If I were a high school English teacher and I could only choose either Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Adventures by Huckleberry Finn to teach in my American Literature class, I would go with the latter. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe is a classic novel published in 1852. It is said to be, by some people, the book that triggered the Civil War. By discussing the issues of slavery of her time and the cruel aspects of it Stowe tried to give people a wake-up call on their diminishing abilities to feel any kind of sympathy for slaves.
The novel was meant to motivate people to open their eyes and see how cruel and wrong it was to treat others like objects rather than human beings. Not only did slavery allow mistreatment and violence, but it also inevitably served as a reason for thousands of families to break up. So Stowe argues that not only whites, but blacks suffer just as much as everyone else; that they are able to feel love and pain as well, so mistreating them was just wrong. And it did serve its purpose, although there were just as many negative reactions.
Throughout the whole book, Stowe tries to approach the idea of slavery from an unwavering Christian point of view. She portrays this with the help of Uncle Tom and Evangeline St. Clare. Tom, a middle-aged black man, is a very intelligent and religious man. He is introduced to us at the beginning of the novel as a well-respected slave at Arthur Shelby’s plantation. His master trusted him so much that he would even let the slave handle his finances. But despite their close bond, when pressed for money, Shelby does not hesitate to sell Tom off to a slave trader.
No matter what happens, no matter how unfortunate or cruel, Uncle Tom never disobeys authority. But most importantly, his belief in God doesn’t waver, not even a single time. Even when he was betrayed by his master and sold off to a slave trader separating him from his family at the plantation, or when he was abused really badly, Tom never attempts to escape and save himself. His unrealistically loyal and constantly self-sacrificing personality was what distracted me and prevented me from “getting into” the novel.
Throughout the book, we feel sympathy for Tom, we can see his pain, but we do not “understand” his pain at all, because the way the book is written, it’s not easy for the reader to relate to the perfect character that Stowe describes. Human beings are never flawless, and there are times when we get confused and start questioning ourselves, or, in some cases, God, but Stowe’s character accepts everything as part of life, as part of “the Lord’s plan”, which creates an invisible barrier between the audience and Tom. Another interesting character is little Eva.
She’s white, she’s from a relatively wealthy family, she’s loved by everyone. In other words, she has everything anyone could ever need, the direct opposite of Uncle Tom. But there is one thing that Eva and Tom have in common. That’s their unlimited and unconditional love for people. Eva’s love for everyone around her, regardless of their station in life, their race, and even their character, is one of the things that shows how thoroughly Christ-like she is, which puts her in the same light as our main character.
These two unrealistically ideal characters are what made me question the author at some points. Even laying on his deathbed, Tom says: “The Lord’s bought me. ” His faith in God is as strong as ever, but from these words we see that even in heaven Tom still sees himself as a slave, as something buyable. This brings me to my second question. If this book is supposed to be eye-opening and educational, what is the moral of Uncle Tom’s Cabin? If you stick to the rules and be a good slave, like Uncle Tom, the Lord will “buy you”?
That even after death, you will still be a slave, just with a different master? How would this affect a slave that was reading it? I understand that Stowe had other motives behind the story, but for high school students, or even older people, it is not easy to interpret the novel in the right way. Huckleberry Finn was written for the same purpose as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but its way of approaching the topic is slightly different. While Stowe wrote her novel in a third person perspective, in Mark Twain’s novel we get too see the world from a teenage boy’s point of view.
That alone, in my opinion, gives Huckleberry Finn an advantage. Although this limits our view to that of a young, inexperienced child’s, it allows the reader to leave reality for a while and enter the setting of the novel. We relate more to Huck when we see and feel everything through his eyes, especially in the case of high school students. As opposed to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where sometimes we can barely keep track of what’s happening, Huck makes it easier for us to follow as he guides us step by step through his life.
Literal critic T. S. Eliot said: “On the most superficial level of observation, Huck is convincing as a boy. On the same level, the picture of social life on the shores of Mississippi a hundred years ago is, I feel sure, accurate. ” He feels that the novel not only lets us see the River, but lets us experience it. I believe Twain’s detailed and clear description of everything makes this book so much more real and alive. Our main character, Huck, despite his young age, has had a very hard life.
His father is an alcoholic who abuses his son constantly to the point, where Huck is absolutely frightened of him and is actually glad when his dad dies. All his sufferings have shaped him into an outcast from society. Nothing interests Huck. He is, according to Eliot, an “impassive observer. ” He observes everything around him, but does not interfere and does not judge. However, his growing bond with Jim, the runaway slave, changes his ways, little by little, as they overcome obstacle after obstacle.
