Biblical Serpents in American Literature

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

The Bible tells the first installment of the story of the human race, and from the very beginning, humans have had to deal with temptation. In the Bible, a snake personifies the Devil, who in turn personifies temptation, and Adam and Eve fall prey to the snake’s empty promises, resulting in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

In American literature, authors involved in various movements like romanticism, realism, and modernism all incorporate temptation into their stories, often represented as a snake. After all, the battle between good and evil is at the crux of human nature. For example, Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown tells the tale of a man succumbing to temptation and the devil, and on this path he comes across a man with a serpentine staff. The serpent signifies the devil, and marks Goodman Brown’s descent into hell.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain writes a scene in which Huck plays a trick on Jim involving a snakeskin, ending in Jim being bitten on the ankle. In realism, too, the snake is a symbol for temptation and sin, and Huck’s involvement with it brings about unfortunate consequences. Finally, in My Ántonia, a work bordering the line between realism and modernism, uses a snake as an obstacle that young protagonist Jim Burden must overcome. Like temptation, it is a threat to Jim and his triumph over it increases his status and marks his transition into manhood. Throughout these three eras of literature, the snake has remained a steady symbol of temptation, sin, and the Devil, just as it is in the the Bible. Its permanence as a literary symbol proves its truth – a vital part of human nature is the tendency to occasionally succumb to temptation and sin.


This entry was posted in American Literary Studies, Biblical Allusions 2016, Honors English III and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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