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Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe


THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

Mr. Shelby, a kindly Kentucky plantation owner, is forced by debt to sell two of his slaves to an unsavory trader named Haley. Uncle Tom, the religious and good-hearted manager of the plantation, understands why he must be sold. He says good-bye to his wife, Aunt Chloe, and their children, and leaves with Haley for the slave market in New Orleans. The other slave marked for sale is Harry, a four-year- old. His mother, Mrs. Shelby's servant, Eliza, overhears the news and runs away with the little boy. She makes her way to the Ohio River, the boundary with the free state of Ohio. The early spring ice is breaking up, and she crosses the river with her son in her arms by jumping from cake to cake.

In Ohio, Eliza is sheltered by a series of kind people. At a Quaker settlement, she is reunited with her husband, George Harris. George's master abused him even though George was intelligent and hard- working, and he had decided to escape. The recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Law required citizens of free states to help return runaway slaves to their owners. George and Eliza find friends who are willing to help runaway slaves in spite of the new law. But they would not be safe, even in the North. In fact, they are followed by Marks and Loker, slave-catchers in partnership with the trader, Haley. With Marks and Loker in hot pursuit, the Quakers drive George, Eliza, and their son toward Sandusky, so that they can catch a ferry for Canada, where slavery is forbidden and American laws do not apply.

Meanwhile, Uncle Tom is headed down the river, deeper into slavery. On the boat, he makes friends with Evangeline St. Clare- little Eva- a beautiful and religious white child. After Tom rescues little Eva from near-drowning, Eva's father, Augustine St. Clare, buys him. St. Clare is charming and intelligent, an indulgent master, and life in the household is carefree. Its other white members include Marie St. Clare, Augustine's selfish, whiny wife, and Ophelia, his cousin from Vermont. Ophelia has just moved to New Orleans, and she and Augustine argue long and hard about slavery, he defending it, she opposing it.

Augustine buys Topsy for Ophelia to raise in order to test her theories about education. Topsy is bright and energetic but has no sense of right and wrong. Ophelia is almost ready to give up on her when little Eva shows her how to reach Topsy. Tom and Eva study the Bible together and share a belief in a loving God. But Eva becomes ill and dies. Her death, and her example, transform the lives of many of the people around her. Even her father becomes more religious. Unfortunately he is accidentally killed before he can fulfill his promise to Eva to free Tom, and Tom is sold again.

This time Tom is not so lucky. He is bought by Simon Legree, who owns an isolated plantation on the Red River. Legree is cruel and sadistic, and his plantation is a living hell for his slaves. They are worked so hard they have no time to think or feel, and Legree sets them against each other. Missing are the family ties of the Shelby plantation in Kentucky or the gaiety of the St. Clare household in New Orleans. Tom almost loses his faith in God, but recovers it and continues his work among the other slaves. He becomes friends with Cassy, a good but despairing woman who has been Legree's mistress. Cassy arranges for her and Emmeline, the girl Legree has chosen as his next mistress, to escape, and she urges Tom to join them. He will not, but he allows himself to be savagely beaten by Legree rather than reveal what he knows about the women's whereabouts.

The Shelby's son, George, arrives at Legree's plantation to rescue Tom, but it is too late. Tom is dying. George confronts Legree and knocks him down. He buries Tom, and swears on his grave that he will do everything he can to end slavery.

On his way back to Kentucky, George Shelby meets Madame de Thoux, who turns out to be George Harris' sister. It is also discovered that Cassy, who is on the same boat, is Eliza's mother. George Shelby goes home and frees his slaves, telling them they owe their freedom to Uncle Tom. Madame de Thoux, Cassy, and Emmeline continue on to Montreal, where George Harris and Eliza are now living with Harry and their baby daughter. The reunited family moves to France, where George attends the university, and then to Africa, where he believes he can do the most good for his people.

[Uncle Tom's Cabin Contents]


THE CHARACTERS

Uncle Tom's Cabin has many characters. The following discussion groups them by the geographical area they're principally associated with in the novel.

KENTUCKY

  • UNCLE TOM

    Uncle Tom manages the Shelby plantation. Strong, intelligent, capable, good, and kind, he is the most heroic figure in the novel that bears his name. The list of Tom's virtues is endless. He is a good father to his own children, especially the baby, Polly, and also nurtures the children of his masters, George Shelby and Eva St. Clare. From Stowe's description of his voice, "tender as a woman's," and his "gentle, domestic heart," you might almost suspect that he is a woman disguised as a muscular black man.

