Was It Heaven? Or Hell? by Mark Twain: Summary and Review

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Was it Heaven? Or Hell? is a short story that was published in early 1900s as part of Mark Twain’s short story collection The 30000 Bequest.

As a child, have you ever been told not to lie? 

Or lying is bad?

Or lying brings you terrible misfortune?

Lying is possibly the worst thing that you can do?

And what puzzled you as you grew was the same people that told you all those things resorted to lying themselves, correcting you when you pointed it out to them saying ‘ ‘that was for good reason’ and ‘not all sorts of lying is bad’?

Leaving you confused where exactly was the line that separated a good lie from a bad one?

This short story is going to take you a trip down that memory lane.

Was It Heaven? Or Hell?: Summary and Plot Analysis

The story revolves around a female family of four, Margaret Lester, a widow in her late thirties, her teenage daughter Helen, and two righteous maiden twin aunts, Hannah and Hester Gray.

The story opens with the aunts confronting Helen for a lie she confessed to have said.

Theirs was a world where lies had no place. It was something unthinkable. So having their darling Helen confess to lying evokes consternation from the elderly women and they demanded that she confess to the lie in front of her sick mother.

The child implores them to excuse her behavior just that once and spare her mother the agony of her confession of a lie, but her requests fall on deaf ears.

After all, with a duty no compromise is possible.

All said and done, the decision is made. Helen is to visit her mother in the sick room and confess to her lie.

Sobbing and desolate, Helen begs for forgiveness from her mother.

The doting mother, caring not for the lie, immediately forgives her and embraces her to calm her down, as the elderly aunts witness the scene.

It’s at this time that the family doctor makes his presence felt and softly whispers to the aunts to clear out the space and give the sick woman some time to rest.

He appears half an hour later with Helen, who seemed to have returned to her natural cheery self. He quickly examines her, declares her fit  and healthy. He asks her to go back to her room, and excuses himself from her company to talk to the aunts.

Expressing his disappointment at the women for creating a ruckus, he lets them know that Margaret was suffering from typhoid.

The women, terrified of this news, when attempting to rush back to Margaret are stopped by the doctor, who demands a reason from them behind creating a scene.

They  tell him that it was Helen’s lie that started it all.

Infuriated at hearing this, he reprimands the women for their inability to differentiate a helpful lie from a hurtful one and causing incredible danger to both Helen and her mother in the process.

In an attempt to understand why the women were so hell bent on exposing the lie, he discovers that women feared that lying would cost them their soul if they died without the time to repent.

Shaking his head in disbelief he asks the women to reform and learn to be able to tell lies. He then appraises them about the state of health of both Margaret and Helen and indicates that a night and day watch would soon be required for them.

The health of the mother and child continues to deteriorate while the old women continue to dedicate themselves in their service.

The mother implores to see her child but Hester forbade it, fearing that exposure to typhoid might put Helen’s health at risk.

Understanding the gravity of the situation at the drop of a hat/ immediately, the mother accepts the separation from her kid to keep her from harm’s way.

When asked if her daughter was well, Hester ends up lying to say that Helen was well. Hester speaks to Hannah about the lie and Hannah takes it upon herself to expose the truth to her.

Hester begs her not to, as she thinks that this would have grave consequences on Margaret’s health. Hannah, upon seeing Margaret, ends up lying as well, much to the relief of her sister.

Helen’s health continues to deteriorate and she succumbs to the disease soon after in Hester’s arms, happy in her final moments mistaking her for Margaret.

Margaret continues to enquire about letters from her daughter. In an attempt to comfort her , they fake a letter from her and continue to lie about her well being. 

Margaret’s final day comes soon after and she dies never knowing that her child died before her. Hannah and Hester are happy knowing that she was spared the grief.

An angel visits Hannah and Hester at midnight. The women confessed to their human weakness in front of the angel and lifted their heads in supplication. The angel whispered the decree.

Was it Heaven? Or Hell?

Was It Heaven? Or Hell? Review and My Thoughts

For a moment, let’s assume that heaven and hell exist, what do you think happened to the women?

Should they be going to hell because they lied? They bent the rules. They were lost.

Should they be going to heaven because being dedicated in their service to Margaret and Hester all their lives, they made sure they comforted them all through their dying days and spared both of them unwanted grief in their final moments?

If nothing else, making you feel the itch of not knowing a definite answer to this question, is going to make me feel good. Misery loves company, doesn’t it?

And Yes, I am definitely going to hell for saying that.

But seriously, what do you think of the ending of the story?

I would be happy to hear your thoughts on what happened in the end because I admit that I am torn. And thanks to Mr Twain’s characteristic writing in this piece haven’t been able to brush the ending off my mind.


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