We see his development as a character when he turns from unfeeling and indifferent to a boy who starts to care and worry about someone. A good example is chapter 15, when Jim and Huck get separated because of the fog. After a while, Huck reunites with Jim, who is so thrilled to see his friend, but the latter tries to trick the other by making Jim believe that he had dreamed up their entire separation. Later Huck, seeing that Jim’s feelings are hurt, forces himself to apologize. At this point we start to notice Huck’s growth; he is now starting to see Jim in a different light than before.
This is proof that unlike Stowe’s one-dimensional characters who never stray away from the path laid out in front of them, unwilling to explore around, Huck is constantly battling with himself not able to decide which path to take: the one of the prevailing morality of the white society or to follow his own conscience. I personally prefer novels with complicated characters that are under some kind of psychological stress that they are meant to struggle with throughout the book. That way we see the dynamics of their minds and how they are affected by the surrounding people and events.
Frankly speaking, I’m a fan of unpredictable twists that make you exclaim “Wow, I didn’t see that coming. ” And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does exactly that. When we are told that Jim, who Huck and Tom went through ridiculous measures to free, had been free all along, it’s a giant blow in our face. We are hit with the realization that all has been in vain. Jim has, technically, been a free man almost the entire time. All of Huck’s moral crises, all the lies he has told, all the societal conventions he has broken, have been part of a game.
The ending of the novel makes many readers uneasy because they feel that it jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel. The meaning of the journey that Huck and Jim took is completely lost in the end. I disagree. Jim had been emancipated all along, but society’s attitude towards him is still the same as before. I feel like by doing that Mark Twain is highlighting the permanence of slavery and the cruelty of it. It doesn’t matter if a slave is given freedom or not, because his position in society’s eyes will not change.
He will still be a slave and will be treated like one regardless of what the papers say. Jane Smiley criticized Twain for presenting a superficial standard of heroism in his novel. She wrote: “All you have to do to be a hero is acknowledge that your poor sidekick is human; you don’t actually have to act in the interests of his humanity. ” Although at the end of the novel Jim is still considered a slave in everyone’s eyes, to Huck he is now a human who is worth saving. He does not just acknowledge Jim’s humanity, but he is willing to risk his life to free the captured slave.
This is a big difference, so I fail to understand why people think the meaning of the novel is lost because of the twisted ending. An interesting point to discuss is Twain’s use of the word ‘nigger’. Throughout the whole book the word is used 219 times. This has affected some schools to scratch the book off their reading list. To some people, the word gets in the way of the story’s powerful message against slavery; to others, Twain is simply capturing the way people talked back then. Recently an Alabaman publishing company decided to replace the N-word with “slave” to erase the controversy.
Some who felt uncomfortable with the N-word supported this change; others argued that erasing the word erases history. Reading novels, written during a period of immense oppression and discrimination, gives people insight into the mistakes that Americans have made and also points to some progress. It’s important to understand why the word was used, who used it, and the purpose of using it. A common shameful tendency of people is to sell a version of history that presents them in a favorable light.
The N-word has a dark history behind it that most prefer not to talk about. However, replacing it with “slave” takes away a part of the reality that Huckleberry Finn has to offer. Another reason I chose Twain’s novel over Stowe’s is that Uncle Tom’s Cabin gives us a closer historical view of slavery. It shows the different types of conditions and circumstances that slaves lived in: some with really cruel masters, others with slightly better ones. It’s generally a more abolitionist novel. Therefore, I believe the book is better fit in a history class.
Huckleberry Finn, on the other side, is a more literary novel and should be taught in a literature-focused environment. So why should we teach Huckleberry Finn? American literature? Or literature overall? Literature is a reflection of how different people think on a variety of subjects. It covers a wide arena of thought, from political to philosophical, and provides a unique look into the human mind. Anything that gives us more insight into history, human behavior, or other philosophical problems is worthy of our time.
American literature, especially, is a great way for us to learn things that are not captured in history books. Slavery and racism are big issues discussed in a great number of novels of American literature in the 19th centuries, like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a great book for high school students to read. It’s full of humor and adventures, but at the same time, it covers serious matters like slavery, discrimination, and prejudice.
Mark Twain has done a marvelous job with this book, and I highly recommend high schools to teach it to their students. If I were a high school English teacher, this book would definitely be on our reading list.
T. S. Eliot, “Introduction to Huckleberry Finn,” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition, third edition, Thomas Cooley, ed. (W. W. Norton, 1998). Jane Smiley, “Say It Ain’t So Huck,” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Norton Critical Edition, third edition, Thomas Cooley, ed. (W. W. Norton, 1998).