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An Analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin

 

        "The book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is thought of as a fantastic, even

fanatic, representation of Southern life, most memorable for its emotional

oversimplification of the complexities of the slave system," says Gossett

(4).  Harriet Beecher Stowe describes her own experiences or ones that she

has witnessed in the past through the text in her novel.  She grew up in

Cincinnati where she had a very close look at slavery.  Located on the Ohio

River across from the slave state of Kentucky, the city was filled with

former slaves and slaveholders.  In conversation with black women who

worked as servants in her home, Stowe heard many stories of slave life that

found their way into the book.  Some of the novel was based on her reading

of abolitionist books and pamphlets, the rest came straight from her own

observations of black Cincinnatians with personal experience of slavery.

She uses the characters to represent popular ideas of her time, a time when

slavery was the biggest issue that people were dealing with.  Uncle Tom's

Cabin was an unexpected factor in the dispute between the North and South.

The book sold more than 300,000 copies during the first year of publication,

taking thousands of people, even our nation's leaders, by surprise.

 

      Mr. Shelby is a Kentucky plantation owner who is forced by debt to

sell two of his slaves to a trader named Haley.  Uncle Tom, the manager of

the plantation, understands why he must be sold. The other slave marked for

sale is Harry, a four-year-old.  His mother, Mrs. Shelby's servant, Eliza,

overhears the news and runs away with the little boy.  She makes her way up

to the Ohio River, the boundary with the free state of Ohio.  In Ohio,

Eliza is sheltered by a series of kind people.  At a Quaker settlement, she

is reunited with her husband, George Harris.  George's master abused him

even though George was intelligent and hard-working, and he had decided to

escape.  The couple is not safe even in the North, though.  They are

followed by Marks and Loker, slave-catchers in partnership with the trader,

Haley.  They make there way up to Sandusky, so that they can catch a ferry

for Canada, where slavery is forbidden and American laws do not apply.

Meanwhile, Uncle Tom is headed down the river, deeper into slavery.  On the

boat, he makes friends with Eva St. Clare, a beautiful and religious white

child.  After Tom rescues Eva from near drowning, Eva's father, Augustine

St. Clare, buys him.  Life in the household is carefree.  Another person

living in the house is Ophelia, St. Clare's cousin from Vermont who just

moved to New Orleans.  She and Augustine argue long and hard about slavery,

he defending it, and she opposing it.  Augustine buys Topsy for Ophelia to

raise, in order to test her theories about education.  Topsy is bright and

energetic, but has no sense of right and wrong.  Ophelia is almost ready to

give up on her when little Eva shows her how to reach Topsy.  Tom and Eva

study the Bible together and share a belief in a loving God.  But Eva

becomes ill and dies.  Her death, and her example, transforms the lives of

many of the people around her.  Even her father becomes more religious.

Unfortunately he is accidentally killed before he can fulfill his promise

to Eva to free Tom, and Tom is sold again.  This time Tom is not so lucky.

He is bought by Simon Legree, the owner of an isolated plantation on the

Red River.  Legree is cruel, and his plantation is a living hell for his

slaves.  They are worked so hard that they have no time to think or feel,

and Legree sets them against each other.  Tom almost loses his faith in God,

but recovers it and continues his work among the other slaves.  He becomes

friends with Cassy, a good but despairing woman who has been Legree's

mistress.  Cassy arranges for her and Emmeline, the girl who has been

chosen as Legree's next mistress, to escape, and she urges Tom to join them.

 

 He will not, but he allows himself to be brutally beaten by Legree rather

than reveal what he knows about the women's whereabouts.  The Shelby's son,

George, arrives at Legree's plantation to rescue Tom, but it is too late.

Tom is dying.  He buries Tom, and swears on his grave that he will do

everything he can to end slavery.  On his way back to Kentucky, George

meets Madame de Thoux, who turns out to be George Harris' sister.  It is

also discovered that Cassy, who is on the same boat, is Eliza's mother.

George Shelby goes home and frees his slaves, telling them they owe their

freedom to Uncle Tom.  Madame de Thoux, Cassy, and Emmeline continue on to

Montreal, where George Harris and Eliza are now living with Harry and their

baby daughter.  The reunited family moves to France, where George attends

the university, and then to Africa, where he believes he can do the most

good for his people. This story had a great impact on it's readers and it

went on to play a sizeable role in our nation's politics.  On the 29th of

June, 1852, Henry Clay died.  In that month the two great political parties,

in their national conventions, had accepted as a finality all the

compromise measures of 1850, and the last hours of the Kentucky statesman

were brightened by the thought that his efforts had secured the perpetuity

of the Union.  But on the 20th of March, 1852, there had been an event, the

significance of which was not taken into account by the political

conventions or by Henry Clay, which was to test the conscience of the

nation.  This was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  "Was this only an "

event," the advent of a new force in politics; was the book merely an

abolition pamphlet, or was it a novel, one of the few great masterpieces of

fiction that the world has produced?"(Wilson 24).

