uncle tom's cabinA Classic Abolitionist Text Examining Racism, Greed, and Religious Hypocrisy

Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Selling over 3,000 copies on its first day of publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since become a renowned classic of abolition and, in more recent years, an accused perpetrator of racial stereotypes. Pitted with a politically charged past, the novel has been credited with initiating the Civil War and supporting women’s suffrage. Written in the sentimental style popular at the time, the novel sets its theme by introducing us to Arthur Shelby who, over wine, discusses his unfortunate debt with his stunned wife, Emily. Emily is averse to selling any of her slaves, especially since the ones her husband proposes are those that have been the most dedicated and were promised their freedom. The casual discussion and Emily’s morals juxtapose the world of indulgent white luxury and facile guilt with the reality of turning human beings into chattel, addressing the old panacea that slaves were “better off with a good master than free.”

Overhearing the conversation is the mulatto slave Eliza whose only surviving child adorable child is listed as one of the beings to casually be sold. Eliza grabs her child and makes a dramatic escape in the night but, before she goes she warns the one other person on the list – Shelby’s best slave and a pillar of the black community, the affable and loyal Uncle Tom.

And so the story begins with Tom as the epicenter around which the lives of the other slaves cross. A good man in an impossible situation, Tom is a moral paragon and a testimonial against his various moralizing masters all of whom are higher in society than Tom (naturally) yet are essentially animalistic and devoid of true Christianity either by neglectful selfishness or in-your-face cruelty. The scenarios flip between Eliza’s (and later her husband’s) plight and Tom’s varying masters, representing the two “paths” open to slaves and, oddly, intermixing an overarching sense of forgiveness with a point-blank examination of white society’s evident greed and convenient racism. The novel alternates quite nicely between making its brutal point and also, surprisingly, telling a good fictional story. Readers are entertained while they cringe and the overarching question, especially for modern audiences, of how ordinary people become monsters, justifying acts such as owning slavery while perpetuating a necessary dehumanization to make their own actions ethically palatable, is examined from multiple angles with a forthrightness that is discomfiting.

An abolitionist text, which originally appeared serialized in an abolitionist newspaper and was later converted into novel format, Uncle Tom’s Cabin progresses storytelling while addressing all the justifications and hot button issues of the day. First we have the supposedly good master, Shelby, who is a wealthy man and indulgent with his slaves. It appears as though his slaves have a better life with this easy going master than they would free and tormented by a world that loathes them and has provided them with no education or opportunities to progress. The rub, of course, is that Shelby is kind more through apathy than active goodness and when he runs up debts he judges it more expedient to sell his best slave and the only living child of his other slave. The decision is not a casual one and there is angst and upset compiled with guilt and promises to re-purchase the unfortunate chattel. Ultimately, all that guilt is meaningless, however, and while Mrs. Shelby does some good deeds (especially in facilitating Eliza’s escape), the Shelby family soon backslides. In other words, good intentions without actions are useless and being with a “good” master is not better than being free because you are still property, still at the mercy of someone else’s whims and fortunes.

Separated from his wife, his children, and his friends, Tom is now on the market, yet remains compelled to goodness despite his predicament. Indeed, Tom won’t even run partly out of misplaced respect for his clueless master but mostly out of concern for the other Shelby slaves, who would of course end up being sold in his place. As luck would have it, Tom immediately finds himself another “good” master in the affable family of St. Clare. During this period of Tom’s indenture, the narrative spends a good amount of time examining the different justifications for slavery and how each fall short. Topsy, a young black slave child with an evil temper and a destructive tendency is intended to show why slavery is needed and why “black people are the way they are” as it were yet, instead, one of the greatest morals of the series arises as Topsy embodies the undeniable humanity in the slaves, driving home the point that slavery is subjugation of another human being with all the equivalent intellectual and emotional attributes of the socially justified “master.”

From here, the novel further examines its second main point, that of Christianity. St. Clare is an easygoing man who doesn’t believe in half doing things and so, does nothing. He drifts through life and while he is kind to his slaves and develops a special relationship with Tom, his continual ironic arguments address the hypocrisy of society including those from his anti-slavery northern cousin. St. Clare notes that simply freeing the slaves is a worthless gesture without a society built that allows them education and opportunities. Freeing, and then quitting justified, is another moralized gesture and as St. Clare’s awareness is forced, eventually his own young daughter’s goodness and stunning awareness leads him to accept true responsibility. Pointing out the continual and loathsome lying of the church, which he refuses to attend, St. Clare is the lead proponent in Stowe’s narrative who showcases that slavery is NOT compatible with any of the tenants of Christianity and why.

Yet, once again, the conversion is too slow, too late, and we move into Tom’s final portion of the novel with the cruel and tyrannical master, Simon Legree, with his equally cruel and racially traitorous slaves Sambo and Quimbo. Here we follow Tom through the valley of the shadow and the true hero is born because despite all the good “masters” and assorted helpful white people we have met, they ultimately do nothing. Tom is the truly good man, presented with a Christ-like sacrificial ending and here is where the humanization and full horror of slavery are embodied. Tom is good not through the graciousness of the white people and what he has learned from them, but because of who he naturally is and his keen intellectual savvy and ability to, despite educational ignorance, understand the deeper, truer things of life. Further, Tom symbolizing redemption and dies in a true Christian spirit of forgiveness that will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Evidently forceful in unveiling the true ugliness of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has sadly been overshadowed in recent times with an accusation of its stereotyping. What critics seem to willfully forget is that this novel had a major historical role in abolition and this is its most outstanding feature. The stereotype image, to my mind, came later because of the popular appeal of this novel which achieved its main goal of making everyone stop and think about the horrors they were allowing to perpetuate around them. It’s a chicken or the egg situation and the racial stereotype seem more to me a result of copying characters from this novel and their unique mannerisms than actual racism. If these characters and their images make you uncomfortable, it is because of cultural appropriation and a morphing of true character into an ironic and vitriolic double-edged sword which throws out the meaning behind the actions and the words and instead leaves mere impressions from a purposefully melodramatic sentimental novel. Yes, you will be offended (even cringe) at some representations – I’m not denying that. Yet the overall historical importance and Stowe’s message here should not be diminished. This was a progressive work for its time and greatly effective text in abolishing slavery and placing the moral judgement where it belonged – on the white owners and, overarchingly, on society itself.

Of course, on a shallower level, there’s the fictional component here. Readers, despite their best intentions and pure beliefs, are always reticent to take up a novel that is seen to preach, even if its espousing their position, because such a thing is both weighty and, let’s be honest, boring. Uncle Tom’s Cabin avoids this effect. I’d avoided this classic for years mostly because I associated it more with the serious school “you must read this and then write an intensive essay” vibe that some classics, especially those pushing for social changes, tend to have. I was wrong. Grateful for both the message and the between-the-eyes honesty, I also just enjoyed the story which oscillates between heartbreaking scenes, quiet character building arguments, and daring adventure. The characters aren’t just mouthpieces for a political text, but vibrant beings who draw us towards them with their complexity and confused misery. If you don’t cry for Uncle Tom, if you feel no despair for St. Clare, if you are not invested in Eliza’s escape, then you have no heart and no book (or story) can ever capture your attention and your heart.

–        Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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