbeat to quarters, which familiar sound happening at least twice every day, had upon the present occasion a signal peremptoriness in it."�3 Melville therefore feels that with the decline of Christianity, man is becoming lost in terms of morality and purpose.

With The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain represents and supports the ideas of existentialism and loss of power of religion by symbolically criticizing mankind of the late 19th century. The Mysterious Stranger takes place in 1590, a time when religion still acted as the center of people's lives. "Religion to medieval man was"¦a solid psychological matrix surrounding the individual's life from birth to death, sanctifying and enclosing all its ordinary and extraordinary occasions in sacrament and ritual."�4 Mark Twain confirms this way of life for the community of Austria in the opening of Mysterious Stranger: "Mainly we were to be good Christians; to revere the Virgin, the Church, and the saints above everything"¦Knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them."�5 This already controverts the basic fundamentals of existentialism. "All essential knowledge relates to existence"¦emphasis on individuality"¦.absurdity is manifest in Christianity."�6 The fact the Twain advocates existentialism becomes apparent via the character of Satan. Satan has the ability to say and do as he pleases, thus directly representing the voice of Twain. Satan tells Nicholas at one point, "Manners are a fiction"�7 and all humans suffer from "Moral Sense."� Moral Sense is somewhat explained as man naively trying to live by the morals of Christianity. Existentialism, on the other hand, documents that these morals clash in certain instances: ""¦the uselessness of moral rules to a man in an extreme situation."�8 Satan later explains, "As a race"¦you lack sense and courage."�9 This disparagement and mockery of God-worshipping humans is not the hypocrisy of a moral-enforcing angel; it is Twain stating that the morals of Christianity are causing man to regress. Thus, by writing The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain voices his support of the popular belief of existentialism and the decreasing power of religion.

Billy Budd and The Mysterious Stranger represent the end of the 19th century by embodying the ideas of decline of religion and rising interest in existentialism. While Melville advocated a return to orthodoxy, Twain may have suggested agnosticism to prevent man from moving backwards as a race. The contrasting philosophies in these two literary works reflect the evolution of thinking at the turn of the century.

ENDNOTES 1William Barret, Irrational Man (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958) 24.

2Herman Melville, Billy Budd (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972) 5.

3Melville 90.

4Barret 25.

5Mark Twain, "The Mysterious Stranger,"� Major American Writers, Third Edition, ed. Howard Mumford Jones (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1955) 1.

6Anthony Manser, "Existentialism,"� Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Philip P. Wiener, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973) vol. 2, 189.

7Twain 4.

8Manser 190.

9Twain 27.

BIBLIOGRAPHY / WORKS CITED Barret, William. Irrational Man. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950.

Manser, Anthony. "Existentialism."� Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Ed. Philip P.

Wiener. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973. vol.II. 189-195.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd. New York: Washington Square Press, 1972.

Michelson, Bruce. "Deus Ludens: The Shaping of Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger."� Mark Twain, Modern Critical Views. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 107-121.

Thomas A. Bailey et al. The American Pagent, Eleventh Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Twain, Mark. "The Mysterious Stranger."� Major American Writers, Third Edition. Ed.

Howard Mumford Jones. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1955. 1-28.