 

      The compromise of 1850 satisfied neither the North nor the South.

The admission of California as a free state was regarded by Calhoun as

fatal to the balance between the free and the slave states, and thereafter

a fierce agitation sprang up for the recovery of this loss of balance, and

ultimately for Southern preponderance, which resulted in the repeal of the

Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska war, and the civil war.  The

fugitive slave law was hateful to the North not only because it was cruel

and degrading, but because it was seen to be a move formed for

nationalizing slavery.  It was unsatisfactory to the South because it was

deemed inadequate in its provisions, and because the South did not believe

the North would execute it in good faith. So unstable did the compromise

seem that in less than a year after the passage of all its measures, Henry

Clay and forty-four Senators and Representatives united in a manifesto

declaring that they would support no man for office who was not known to be

opposed to any disturbance of the settlements of the compromise.  When, in

February, 1851, "the recaptured fugitive slave, Burns, was rescued from the

United States officers in Boston, Clay urged the investment of the

President with extraordinary power to enforce the law,"(Wilson 186).

 

      Henry Clay was a patriot, a typical American.  The republic and its

preservation were the passions of his life.  Like Lincoln, who was born in

the State of his adoption, he was willing to make almost any sacrifice for

the maintenance of the Union.  He had no sympathy with the system of

slavery.  There is no doubt that he would have been happy in the belief

that it was in the way of gradual and peaceful extinction.  With him, it

was always the Union before state rights and before slavery.  Unlike

Lincoln, he did not have the clear vision to see that the republic could

not endure half slave and half free.  He believed that the South, appealing

to the compromises of the Constitution, would sacrifice the Union before it

would give up slavery, and in fear of this menace he begged the North to

conquer its prejudices.  History will no doubt say that it was largely due

to him that the war on the Union was postponed to a date when its success

was impossible. "It was the fugitive slave law that brought the North face

to face with slavery nationalized, and it was the fugitive slave law that

produced Uncle Tom's Cabin,"(Cross 138).  The effect of this story was

immediate and severe.  It went to the hearts of tens of thousands of people

who had never before considered such an ideal.

 

      A theme that Stowe impresses strongly upon the reader is the

degenerative effects of slavery upon both the slave and the master.

Frequently in the novel the issue is raised.  Even Mrs. Shelby recognizes

the depravity and admits that slavery, "is a bitter, bitter, most accursed

thing- a curse to the master and a curse to the slave!"(45).  The

injustices of slavery are frequently identified in the novel but, of course,

the practice is continued.  Many of those involved in holding slaves are

sensitive to the problem.  Mr. Shelby, for instance, is not contented by

the idea but enjoys the benefits out of what he deems necessity.  The

inherent problem of slavery is again stated when John Van Trompe is being

described.  His worn appearance is attributed to the "workings of a system

equally bad for oppressor and oppressed,"(Stowe 105).  The novel also

demonstrates the absurdities and contradictions of slavery.  For instance,

Mr. Shelby's actions are strongly contradictory to his statements.  He

believes himself to be a Christian man with a genuine respect for his

slaves.  Yet the fact that he holds slaves opposes all that he says and

although his treatment of slaves is better than most master's, he still is

not respectful of them.  For example, in the first chapter when Shelby and

Haley are discussing the ensuing trade, Harry enters the room and Shelby

has him dance around like a clown and then tosses raisins at him.  Also, Mr.

Harris, a slave owner, in defense of his relocating George asserts that, "

it's a free country sir; the man's mine,"(Stowe 24).  It is also ironic

that after George invents a machine to clean hemp the employer

congratulates not George, but George's master for owning such a fine slave.

 

 Another example that effectively illustrates the strong contradictions and

absurdities of slavery and slave owners is the philosophy of Haley

concerning the proper treatment of slaves.  Haley, whose practice is to buy

and sell people asserts that, "its always best to do the humane thing,"

(Stowe 16) and that it is good to have a conscience, "just a little, you

know, to swear by,"(Stowe 13).  Another topic often addressed in the novel

is exclusion of blacks in the law and the injustice of the entire condition.

 It is noted several times that in the eye of the law, blacks are not

considered men, but things.  But much to the credit of the slaves it is

demonstrated that, "the man could not become a thing,"(Stowe 23).  Even

after the constant forcing to subservience the slaves continue to show hope

by questioning the legitimacy of the situation.  George identifies the

inequality and asks, "Who made this man my master?"(Stowe 27).  And again,

later in the novel, George denies the fact that the country's laws are his.

