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Free Study Guide-Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe-Free Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES

CHAPTER 1

Summary

It is a chilly February afternoon in Kentucky and Mr. Shelby and Mr. Haley are negotiating the sale of slaves. Mr. Shelby, the seller, is a good man with a kind disposition toward his slaves. He has speculated rashly and is forced to sell some slaves to Haley to settle his debts. Unlike Mr. Shelby, Haley is a ruthless slave trader. He wants an older slave, Tom, and a young boy slave, called "Jim Crow" but named Harry. Harry is a talented young boy who sings and dances, part of the reason Haley wants him.

As they are closing the deal, Harry's mother Eliza enters. She is a beautiful woman, and Haley decides he wants her as part of the deal as well. Mr. Shelby does not encourage the sale of the woman because his wife is extremely fond of her. However, Haley has set his mind on the boy as "such a comical musical concern." and "just the article" that Haley needs. Mr. Shelby cannot think of separating mother and child, however. Haley encourages him to sell by telling him these "critters an't like white folks", since with the right "management", they will get used to separation. Mr. Shelby asks Haley to let him think on it.

Meanwhile, Eliza has heard the conversation from outside the parlor door and suspects a deal is being cut for her son. She is so distracted that Mrs. Shelby notices and asks her what is wrong. When Eliza shares her fears, Mrs. Shelby dismisses it as foolishness, totally unaware of her husband's financial troubles.

Notes

The opening chapter presents a contrast in Southern men--the "gentleman" slave owner and the ruthless slave trader. From the start, Shelby is described as a kind man who does not abuse slaves. He is not above slavery, since he obviously has and trades slaves. But he is presented as a man who possesses some goodness in his heart. His polar opposite is Haley. Haley is repulsive from the start, a man who wears loud flashy clothes and lots of jewelry. He generalizes that all blacks are unreliable and sub-human. When Mr. Shelby vouches for Tom's honesty and piety, Mr. Haley replies that Tom must be honest "as niggers go." To him, Tom is an "article", a commodity that will bring good money. He is a greedy bargainer who feels no compunction at all for his cruelty.


Shelby's idea of humanitarian is not separating families; Haley's view is buying the mother a bauble or a dress so she will not miss her sold- off husband or children too badly, and making sure she doesn't witness the auction personally. Haley claims he is better in his management than Tom Loker, a slave owner who whips his slaves to stop them from crying. He thinks himself superior in the fact that he allows the slaves to cry. Even so, he considers Tom Loker a good-hearted fellow and a fair business hand. This just proves that basically both of them are inhuman in their treatment of slaves, though one thinks himself humane and the other cruel.

Mr. Shelby does not like Haley, but the dislike does not prevent him from doing business with the man. Though he is presented as the "gentleman" slave owner, he is still patronizing in his attitude toward his slaves. This is witnessed when he makes little Harry perform tricks like a circus animal on stage.

The two men are not the only ones whose characters are revealed. Tom the slave is also introduced her, although indirectly. Mr. Shelby's praise of Tom is a marker of the slave's apparent worth. Shelby has a high regard for the older slave, calling him honest and pious. He says the slave runs the farm "like a clock". Mr. Shelby also adds that Tom could easily have run away to Canada one time, but he didn't.

Eliza is naturally perturbed when she overhears her master offering to sell her son, and she immediately appeals to her mistress Mrs. Shelby. This indicates what an intimate relationship the two of them share. Mrs. Shelby is a compassionate woman who has high moral and religious principles. Even her husband stands in awe of her; he obviously does not know how to break the news of the sale to her.

In this chapter, the readers get their first glimpse into the institution of slavery and the break-up of families caused by it. Though Stowe introduces a "good" slave owner and a "bad" slave owner, she does not intend either to escape her novel uncriticized. Haley remains the picture of the merciless slave trader and Mr. and Mrs. Shelby are the benevolent patrons who indulge their slaves.

However, the law and their benevolence still does not give their slaves basic rights. Slaves are merely "things" belonging to their masters. Several comments are made on the gentler practice of slavery in the state of Kentucky, but gentle slavery is still slavery and Stowe forgives neither. The tone of condemnation and irony is apparent from the opening chapter itself and is brought out not only through the conversations of the characters but also through authorial comments.

The two distinct storylines of the novel are introduced here. They are the story of Uncle Tom and the story of Eliza and little Harry. Though at this point it appears the stories are intertwined, they will separate for most of the novel, coming back together only in the end.

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