    Tom's most important characteristic, from Stowe's point of view, is his Christian faith. The Bible- which George Shelby has taught him to read- is alive for him, and he makes it live for the people around him. He preaches at the service in his native Kentucky. And he makes the people he encounters, black and white- Prue, Augustine St. Clare, Cassy- feel and believe in the love of Jesus. Tom doesn't just talk about religion, he lives it. Through his example, and then by his death, he makes converts.

    Religion is very simple for Tom. It means loving all of God's creatures and serving God by helping them. Tom feels real compassion for others, as he demonstrates when St. Clare drinks too much. He is always willing to help- by jumping into the Mississippi to save Eva or by putting cotton in Lucy's bag. Tom also feels responsible for other people. He refuses to escape from the Shelby plantation with Eliza, because he knows that his sale will make it possible for Mr. Shelby to keep running it, and to save the other slaves. He will not escape from Legree's plantation with Cassy and Emmeline because he feels that he has work among the slaves there, and he dies rather than betray them to Legree. God has given Tom an extraordinary ability. He can forgive the evil done to him, even by the beastly Legree. His self-sacrificing love for others has been called motherly. It has also been called truly Christian.

    Many readers feel that the character of Uncle Tom seems too good to be true. For black readers especially, Uncle Tom has become a symbol of black accommodation and defeat. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, blacks who were seen as too cautious, too unwilling to alienate whites, were called "Uncle Toms." The most famous attack on the character of Uncle Tom came from a black novelist and intellectual, James Baldwin. Writing in 1949, Baldwin deplored the fact that "Tom,... [Stowe's] only black man, has been robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex."

    Many modern readers agree with Baldwin. Others argue that you have to see Tom in Stowe's terms, not our own. For her, Tom was a hero, and his decision to suffer rather than to fight or flee was not the result of cowardice but his only moral choice. Stowe believed- and frequently announced in the novel- that blacks were morally superior to whites, and that their acceptance of their oppression would earn them a place in heaven.

    The debate over the character of Uncle Tom resembles in some ways the evolution of the American civil rights movement that began in the 1950s. During the movement's early days, civil rights leaders adopted a moral tone. Demonstrators knelt in prayer while they were attacked by police with dogs or hoses. The idea was to demonstrate the kind of moral superiority and forgiveness that Uncle Tom showed Simon Legree. As time passed, however, some people in the civil rights movement found the religious stance demeaning. Black people, they said, had to fight back when they were attacked. They must meet violence with violence. In the aftermath of the movement- and as black people make greater strides in American society- black power has come to mean much more than just spiritual nobility.

  • AUNT CHLOE

    Aunt Chloe, Uncle Tom's wife, is fat, warm, and jolly. She is a good housekeeper and a superb cook, and justly proud of her skill. She loves Tom, and urges him to escape to Canada rather than to go South with Haley. After Tom is sold, she convinces the Shelbys to hire her out to a baker in Louisville and to use her wages to buy Tom's freedom. She is heartbroken to learn of his death.

  • MOSE, PETE, AND POLLY

    Mose, Pete, and Polly, the children of Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, are playful and rambunctious. Polly is Tom's special favorite, and she loves to bury her tiny hands in his hair.

  • ELIZA HARRIS

    Eliza Harris is raised by her mistress, Mrs. Shelby, to be pious and good. Described as light-skinned and pretty, Eliza dearly loves her husband, George Harris, and their little boy, Harry. When she learns that Harry is about to be sold, Eliza carries him in her arms to the Ohio River, which she crosses on cakes of ice. Although generally a modest and retiring young woman, Eliza becomes extraordinarily brave because of her love for her son.

    When her family has been reunited and is safely settled in Canada, Eliza keeps a good home and gives birth to a daughter. At the novel's end, she learns that Cassy is her long-lost mother.

  • GEORGE HARRIS

    George Harris, portrayed as a light-skinned and intelligent slave, belongs to a man named Harris. He is married to Eliza, who lives on the Shelby plantation, and they have a son, Harry. When Harris withdraws George from the factory where he has been working- and where he has invented a machine- and urges him to move in with another woman, George runs away. He eventually escapes to Montreal, Canada, where he works in a machinist's shop and tries to improve himself by reading. When his long- lost sister reappears and offers him money, George asks for an education. After studying in France for four years, he decides to move to Africa with his family, where he believes he can accomplish the most for blacks.

    George is in some respects the opposite of Uncle Tom. Although he respects his wife's religion, he himself is not a Christian. He is not opposed to violence and vows that he will not be taken alive by the slave-catchers. George believes that he is as strong and as intelligent as white men, and therefore deserves the same rights. He claims that America is not his country because the promises contained in its Declaration of Independence and Constitution do not apply to him.

