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Examining Whether Huckleberry Finn is a Literary Response to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Examining Whether Huckleberry Finn is a Literary Response to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe essay

When Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after the Civil War, it was in part a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pre-Civil War novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While supporting many of Stowe’s claims and motives, Twain also found fault in several aspects of her writing. For example, Twain undoubtedly agreed with Stowe’s anti-slavery attitude, as well as her depiction of a moral and gentle black man triumphing over the evils of society. However, judging from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it seems that Twain disagreed with Stowe’s use of the cult of domesticity, religion, modification of language, and her ultimate hopes for blacks after they were granted freedom.

The similarities and differences between Stowe and Twain appear in their respective characterizations of Tom and Jim. In Chapter 26 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when little Eva is on her deathbed, Stowe writes the following portrait of Tom, who is at her side: “Tom had his master’s hands between his own; and with tears streaming down his dark cheeks, looked up for help where he had always been used to look. ‘Pray that this may be cut short!’ said St. Clare, – ‘this wrings my heart.’ ‘Oh, bless the Lord! It’s over, – it’s over, dear Master!’ said Tom; ‘look at her'” (321). In Chapter 15 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain writes the following passage, in which Jim is speaking to Huck:When I got all wore out wid work, en wid de callin’ for you, en went to sleep, my heart wuz mos’ broke bekase you wuz los’, en I didn’t k’yer no mo’ what become er me en de raf’. En when I wake up en fine you back agin, all safe en soun’, de tears come en I could a got down on my knees en kiss’ yo’ foot I’s so thankful. En all you wuz thinkin ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie (95).In the former passage, Tom is portrayed as a gentle, female-like, religious, well-spoken person. Jim, too, is depicted in the latter quotation as being gentle and female-like, but there is no mention of religion, and he speaks in “Missouri negro dialect,” as Twain calls it in the Explanatory Note preceding the novel.

Uncle Tom and Jim are clearly men of feeling. In fact, in both passages, the two men are openly displaying emotion one of several characteristics of women in terms of the cult of domesticity. However, Stowe’s use of the cult of domesticity was to appeal to women readers as the “moral sex.” In her concluding remarks, Stowe tries to elicit action from women by appealing to all of the qualities in the female realm of the cult of domesticity (i.e. morality, childrearing, education, and religion):And you, mothers of America, – you, who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind, – by the sacred love you bear your child; by your joy in his beautiful, spotless infancy; by the motherly pity and tenderness with which you guide his growing years; by the anxieties of his education; by the prayers you breathe for his soul’s eternal good; – I beseech you, pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate the child of her bosom!” (479)Twain, on the other hand, while he recognizes Stowe’s use of the cult of domesticity, uses it for a different purpose to subvert the notions of gender roles. In essence, he uses the cult of domesticity in order to undermine it. This is best exemplified, perhaps, by the contrast of Jim and Huck’s gentle qualities with the artificiality and male violence which characterize the chapters involving the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons.

Twain also finds fault in Stowe’s extensive use of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Obvious elements of religion in her novel include the typology of the American continent and the use of the Mississippi River, the sermon-like quality of the book (especially the final chapter), and most of all, the portrait of Tom himself as a Christ figure. An example of this is in Chapter 41, when Tom is approaching death at the hand of Simon Legree, his satanic master. Even after all of the evil he has suffered from Legree, Tom still prays for his salvation. He says, “Oh, if [Legree] only could repent, the Lord would forgive him now; but I’m ‘feard he never will!” (452) Twain makes a mockery of religion early on in his novel, with the widow Douglas teaching Biblical stories to Huck. Huck tells the reader: “. . .I was in a sweat to find out all about [Moses]; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time, so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people” (14-15). It is clear that while Stowe centers her novel around Christian morality and the Bible, Twain thinks Christianity is submissive and feminine.

