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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 5

Summary

Mr. Shelby informs his wife that he has sold Tom and Harry. Mrs. Shelby is indignant and tries to intercede on Tom's behalf. She is even willing to make monetary sacrifices if the sale can be stopped. Mr. Shelby tells his wife that the choice lies between selling these two or losing everything, since Haley will come into possession of the mortgage. He has saved and borrowed and begged to pay him, and Tom and Harry are the final part of the agreement.

Mrs. Shelby curses slavery. She gives her husband her gold watch to sell if it can at least prevent Harry's sale. Mr. Shelby tells her it is of no use; the bills of sale have already been signed. He tells her they should be thankful for the narrow escape they have just had, since Haley had it in his power to ruin them completely. Haley is supposed to come the next morning to cart off his "possessions", Mr. Shelby intends to absent himself from the scene. He advises his wife to take Eliza out for a drive, so she will not see Harry being taken off. Mrs. Shelby cannot do it, though, since she feels it is a cowardly way out. She decides to be there for Eliza in her hour of distress.

Eliza overhears the conversation from a hiding place in the closet. She goes to her room, makes hasty preparations for a flight, and leaves a note for Mrs. Shelby. Before leaving, she goes to Uncle Tom's cabin and tells him what is happening. Aunt Chloe urges Tom to escape but he won't; he believes flight will only cause more problems. Eliza asks them to send word to her husband George that she is heading for Canada.


Notes

In the conversation between the Shelbys, the readers learn that Mrs. Shelby truly cares for her slaves. She makes her husband aware of the fact that Tom is noble and faithful, and offers to make personal sacrifices to keep him and Harry in their possession. She has taken care to educate her slaves in the duties of family, parent, and child. She now becomes aware of the irony of her situation, when all those values will be overturned because of money.

Mrs. Shelby also feels that she has let down Eliza. Her wanting to make monetary sacrifices for the sake of her slaves reveals her nobility. She expresses quite clearly that she hates the institution of slavery. She feels defeated by the system and denounces the minister for defending slavery. Thus one gets to know that even ministers, supposed men of God, encourage the unjust practice of slavery. Mrs. Shelby is naturally perturbed when she learns that Haley is a man "alive to nothing but trade and profit." She deserves a degree of admiration for her decision to remain by Eliza's side at the moment of separation from her child.

For all her good qualities, Mrs. Shelby is not strong enough to prevail upon her husband to change his mind. Mr. Shelby, though a benevolent master, does not feel as deeply for Tom and Harry. He is a typical Southern gentleman whose conditioning is such that he considers slaves to be dispensable commodities. He respects his wife's feelings but does not pretend to share in them entirely. Besides, though he feels guilty, he believes he has no other choice. In addition, though Mrs. Shelby resists the effects of slavery, she is still a southern woman and the wife of a slave owner. Her guilt is in compliance; she continues to have slaves, so her principles are not absolute.

Eliza does the only thing an agitated mother in her situation would do; she flees with her child from the trade situation. Stowe's outrage at the imminent separation of mother and child is apparent. Her lingering descriptions of the sleeping boy are done with the idea of arousing the reader's sympathy. Modern readers might think these descriptive passages contrived and overwrought, but Stowe felt it necessary to portray the deviousness of an institution that would plan to separate a boy from his mother while he is sleeping peacefully, unaware.

Tom's nobility can be perceived when he decides to sacrifice himself for the sake of his master and mistress, and for the other slaves. He can easily make a dash for freedom. In so doing, however, he feels he will break his master's trust in him. One can very well imagine the anguish Tom must be undergoing at the thought of being parted from wife and children, perhaps even forever. However, he refrains from condemning Mr. Shelby and thinks only of the collective good.

In this chapter the reader can see the beginnings of the separation of the two strands of the narrative. The first strand deals with Tom's decision to stay; the other deals with Eliza's timely escape. Stowe's narrative strategy has been to lay the groundwork of the novel in character descriptions, thereby setting the stage for plot developments to unfold with more dramatic implications.

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