    By the novel's end, George calls himself a Christian. By moving to Africa, he removes himself from the slaveowners he could never forgive in the United States. Although he agrees with Stowe's position in the end, George never embraces the instinctive Christianity of Uncle Tom. You see less of George Harris than of Uncle Tom, and he is a less significant character in the novel. But you may find him easier to understand and to respect than Uncle Tom.

  • HARRY AND LITTLE ELIZA

    Harry and little Eliza are the children of George and Eliza Harris. Harry, born a slave on the Shelby Plantation, is bright and cute, and sings and dances for Mr. Shelby and Haley. He is so beautiful that he is disguised as a girl in order to escape into Canada. Once there, he does very well in school. Little Eliza is born free in Canada.

  • SAM AND ANDY

    Sam and Andy, slaves on the Shelby plantation, provide comic relief through their mispronunciations and deliberate mishaps. Andy, who likes to make speeches, is meant to satirize politicians. But Sam and Andy make an important contribution to the novel's plot- their clowning allows Eliza to escape across the Ohio River.

  • MR. SHELBY

    Mr. Shelby, the owner of a Kentucky plantation, generally treats his slaves well, but he decides to sell two of them, Uncle Tom and little Harry, to pay off a debt. Although he regrets the sale, Shelby feels he has no other choice. His wife disagrees. Do you think she's right?

  • MRS. SHELBY

    Mrs. Shelby, a kind, religious woman, tries to raise the family's slaves with Christian values. She attempts to convince her husband not to sell Tom and Harry, and she helps Eliza escape. Warm-hearted Mrs. Shelby treats her slaves like people, crying with Aunt Chloe when Uncle Tom leaves and consoling her when they learn he is dead.

  • GEORGE SHELBY

    George Shelby, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, is thirteen years old when the novel begins, and eighteen when it ends. He likes to spend time with Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, basking in their kindness and attention. He teaches Uncle Tom to read and write, and reads the Bible at the slaves' religious meeting. On Uncle Tom's grave, he swears to do whatever he can to fight against slavery, and he begins by freeing the slaves on his own plantation.

    George is one of the few characters who changes during the course of Uncle Tom's Cabin, as he develops from a good-hearted but somewhat self-centered boy into a noble and effective man. Stowe probably wished other slaveowners would follow George's example.

  • HALEY, TOM LOKER, AND MARKS

    Haley, Tom Loker, and Marks are among the worst villains in the novel- slave-traders. But Stowe (and a number of characters in the book) points out that slave-traders couldn't stay in business if nice people didn't buy slaves. Haley sets the plot of Uncle Tom's Cabin in motion by insisting that Mr. Shelby sell him Tom and little Harry. Haley curses, smokes, drinks, and dresses badly. He claims to be humane because he is not completely cruel to the slaves he buys. But you can see that he's a nasty person. He doesn't believe slaves have feelings, so he doesn't think twice about separating a mother and child- like Eliza and little Harry, or about the woman who jumps off the steamboat on the Ohio River after he sells her baby. Haley can't understand why these things keep happening to him.

    Tom Loker and Marks are crude fellows, who make their living catching escaped slaves. You often see them in taverns. Tom Loker is shot by George Harris, but the Harrises and the Quakers forgive him, and he is nursed back to health in the Quaker settlement. He gives the Quakers the information that helps George and Eliza disguise themselves so they can elude Marks at the Sandusky ferry.

OHIO

  • MR. AND MRS. BIRD

    Mr. and Mrs. Bird live in Ohio with their three children. Tiny Mrs. Bird is a wonderful housekeeper and mother. Mr. Bird, a senator, has just voted for the Fugitive Slave Law. Mrs. Bird tries to convince him that he is wrong, and that one must allow the heart to guide the head. The appearance of Eliza on their doorstep makes him realize that he isn't capable of turning in a fugitive. One of the Birds' children has recently died, and their loss makes them more sympathetic to Eliza.

  • RACHEL HALLIDAY, SIMEON HALLIDAY, RUTH STEDMAN, DORCAS, AND PHINEAS FLETCHER

    These Quakers practice their religious beliefs in their daily lives. They risk fines by helping escaped slaves. Rachel Halliday and Ruth Stedman are motherly and sympathetic; Simeon and Phineas are quietly brave. They take good care of George and Eliza and make it possible for them to escape to Canada. Dorcas nurses Tom Loker back to health after George Harris shoots him. She doesn't quite convert him to her beliefs, but she does get him to give up slave-catching.

