Was It Heaven? Or Hell?

Twain, Mark

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Dec-30-1996
  • Last revised: Sep-13-2006


Twain paints a picture of an all female family of four: Margaret Lester, widow; her 16 year old daughter, Helen; and Margaret’s extremely proper twin maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester Gray, aged 67. It is a household in which "a lie had no place. In it a lie was unthinkable. In it speech was restricted to absolute truth, iron-bound truth, implacable and uncompromising truth, let the resulting consequences be what they might." With this background, Twain sets up a perfect scenario of hide-bound morality only to turn it on its head, an iconoclastic trick for which he is deservedly well known.

The doctor caring for the mother and daughter, suffering from typhoid, cuts the aunts’ pietistic morality about lying to shreds, demonstrates the shallow logic and inconsistency of it and predicts they will lie in a greater fashion than they can imagine. True to form, Twain has the aunts go to great lengths to falsify the condition of the critically ill daughter to the mother to prevent the truth from worsening her condition. The title derives from the final lines of the story when an angel of the Lord comes to their house and delivers the judgment for all their lies, a judgment the reader is asked to guess: Was it Heaven? Or Hell?


This is a marvelous story that dissects the conventional wisdom of truth-telling-from verbal to non-verbal lying, Kantian absolutism, situational ethics, lying to protect a patient ("therapeutic privilege")--and is a wonderful companion piece to R. K. Narayan’s short story, The Doctor’s Word (see this database). It also can be used in straight medical ethics courses with Sissela Bok’s monograph, "Lying : Moral Choice in Public and Private Life" (Pantheon, N. Y., 1978).

It differs from Narayan’s story in that the moral tension is all within the family and between family members and not between a health professional and a patient. It is nonetheless quite effective in examining the strength of one’s preconceived morality when stressed by the exigencies of illness.


First published: 1902, in the collection, The $30,000 Bequest.

Primary Source

Signet Classic Book of Mark Twain Short Stories


New American Library

Place Published

New York