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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 4

Summary

This chapter describes Uncle Tom's cabin, a picturesque but humble log cabin with a small neat garden. Tom's wife, Aunt Chloe, is the Shelbys' head cook, and she is in the kitchen working. Tom has two boys, Mose and Pete, and a baby daughter, Polly. Tom is resolutely trying to learn to write. In this effort he is supervised by "Mas'r" George, the Shelbys' thirteen year old son. George and Tom stop studying when Chloe finishes making pound cake.

After supper, Tom's cabin turns into a place of worship, similar to an old-fashioned Methodist meeting. All the slaves from the nearby estates assemble to worship and sing in praise of God. They make George Shelby read the last chapters of Revelations, and Tom offers a prayer.

In the meantime, Mr. Shelby is finalizing his deal with Haley. He sells off Tom and little Harry. Money and bills are exchanged, and the deal is complete.

Notes

This section begins with a description of the life of Uncle Tom, the title character, and his family. Again, Stowe uses sentiment and sentimentality to an extreme, but only to humanize her characters and make more compelling the unfortunate light of the slave in America. Tom and his family are happy and content; their home is warm and full of laughter and love. The children play together, the father is learning to read, and the mother is cooking pound cake. The purpose of all this excess of comfort is to show the stark cold reality of slave trading when Tom is sold off and separated from his family. Immediately after the joy of the Methodist style meeting where Tom prays and leads the spiritual lives of his fellow slaves, Stowe draws a picture of the exchange of slaves. Money is traded, and Tom's life, as well as young Harry's, will forever be changed.


Shelby's son, Master George, is also introduced in this chapter. Like his parents, he is a good boy who is trying to teach the slaves to read. He also likes to attend the Methodist meeting and read out chapters from the Bible. He is completely the opposite of Harris' son, who takes great joy in whipping George Harris. In contrast to the slave traders like Haley, the Shelby's are the "good" people who have bought into the myth that one can be good and also trade slaves. It is in direct contrast to the stereotype that slave traders are all villainous characters; some are not evil, but mislead and mistaken. However, even though George is happy to spend time in the company of the slaves, the social distinction between master and slave is maintained. He is served first. It is only after he finishes eating that the two slave boys are served.

Most importantly, this chapter characterizes Uncle Tom, although his actual role in the chapter is relatively minor. He is a large, powerful man. He has an air of dignity and self-respect, which is combined with simplicity and humility. Unintentionally, Tom and Chloe have been depicted as stereotypical figures, which remains largely unchanged even today. They seem like the happy-go-lucky slaves who accept their lot in life and are even able to be happy. Again, Stowe did not intend to promote stereotypes; rather, she created this image in order to make the slaves compelling, and to make their predicament shocking and empathetic.

Apart from this, Tom's piety and faith in God is brought out. His cabin is the focal point for prayer gatherings. Stowe emphasizes the black man's passion and style of worship in this chapter. The words "die" and "glory" are repeated in the hymns, suggesting the black people consider the life of slavery as one of distress. Their belief is that after death, heaven will be their reward. The slaves look upon Tom as some sort of a minister. His sermon is simple and his prayer, spoken with a child-like simplicity, stirs the devotional feelings of his audience. His faith and complete trust in God and in the strength of prayer can be contrasted with the outlook of George Harris. George fights his fate, while Tom accepts his.

An interesting feature to observe is Stowe's ability to capture the nuances and characteristic speech patterns of the blacks. It comes alive in Aunt Chloe's conversation with George Shelby and the meeting of the slaves. The Methodist meetings also serve as a social gathering for the slaves. Here they exchange gossip, very much like their white masters.

It is ironic that this atmosphere of peace and contentment is to be shattered in a very short while, now that Mr. Shelby has sold Tom and Harry to Haley. It is important to note, however, that Mr. Shelby is not too happy with the sale since Haley comments on it. Mr. Shelby asks Haley not to sell Tom without knowing what type of a master he is going to have. Haley very correctly points out that Mr. Shelby himself has done the same thing; he has not ascertained the credentials of his new master. Mr. Shelby hides behind the only defense he has: the circumstance is forcing him to do so. The reader wonders what Tom's lot will be, and a certain degree of anxiety begins, since Haley's manner and answers are far from reassuring.

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