NEW ORLEANS

  • AUGUSTINE ST. CLARE

    Augustine St. Clare, Tom's second master, is handsome, worldly, and charming. He indulges his slaves in his elegant New Orleans house and debates the issue of slavery with his cousin from Vermont. Most of all, St. Clare hates hypocrisy. Believing that slavery is wrong, he left the plantation he inherited with his twin brother because he didn't really want to be a slavemaster. St. Clare thinks black people will eventually gain their freedom, but he isn't sure how it will come about. In the meantime, he rails with equal fervor against Southern ministers who claim slavery is supported by the Bible, and Northerners who criticize slavery but won't let black children into their schools.

    Although he is not religious, Augustine has good qualities. As she did with Tom, Stowe calls Augustine womanish; his elegance and love of finery make him seem effeminate. Augustine loves his little daughter, Eva, and is devastated by her death. He is moved by Tom's religious belief, and seems to respond to it when he is killed. Augustine treasures the memory of his saintly mother, who is clearly the source of his compassion, and he cries out her name when he dies. Yet for all St. Clare's decency and charm, he has not provided for his slaves in his will, and they are sold when he dies.

    Augustine St. Clare seems in some ways to be Harriet Beecher Stowe's favorite character, and many readers are fond of him as well. Have you ever known anyone like him- charming and cynical on the surface, yet good underneath? Does he seem realistic to you? Given his beliefs, why do you think St. Clare doesn't free his slaves?

  • EVANGELINE ST. CLARE

    Evangeline St. Clare is a beautiful child, spiritually as well as physically. She is filled with goodness and love. Her kindness to those around her, especially the slaves, brightens their lives, and leads some of them to embrace the Christianity she so instinctively radiates. Eva is responsible for St. Clare's purchase of Uncle Tom, and Tom becomes her special friend. The two spend hours poring over the Bible and discussing religion. The black slave and the little blonde girl are kindred spirits.

    But Eva- whose name suggests the Evangelist- becomes ill and dies. On her deathbed, she distributes locks of her hair and loving wishes to everyone around her.

    Is little Eva a real child? Do you think she ever got angry or fell down and tore her dress? Few of Stowe's major characters have much interior life, but to many readers little Eva seems to be the least realistic of all, a symbol with blonde curls rather than an actual person.

  • MARIE ST. CLARE

    Marie St. Clare is a beautiful but spoiled woman who ignores everyone's feelings but her own and takes advantage of her servants. A hypochondriac, constantly claiming to have headaches, she cannot understand either her husband or their daughter. She doesn't pay much attention to either of them, except to complain. Because Marie can't act for anyone but herself, she fails to prevent Uncle Tom's sale to Simon Legree.

  • OPHELIA

    Ophelia St. Clare comes from Vermont to manage her cousin Augustine's New Orleans household. Her thrifty New England ways contrast with the easy-going St. Clare style. One of Ophelia's functions in the novel is to contrast the North and the South. An abolitionist, Ophelia finds slavery "perfectly horrible," and she rails against it in her running debate with Augustine. Although she hates slavery, she doesn't like slaves very much either. Augustine is quick to point this out, and she agrees. Her experience with Topsy nearly causes her to give up on the young slave. But little Eva's example shows Ophelia how to love Topsy, and her love produces the positive results that scolding Topsy never could have achieved. Forceful, efficient, and good, Ophelia takes Topsy back to Vermont after St. Clare's death. Her letter to Mrs. Shelby results eventually in George Shelby's attempt to rescue Uncle Tom.

  • ALFRED AND HENRIQUE ST. CLARE

    Alfred St. Clare, Augustine's dark, forceful twin brother, is a stern but decent slaveowner. The contrast between the twins contrasts their two approaches to slavery. Similarly, dark, handsome, proud, and angry Henrique, Alfred's son, contrasts with his blonde, loving cousin Eva. Henrique is cruel to his slave, Dodo, but Eva reaches him with her love.

  • TOPSY

    Ignorant but energetic, Topsy is brought by Augustine into the St. Clare household to see whether the high-principled Ophelia is actually capable of managing a slave. Topsy, who can't tell the difference between right and wrong, tries Ophelia's patience. Raised without parents (or belief in God- "I spect I grow'd," Topsy says), she finds it hard to form ties with other people. She senses that Ophelia cannot accept her because she is black. Little Eva's love for Topsy begins to change the girl's heart, and it eventually softens Ophelia as well. Ophelia secures Topsy's freedom, and after St. Clare's death they move to Vermont, where Topsy joins the church and eventually becomes a missionary. Why do you think so many readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin cite Topsy as their favorite character?

