Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Genre: Fiction (Classic)
One of the reasons I like to read classics is that while the stories may be timeless, the books themselves often are not. Styles in literature have their trends, just like clothing styles, and I find it fascinating to learn about the time period in which a book was written from the book itself. Mrs. Stowe’s book is an archetypal example of this.
The story itself it rather well known. Tom, a well-respected slave of the Kentucky Shelby family, is sold to a trader. Mrs. Shelby actually opposes slavery, but accepts that the “peculiar institution” is a part of her husband’s way of life—a teaching she has passed on to her son George. Mr. Shelby is a kind master, but he still believes in the owning of others and in the inferiority of the black race. He sells Tom and another slave, housemaid Eliza’s son Henry, as a last resort to pay off a debt. Mrs. Shelby, along with Tom’s wife Chloe, vows to get the money to buy Tom back.
Eliza, refusing to be separated from her son, runs away with Henry before the trader can claim him, meets up with her escaped husband George (whose owner is not Mr. Shelby), and dramatically crosses the river into Ohio where she and her family are sheltered by Quakers until they can complete their journey to Canada.
Tom, meanwhile, is bought by Augustine St. Clare, a Southerner from Louisiana but raised in the North. He owns slaves but does not particularly believe in slavery—or much of anything. He is kind, but lazy. His daughter Eva is angelic and his wife Marie is a stereotypical Southern belle who has no regard for the slaves in her possession. She truly sees them as possessions and behaves toward them accordingly. St. Clare has brought his spinster cousin Ophelia to his estate to run it, as Marie often fancies herself ill and is incapable of being the true mistress of her home. Ophelia is a dedicated abolitionist, but she does not see blacks as the equal of whites.
Tom, meanwhile, reads his Bible faithfully and truly tries to practice a Christian life. He and Eva form a tender bond and he is devastated by her early demise. In his own grief, St. Clare determines to free Tom, but is killed before the paperwork can be completed. Liquidating her home to return to her parents, Marie sells Tom to Simon Legree, an incredibly cruel master who is determined to break Tom of his high-minded ways and turn him into a mindless and soulless drone, capable of brutality to others. The beating Tom receives when he refuses to capitulate to Simon’s insistence that Tom beat another slave results in Tom’s death, days before young George Shelby finally arrives to purchase Tom’s freedom and reunite him with his family in Kentucky.
There can be no ambiguity about the main theme of this story—slavery is evil and is perpetrated by the (then) entire United States, whether northerner or southerner, abolitionist or slaveholder. Characters who found slavery repugnant still owned slaves. Abolitionists were repulsed by the very black people they wished to free. Slavery was kind to blacks because they would not know how to take care of themselves if freed. Slave family torn apart? No problem, they’ll just make a new family wherever they end up. Even characters we are supposed to like still subscribe to some of these offending positions.
Which leads me to believe that this was indeed Mrs. Stowe’s point all along. In pointing out the evil of the practice she was also pointing out that there is no one solution, no easy cure, no quick fix to remedy the national disease that was slavery. Rather than make all the slave owners evil and all the abolitionists kind and of upstanding moral character, she paints most of her characters (Simon Legree, the trader Haley, and Uncle Tom himself the exceptions to this) in shades of grey.
And this leads me to some thoughts on the character of Uncle Tom. A devout Christian, Tom, while longing for freedom, accepts his lot and is the most docile of men until charged by Legree to do the unthinkable. His willingness to please has made him a reviled character by some in the black community. Someone who is willingly submissive to whites is often called an “Uncle Tom.” I understand why, but I can’t help but think that people who are dismissive of Uncle Tom miss a point Mrs. Stowe was trying to make. Of course, I am saying this from my lofty position of white privilege, but I still think my argument has merit. Christ himself was submissive to the will of the leaders who were determined to kill him. He did not fight back, he did not lead a rebellion to free Israelites from Roman rule, and he did not exhort retaliation for wrongs done. Jesus had a duty to perform, he went about his business in peace, and he tried to get us all to love our friends and our enemies. Tom was actually emulating Christ. Eliza’s husband George is the firebrand, the rebel, and his efforts are rewarded with safety and freedom. Tom makes the ultimate sacrifice, but the way he lived his life touched all those around him. How very Christ-like.
This in fact brings me to my final and original point. Another undoubted theme of Mrs. Stowe’s book is Christianity. Considering that I just compared Uncle Tom to Jesus, I don’t think I need to go into that. What I will comment on is the style in which she chose to craft that theme. As was typical of the time, Mrs. Stowe chose not to be subtle in making her point. She is very heavy-handed (in the last chapter in particular) in her earnestness to convince her readers of Christian values. Her language is very Victorian and her writing moralistic and preachy. Often as I was reading I was reminded of the style of Louisa May Alcott, who began her own writing just after Mrs. Stowe published Uncle Tom. Miss Alcott, indeed, has commented on being influenced by Mrs. Stowe. However, I think Miss Alcott learned a bit from Mrs. Stowe about what not to do. Miss Alcott’s works are very moral and she falls into preachy-ness upon occasion (and pokes fun at herself for doing so), but she reins it in, making her work more accessible for modern readers. Both ladies wrote at a time when “good” writing often meant that it should also be instructive, and Uncle Tom certainly can be pedantic in tone. For all that, it is an astounding work, one that made a blazing indictment on the evils of the author’s society, one that got the country talking about an important issue, one that has made a lasting impression on the literary landscape of this country. No wonder it is a classic.