He refuses to include himself as a part of the white man's country and asks

only to be allowed to leave peaceably so that he can be a part of another

country; one whose laws he will consider his own and does so in an honest

manner.  The preposterousness of such practice is clearly identified by the

reader and illustrated well by Stowe.  Stowe also discerningly demonstrates

the disheartening fact that, "slavery always ends in misery"(Stowe 130).

 

      Stowe uses Eva St. Clare in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin to

symbolize the idealism of a free society.  Eva believes in everything equal,

and her heart aches for slaves to be free and independent.  She wants them

to be educated and enlightened to the workings of God.  Eva's idealism is

so great that she would never have been able to survive happily in

nineteenth-century America.  While Eva's dreams are too progressive for

the nineteenth century, they subtly influence people in the novel, such as

Mr. St. Clare and Miss Ophelia, to change for the better. In the same way,

Stowe aspires for people reading her novel to evaluate their personal view

of blacks and hopefully make societal improvements.

 

      Eva's innocence makes her ideas persuasive.  Stowe glorifies Eva so

that her vision seems even more magnificent.  "While still retaining all a

child's fanciful graces, [Eva] often dropped, unconsciously, words of such

a reach of thought, and strange unworldly wisdom, that they seemed to be an

inspiration"(Stowe 384).  Although her caretakers pamper and coddle Eva,

she never seems spoiled, because her dreams are so pure.  She accepts

people as they are, imparting no judgement.  Eva assimilates everyone

equally into her world.

 

      Although people recognize the rare attitude of Eva, they do not

know how to respond to her ideals.  They cannot see why she should involve

herself so greatly in the plight of others when she could seemingly have

everything.  They do not realize that what Eva desires most, a free and

equal society, remains elusive.  The childish side of Eva believes that her

father can make everything right in the world.  She asks him, "Papa isn't

there any way to have all the slaves made free?"(Stowe 403).  Though St.

Clare feels powerless to aid both Eva's torment and the plight of society,

her questions deeply affect him, and he begins to evaluate his past deeds.

On a larger scale, Stowe uses Eva's questioning as a way to inspire people

to do their own soul-searching.

 

      Although he does not initiate radical change, St. Clare slowly

alters his life.  Eva's persistence makes St. Clare finally realize that

apathy is an evil equal to active abuse.  With this in mind, St. Clare

makes movements to emancipate Tom after Eva's death.  In contrast, Eva's

mother, Marie St. Clare, "represents the stubborn people of society who

refute all change"(Fiedler 82).  She is the "opposition" and people such as

she enflame the Civil War and make it a bloody battleground.  People such

as Marie cannot reconcile themselves to the idea that God made everyone

equal.  When Eva asks her mother whether Topsy could be an angel too, Marie

dismisses the question as a "ridiculous idea"(Stowe 415), saying that

worrying about such matters does no good.

 

      Despite her mother's ambivalence, Eva continues to worry.  She

believes that "Jesus loves all alike"(Stowe 410), and in another respect,

she serves as a Jesus-figure on Earth.  On her death-bed Eva plays the role

of a savior to the black slaves, just as her ideas, transmitted through

the novel, will serve as their savior in the real world.  Eva tells Tom, "I

would be glad to die, if my dying could stop all the misery.  I would die

for them"(Stowe 401), the slaves.  Eva dies for the sins of her parents,

and she dies to create a hope in the future.

 

      Eva has "no regrets for herself in dying"(Stowe 400).  She has

served her purpose in the St. Clare family by persuading her father to

alter his attitude about life and negroes.  She serves her purpose in Uncle

Tom's Cabin by enlightening the readers as to the way society should be.

Stowe says of Eva's death, "Thine is the victory without the battle,--the

crown without conflict"(Stowe 429).  Stowe realizes that the change of

which Eva dreamed could never come so easily, but through Eva, she tries

to wage her own battle.  Eva serenely fades into death, but her presence

and her dreams survive in her father and in the reader of the novel.

 

      It is doubtful if a book was ever written that attained such

popularity in so short a time as did Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's

Cabin.  "The thrilling story was eagerly read by rich and poor, by the

educated and uneducated, eliciting from one and all heartfelt sympathy for

the poor and abused negro of the south,"(Donovan 74).  It was, indeed, a

veritable bombshell to slaveholders, who felt that such a work should be

dangerous to the existence of slavery.  They had a good cause to fear it

too, for its "timely appearance was undoubtedly the means of turning the

tide of public feeling against the abominable curse of slavery"(Cass 35).

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