  • ADOLPHE, ROSA, JANE, DINAH, AND MAMMY

    The well-treated slaves in the St. Clare household seem to be divided into two groups. Some, such as Adolphe, Rosa, and Jane, are light-skinned servants who borrow the St. Clare family's airs as well as much of its wardrobe. Others, such as Dinah the cook, and Mammy, are dark-skinned, hardworking, and realistic.

  • PRUE

    A worn-out, hard-drinking woman, Prue is beaten to death by her owners. Tom discovers the cause of her misery- like so many other slave women, she has lost her children to the slave-trader.

RED RIVER

  • SIMON LEGREE

    Simon Legree is the owner of a plantation on the Red River in Louisiana. Sadistic and cruel, he breaks his slaves in body and soul and works them to death. Legree has no real human ties. He has sexual relations with slave women whom he buys for that purpose, and his main companions are the barbaric Sambo and Quimbo. Legree is interested in growing as much cotton as he can, as his bet with several other plantation owners indicates, but he also seems to enjoy abusing his slaves, particularly Uncle Tom.

    Simon Legree comes from New England, where he was raised by a loving and God-fearing mother. At one time, the forces of good and evil struggled in his soul, but evil has long since won out. Stowe uses Legree's memories of his mother to explain why he is so superstitious- a weakness on which the plot depends. Not only does Legree drink and swear- important sins in Stowe's eyes- he displays a deeper evil as well. Her descriptions of the creepy, rotting plantation and the hanging moss, the wild carousing of Legree and his lieutenants, suggest that Legree may be the devil himself. Legree reinforces this suspicion when he urges Tom to "join my church."

  • CASSY

    Cassy, the daughter of a wealthy white man and a slave woman, is sheltered and convent-educated. The death of her father results in her sale to a man who becomes her lover, and whom she adores. But after some years, he sells her and her children to pay a gambling debt. Cassy is driven half-mad by the loss of her son and daughter, and searches in vain for them. She is owned by a series of masters. By one of them she has a son, whom she kills with an overdose of opium rather than face the pain of losing another child to slavery.

    When you meet Cassy at Legree's plantation, she has been his mistress for several years. The two fight constantly, and he has just sent her back to work in the fields, where her work is better than anyone else's. The superstitious Legree fears her, calling her a "she-devil." Cassy's emotional instability strengthens this impression, but Cassy also understands Legree well, and she manipulates him to achieve her ends. Eventually she uses her hold over Legree to enable herself and Emmeline to escape.

    Cassy is good-hearted, as you see from her kindness to Emmeline and to Tom (whom she cares for after he is whipped). But the loss of her children and her experience as the mistress of men she doesn't love have hardened her. Cassy continually tells Emmeline to submit to Legree because there is no hope, and she tells Tom that his faith is in vain- God is nowhere on the Legree plantation. Yet, because of Tom's Christ-like influence, she learns to hope again. At Tom's deathbed, she cries for the first time in years and embraces religion. She escapes and eventually is reunited with her daughter- who turns out to be Eliza Harris- and her son.

  • SUSAN, EMMELINE, AND LUCY

    Susan, Emmeline, and Lucy are sold in the New Orleans slave market with Uncle Tom and the rest of the St. Clare family slaves. Susan and Emmeline, a religious mother and daughter, are heartbroken when they are separated and sold. Legree buys Emmeline to be his mistress, but she resists him. Her innocent sense of right and wrong contrasts with Cassy's worldly wisdom. For example, Emmeline thinks it's wrong for Cassy to steal money from Legree's jacket pocket, but this money pays their steamboat fare North. Emmeline marries a crew member on the ship that carries the Harris family, Madame de Thoux, and Cassy to France. Lucy is purchased by Legree as a mistress for his second-in-command, Sambo, although she had a husband and children in New Orleans. Lucy finds it difficult to work in the fields, and Tom helps her by secretly putting cotton into her bag so that she will be able to turn in the required amount of cotton each day.

  • SAMBO AND QUIMBO

    Sambo and Quimbo are Simon Legree's black lieutenants. Brutal and ignorant, they lord it over the other slaves. Legree manipulates them so that they fight with each other too. Both Sambo and Quimbo whip and otherwise abuse Tom, but they are converted by him in the end.

  • MADAME DE THOUX

    A "French lady" whom Cassy and George Shelby meet on their trip up the Mississippi River, Madame de Thoux turns out to be George Harris' long-lost sister, Emily. Sold as a girl at the New Orleans slave market, she was bought by a man who freed her, married her, and brought her to the West Indies. Now a wealthy widow, she travels with her daughter in search of her brother. With George Shelby's help, she tracks him down in Montreal and offers to share her fortune with him. Madame de Thoux accompanies the Harrises first to France and then to Africa.