Another issue about which Twain disagrees with Stowe is that of language. As seen from the aforementioned deathbed passage, Tom speaks with considerable eloquence for a black slave. This is in part so that Tom’s character will appeal to northern readers. The molding of Tom’s character to appeal to an audience represents what Stowe herself did on a larger scale when writing her novel. On top of trying to be an influential female author, she also tried to write a novel that would appeal to northerners as well as southerners. Her depiction of Arthur and Emily Shelby as “good” southern plantation owners is an example of her attempt to appeal to southern readers. While Twain parallels Stowe’s illustration of capitalism corrupting slavery (e.g. Miss Watson plans to sell Jim, just as Arthur Shelby is forced to sell Tom), he does not, like Stowe, engage in manipulation of language in order to appeal to a greater audience. In fact, Jim’s “Missouri negro dialect” is similar to the way in which Twain wrote his entire novel.

Twain’s narrator is Huck, who is in all senses of the word, a realist. Huck is a very literal character who, most importantly, tells it like it is. Twain uses the local dialects in order to react against the “overcivilized” language of contemporary New England writers. This is portrayed in the book by Huck’s refusing to be “sivilized.” Indeed, the last lines of the novel are: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before” (296). Thus, Twain is also reacting against Stowe, who allowed herself to be bound by language. As Thomas Cooley notes in the preface, Huck’s narration, like Twain’s, is. . .the language of speech, and it is very different from the language in which most American literature was written before 1885. The language of Irving, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and even Melville was a formal, ‘literary’ language; at its worst, it was sometimes inflated into what Mark Twain called ‘the showiest kind of book-talk’ (viii).This idea of the corruption of language ties in closely with the ultimate goal or driving force behind both authors. Stowe, who was writing before the legal end of slavery, suggested that after they were freed, blacks should be educated and Christianized in the North, and then should emigrate to Africa.

In her Concluding Words, Stowe writes: “Let the Church of the north receive these poor sufferers in the spirit of Christ; receive them to the educating advantages of Christian republican society and schools, until they have attained to somewhat of a moral and intellectual maturity, and then assist them in their passage to those [Liberian] shores, where they may put in practice the lessons they have learned in America (481-482).”

Twain feels that beneath Stowe’s good intentions lies a fundamental fault. That is, that Stowe fails to recognize the fact that human beings are, and have always been, free. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act. The reader might assume, then, that one of her immediate goals was to repeal that legislation. Twain observed that with the corruption of language, came the corruption of human beings. In response to Stowe, Twain created a novel which attacked language, and which exposed its corruption. At the crucial point in the novel, when Tom Sawyer reveals the fact that Jim has been freed by the widow’s will, Twain is actually mocking the idea that humans can be bound by words. Rather, by drawing on the themes of lawlessness, Huck’s refusal to be “sivilized,” and the corruption of language as in the Duke and Dauphin’s Shakespeare productions, Twain emphasizes the idea that Jim has always been free as a human being, and that ultimately, the widow’s will is meaningless. This idea of language being corrupted and of words misconstruing the truth is common among 19th-Century novels such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Jane Smiley, in her essay entitled “Say it Ain’t So, Huck,” has said that “The very heart of nineteenth-century American experience and literature, the nature and meaning of slavery, is finally what Twain cannot face in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (360). Furthermore, she has stated that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is far superior in its ability to address the issue of slavery. I think such a statement is unfair, since Twain’s approach to addressing the issue was substantially different from Stowe’s. In writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain built upon Tom’s gentle side and Stowe’s anti-slavery intentions, while at the same time responding with a few ideas of his own. He wrote outside the traditional gender roles, dismissed religion as a weakening agent, and exposed the fallacy in allowing language to control a human life.

Works Cited

Smiley, Jane. “Say it Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘Masterpiece.'” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Thomas Cooley, ed. Norton Critical Edition. New York: 19992.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Signet Classic. New York: 19983.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Thomas Cooley, ed. Norton Critical Edition. New York: 1999

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