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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