[Uncle Tom's Cabin Contents]


OTHER ELEMENTS

SETTING

Most of the action in Uncle Tom's Cabin occurs at three locations: the Shelby plantation in Kentucky (both the "big house" and Uncle Tom's cabin), the St. Clare house in New Orleans, and Simon Legree's plantation on the Red River in Louisiana. The slave system operated differently in each place, and the three locales together will give you an idea of the variety of slavery in the United States. There are also a number of less important settings- the Bird home in Ohio, the Quaker settlement, a Mississippi River steamboat, the St. Clare summer house on Lake Pontchartrain, and George and Eliza's Montreal apartment.

Most of these places are described realistically, with the exception of Legree's plantation, which sounds like the outskirts of hell. In general, Stowe is not especially interested in physical description, although she pays more attention to characters' appearance than to setting. She is more concerned with interiors than with exteriors, and she devotes more attention to a table laid for tea than to a forest. Indeed, most of the action of the novel takes place indoors.

THEMES

The following are themes of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

  1. THE EVIL OF SLAVERY

    Stowe's aim in writing Uncle Tom's Cabin was to convince Americans that slavery was evil, and she hammers her point home on almost every page. Stowe shows not only the horrors that slaves endure- the separation of husbands and wives and mothers and children, overwork, physical punishment- but also the effect of slavery on the characters of the masters, like Alfred St. Clare and his son, Henrique.

    The worst thing about slavery, as Stowe points out, is that it destroys the family. Slave mothers who have lost their children appear in almost every chapter. In addition, slavery destroys the soul. Several characters- Prue, Cassy, and to some extent, George Harris- have been so embittered by their experience that they no longer believe in God. Even Tom has to struggle to maintain his faith.

    Although she indicts slavery as evil, Stowe also has harsh words for the Northerners who are unwilling to accept black people. She cannot decide how slavery should be abolished, except by the actions of individual slaveowners like George Shelby. But she fears that if slavery continues, America will be severely punished by God.

  2. MOTHERHOOD AND FEMALE VALUES

    Many of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin are mothers, and most of the black mothers have been separated from their children. Stowe appeals to the mothers among her readers to have sympathy for slave women. Motherhood, she both implies and states explicitly, teaches women to care about others as well as their own families.

    The beliefs and qualities that Stowe values most- kindness, generosity, gentleness- were associated with women in the nineteenth century. (They were also all identified with Christianity.) Stowe portrays women as being morally superior to men. Women like Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird try to convince their husbands of what is right. (They must persuade gently, however, and never fight against their husbands.) The male heroes of the novel- Uncle Tom and Augustine St. Clare- are both explicitly described as womanly, and George Shelby is portrayed as being close to his mother. If Harriet Beecher Stowe ran the world, men would be much more like women.

    Although Stowe places female values at the center of her novel, how much power do the women characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin really have? Women in the novel certainly help each other reliably, but some readers have pointed out that Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Shelby aren't able to convince their husbands to do what is right. The only woman who really has power over a man, they point out, is Cassy, and she holds it because Legree fears she is half-crazy. (When Cassy is reunited with her daughter- when she becomes a whole woman again- her mental state improves.) One reader has pointed out that Eliza cannot even enter Canada, the land of freedom, as a woman. She must cut her hair and disguise herself as a man to take active steps toward gaining her freedom.

  3. THE NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY

    "What a thing it is to be a Christian!" Uncle Tom exclaims as he dies. Tom's religious faith is his outstanding characteristic. Stowe demonstrates the effect Tom's beliefs have both on his life and on those of the people around him. As practiced by Tom and little Eva, Christianity means love and forgiveness for all people. Tom adds self-sacrifice to this formula. He is willing to be sold and eventually to die for the good of others.

    Stowe distinguishes Christianity both from the nonreligious attitudes of characters like George Harris and Cassy, who are bitter and potentially violent, and from the false Christianity of ministers who follow popular fashions, like "Dr. B." whose church Marie St. Clare attends.

    The Christian values of love and self-sacrifice resemble closely the feelings of mothers. Some readers feel that Harriet Beecher Stowe equates being a good mother with being a good Christian.

  4. THE IMPORTANCE OF HOME

    You can see Stowe's interest in homes in her descriptions of domestic interiors. For Stowe, home was the most important place on earth, the place where people learn to love each other and to love God.

