13 December, 2006

To Lie, or Not to Lie

To Lie, or Not to Lie

In his tale “Was it Heaven? Or Hell? Mark Twain weaves the story of a family deep in the grip of tragedy. A young girl and her widowed mother have fallen to the typhoid fever, a rampantly contagious disease that gave little hope of survival to its victims. The mother’s two aunts, the only other members of this pitiable family, spend night and day nursing them both. The conflict of the story however, does not focus on the physical plight of the women, but on the moral. In a heated discussion before the tragedy strikes, the two aunts reveal to the family doctor that within this family, lies are believed to be a most grievous sin and are not tolerated, no matter the consequences. The doctor, described as a most pious man, derides and scoffs at the women’s belief, declaring that everyone tells thousands of lies a day, whether by word or deed, and a lie meant for good was no sin at all. These two declarations, one of the absolute value of the lie, the other giving this value in degrees, is the heart of the conflict of the story. The mother was the first to fall ill and to be quarantined. Soon after, the daughter falls ill as well, but when the mother inquires into the girl’s health, the two aunts can not face the heart break the truth would give the gravely ill mother. Going against their own belief, they lie, and tell the woman her daughter is in good health, condemning themselves, as they believe, to the fires of hell. They maintain the lie through to deaths of both the mother and the daughter, rejoicing in the end that the mother never learned of her daughter’s demise.

A malicious lie, one meant to cause harm or to conceal a malevolent act, is rightly and unanimously called evil. But the name of the lie told to protect another from pain or sorrow, or even to bring joy to another is a debate that is often avoided. On the surface, the Bible is dead set against a lie of any form. While extolling truth as a divine virtue, it commands against telling lies and pronounces a dire fate upon those who tell them: an eternal abode in the fiery pits of hell. Yet, in spite of such dismal decrees, the “white” lie is a prevalent one in Judeo-Christian society. Whether by declaring pleasure of something or someone that is in truth quite distasteful, or by telling children about such mythical beings as Santa Claus, or even by being overly optimistic in a speech to the stockholders, white lies form the glue that holds civilization together. If every man told his neighbor exactly what he thought, when he thought it, society in any form would quickly crumble into the ashes of anarchical war.

So the question remains: Is a lie of good intent a sin, or not? At the end of the story, the two aunts are visited by an angel who demands a confession. They give it and admit they would tell the same lie in the same circumstances. The angel then bends down to whisper their fate. The reader does not hear the verdict, but rather is left with the same question that titles the tale: Was it Heaven? Or Hell?

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