Mark Twain Questions for English 222 American Literature, CSU Fullerton



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From Letters from the Earth (Norton Vol. C 336-51).

From Letters from the Earth

1. On page 336, in the initial section of our selections from Letters from the Earth, how does the narrator describe God's creation of the universe? How does it stack up with the account given at the beginning of Genesis? In what way is Twain's account here a reflection on that biblical account of creation?

2. On pages 337-38 of Letters from the Earth, what is the "Law of Nature," and why does it so confuse Satan, who discusses it with his fellow angels? When Satan asks God about this Law, which makes the universe and earth within it operate as they do, how does God explain what he is up to in establishing the supremacy of such a law? How does he explain its corollaries predation and suffering on the part of the hunted?

3. On page 338 of Letters from the Earth, God adds mankind to the creation, and tells Satan to behold this new "experiment." How does God explain the nature of this experiment to Satan? In what way does this explanation relate to the old idea (so popular during the C15-17 European Renaissance) that man is a microcosm of all other beings? On the whole, what seems to be God's attitude towards both mankind and the animals he has created?

4. On page 339 of Letters from the Earth, what does the temporarily banished Satan identify in his first letter to Michael and Gabriel as the most striking thing about human beings? What is it about their attitude towards their place in the creation that really seems to get under Satan's skin, and why?

5. On pages 339-42 of Letters from the Earth, in his second letter Satan chattily relates the strangeness of the heaven he says humans have invented. How does he develop his critique of this so-called invention -- what does he identify as the most ridiculous things about it, and what reasons does he give for thinking that way? On the whole, how would you sum up Satan's beef with the popular Christian concept of heaven as a place where nice people go to praise God forever?

6. On pages 343-44 of Letters from the Earth, in his fourth letter Satan serves up his cynical opinion of Adam and Eve's fall from grace. How does Satan view the famous Fall? What did Adam and Eve gain and lose by chomping that apple in the Garden of Eden? Moreover, why, according to Satan, didn't God just eliminate mankind altogether after things went bad later on -- why did he bother commanding Noah to build an Ark?

7. On pages 344-47 of Letters from the Earth, in his sixth letter Satan dwells with particular emphasis on the fly that he says was left behind when Noah launched his Ark; the fly had to be retrieved. To what supposed insight about the nature of God himself does Satan's discussion of this forgotten fly lead -- what divine trait, according to Satan, is the key to understanding God's ways? Ultimately, what criticism does Twain's Satan seem to be making here regarding the source of Christianity's conception of the Divine Nature?

8. On pages 346-47 of Letters from the Earth, in his sixth letter Satan transitions from his comments about Noah, the Ark and the fly that got left behind to a concluding discussion on God's key trait and his responsibility for everything that happens. How does Satan explain his rationale for this latter point – namely God's supposed culpability for the evils that human beings suffer? What traditional Christian notion about who or what is responsible for "bad things happening in the world" is Satan implicitly arguing against here?

9. On pages 347-51 of Letters from the Earth, a bureaucratic "Recording Angel" writes to one Abner Scofield, evidently a wealthy coal dealer living in New York, regarding the status of the fellow's prayers. Which of Abner's prayers are granted, and which are not? Why so? Finally, how would you sum up the Recording Angel's remarks as a critique of prayer generally on the part of Mark Twain, as it seems fair to suggest?

10. General question: as we can see from the Norton editorial notes about the original posthumous publication of Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth, which volume only came out in 1961 (over half a century after the author composed his notes), the effort has always been controversial, for the obvious reason that in it the author serves up an unsparingly satirical analysis of Christian theology and everyday practice. What do you think of the selections you have read, or the entire volume if you happen to have read it? Is Twain just being mean-spirited and derisive about a belief system many others hold dear, or do you think his criticisms, if such they be (after all, this is fiction), are worthy of respect for their bluntness and overall quality of thought?

11. General question about Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth: the current intellectual landscape here in America and in Great Britain and parts of Europe contains a fairly robust number of strong advocates of atheism or agnosticism, the scientific method, etc. over against basically any kind of religious belief or practice. Some names we could mention in this regard are the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and comedian/talk show host Bill Maher. And then there are the so-called Pastafarians, who insist on replacing every mention of a traditional, metaphysical God with a reference to what they find an equally bogus metaphysical entity, "the Flying Spaghetti Monster" (FSM). If you are familiar with some of these critics, how does Mark Twain's wry satire compare to the sorts of arguments they make against the truth-status and moral uprightness of the world's religions?

12. General question about Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth: let's say that for the sake of argument, we granted the compelling force of the author's apparent objections to Christianity or indeed any religion whatsoever. (I am not suggesting that you should actually agree or disagree with Twain -- that is hardly my place!) Would that mean we ought to accord "reason" or "science" or "the scientific method" our absolute or near-absolute trust as a way of coming at our existence and reality? Why or why not?

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