    In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe contrasts good homes- the Shelby plantation, the Birds', the Hallidays', the Harris' Montreal apartment- with bad homes like the St. Clares' (where the kitchen is in chaos and money is wasted), and Legree's crumbling plantation. For most of the novel, after they leave Kentucky, neither Tom nor George and Eliza have a real home. This is one of the evils of slavery- black people are never at home because they always dread being sold.

    In another sense, home means heaven in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The dying St. Clare tells his doctor that his mind is coming home, at last, and the dying Tom lets George Shelby know that the Lord is taking him home, to a better place than Kentucky. Although blacks may be homeless on earth, heaven is their eternal home, just as it is for whites. (Stowe suggests they have a greater claim to heaven than whites.)

  5. THE INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIETY

    What responsibility do individuals have to the people around them? How can you live morally if your society is corrupt? For Stowe, slavery was an evil that poisoned personal relationships. Even in its mildest form, on the Shelby plantation or in the St. Clare home, slavery substituted money for love as the foundation of human relations. Because of slavery, good men like Mr. Shelby and Augustine St. Clare became responsible for the destruction of families and the sexual exploitation of young women. In its harsher forms, as on the Legree plantation, slavery was murderous and soul-destroying, a compact with the devil.

    The characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin respond differently to the troublesome question of individual morality in a corrupt society. The purest characters, Uncle Tom and little Eva, transcend their society, applying a Christian morality of love and forgiveness to the people around them and turning the other cheek to evil. Both Tom and little Eva feel responsibility for the community of slaves. Eva simply treats slaves with affection and kindness, although in her society this isn't simple to do. Tom has a more serious responsibility. In allowing himself to be sold by Shelby rather than escaping, in refusing to join Cassy and Emmeline in their escape from Legree's plantation, and in concealing the women's whereabouts, Tom sacrifices his comfort and finally his life for the good of others.

    Unlike Tom, Eva, and the Quakers, whose social conduct stems from their religious beliefs, another set of characters draw their morality from their emotions, treating the world as their family. Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird extend their motherly goodness from their children to their communities. Mrs. Shelby treats her family's slaves kindly, and Mrs. Bird responds warmly to fugitive slaves. Ophelia, perhaps because she is not a mother, acts responsibly, but not warmly. Augustine St. Clare also attempts to care for the people around him. But he is not a good father, either to Eva or to his slave family. He is loving, but too indulgent. Thus, his slaves put on airs that will cause them trouble after his death. In addition, they are sold because he is not responsible enough to provide for them in his will.

    Can one man or woman change society? Stowe doesn't think so. She urges her readers to behave morally- to help fugitive slaves, for example. At the end of the book, she tells them to always act so that they feel right. But she doesn't seem to have any idea of how to eliminate slavery, except through the actions of individuals like George Shelby.

    Neither does Stowe seem interested in social movements or religious institutions. She doesn't think highly of abolitionists: the character of Ophelia and Augustine's story about his father's brother show that abolitionists don't like black people or treat them well in the North. She doesn't approve of the church, since her characters, especially Augustine, criticize it frequently for condoning slavery. It seems to Stowe that people can't act responsibly in groups. Individual morality (family feeling) and individual saintliness (sacrifice) are the only ways to live responsibly in society.

STYLE

Many readers think Harriet Beecher Stowe's writing style is the greatest weakness of Uncle Tom's Cabin. You may sometimes find the long sentences a little hard to take. For example:

Mrs. Bird, looking the very picture of delight, was superintending the arrangements of the table, ever and anon mingling admonitory remarks to a number of frolicsome juveniles, who were effervescing in all those modes of untold gambol and mischief that have astonished mothers since the flood.

Readers also object to the stilted language:

An eternal, inexorable lapse of moments is ever hurrying the day of the evil to an eternal night, and the night of the just to an eternal day. We have walked with our humble friend thus far in the valley of slavery; first through flowery fields of ease and indulgence, then through heart-breaking separations from all that man holds dear. Again, we have waited with him in a sunny island, where generous hands concealed his chains with flowers....

Others are upset by frequent quotations from sentimental poetry:

It is a beautiful belief, / That ever round our head / Are hovering, on angel wings, / The spirits of the dead.

Still others are bothered by Stowe's sentimentality:

Ah, Legree! that golden tress was charmed; each hair had in it a spell of terror and remorse for thee, and was used by a mightier power to bind thy cruel hands from inflicting uttermost evil on the helpless!

Finally, frequent invocations of "Mother! Mother!" as characters are wounded or die, strike many readers as artificial.

Stowe's characters are always talking. Sometimes they give you information, as when George Harris tells Eliza that their marriage is not legally binding, which she must surely know. On other occasions, they argue the issue of slavery. Not only Augustine St. Clare and Ophelia do this, but also the steamboat passengers. Stowe makes some effort to distinguish the speech of her characters. The slaves speak in dialect- except for mulattoes like Eliza and George Harris- and characters like Tom Loker and Marks talk in a rough river slang.

The Quakers use slightly old-fashioned language, with many "thee's" and "thou's"; while most of the speech of the white characters is formal and flowery.

Few readers would claim that Uncle Tom's Cabin is beautifully written. The author's son, Charles Stowe, called the novel "an outburst of deep feeling" and explained that "the writer no more thought of style or literary excellence than the mother who rushes into the street and cries for help to save her children from a burning house...."

Yet the novel has enormous power. Uncle Tom's Cabin may be a tearjerker, but it succeeds. Many readers find their eyes filling up as Eliza climbs up the Ohio riverbank, or George Shelby pledges to do "what one man can" to fight slavery. Stowe wanted to convince people that slavery was wrong, to engage their emotions. Her overheated style accomplishes that, perhaps better than more controlled writing would have been able to. It is hard not to respond when Stowe asks you,

If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning... how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours... the little sleepy head on your shoulder,- the small soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?

Readers argue over the style of Uncle Tom's Cabin- is it simply awful, or is it crude but effective? Does Stowe write more feelingly about some subjects, or some characters, than about others?

POINT OF VIEW

The story of Uncle Tom is presented by an omniscient narrator who tells you everything the characters say and do- and what she thinks about it. Stowe's opinions are clear from her chapter titles as well as from her descriptions of the characters' wardrobes, taste in interior decoration, and degree of neatness. If these broad hints are not enough, Stowe addresses you, in aside after aside, telling you what you should think and feel about what you are reading. There is no question- as there is in some novels- that the voice of the narrator belongs to the author. In the last chapter, she reveals that she has based several characters on anecdotes she heard from her brother and her husband.

Uncle Tom's Cabin contains a few autobiographical incidents. Like the Birds, for example, the Stowes had black servants, helped fugitives, and lost a child. None of the characters, however, represents Harriet Beecher Stowe. Augustine St. Clare probably comes closer to expressing Stowe's ideas about slavery than any other character, but the novel is not told from his point of view.

FORM AND STRUCTURE

Uncle Tom's Cabin consists of forty-five chapters of varying lengths. Each recounts an incident or discussion. The flow of the narrative is somewhat choppy and repetitious, probably because each chapter originally appeared as a weekly installment in the National Era magazine.

The structure of Uncle Tom's Cabin is relatively simple for a novel that contains so many characters. The book begins and ends with an escape- Eliza's at the opening, Cassy and Emmeline's at the close. The novel is structured around two journeys, one (George and Eliza's) north toward freedom, the other (Tom's) south toward more oppressive slavery and death. Descriptions of the two journeys alternate, although characters are followed for several chapters. Minor characters and subplots echo the major themes of maternal loss, the importance of home, and the evil of slavery.

In addition, suspenseful or serious episodes- like Eliza's flight or the lengthy debates between Ophelia and Augustine about slavery- are interrupted by comic interludes like Sam and Andy's escapades or Topsy's description of how she "jest growed." Only in the final, grim, third of the book does the comic element disappear. These alternating patterns were typical in the fiction of Stowe's time.

The novel is also structured around physical locations. It consists of three main sections- Kentucky, New Orleans, and the Red River, the sites of the plantations of Tom's three owners. The first section (Kentucky) depicts the happy domestic life of slaves under a kind master, Eliza and George's flight, and the courageous Ohioans who help them on their way. The second section (New Orleans) introduces Augustine St. Clare and little Eva, and you get to know Uncle Tom in a way you haven't before. This section contains most of the intellectual content of the book- the discussions of religion (Uncle Tom and Eva) and of slavery (Augustine and Ophelia). The third section (the Red River), much darker in tone, shows the worst aspects of slavery. Uncle Tom is sorely tried, but he eventually triumphs.

Each section of the novel contains a climax. In the first section, it is Eliza's escape. In the second, it is the deaths of Eva and Augustine. The climax of the third section is Uncle Tom's death. If Stowe had been writing a play, she might have brought down the curtain after chapter 41, where Uncle Tom dies and George Shelby knocks Legree to the ground and then vows to devote his life to fighting slavery. Instead, Stowe spends the next four chapters resolving her subplots and lecturing about the novel's authenticity. The book ends on a dramatic note, however, as Stowe imagines what will happen to this country if slavery is not abolished.

THE STORY

THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES


ECC [Uncle Tom's Cabin Contents] [PinkMonkey.com]

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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