It is extremely difficult for the modern reader to understand and appreciate Uncle Tom’s Cabin because Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing for an audience very different from us. We don’t share the cultural values and myths of Stowe’s time, so her novel doesn’t affect us the way it affected its original readers. For this reason, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been heavily scrutinized by the modern critic. However, the aspects of the novel that are criticized now are the same aspects that held so much appeal for its original audience.
Many people condemn Uncle Tom’s Cabin simply because it is a sentimental novel. This genre appeals to the reader’s emotions in order to enact social change. While popular during Stowe’s time, the sentimental novel is now scorned by many members of the academy, such as Baldwin: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women” (496). Some modern readers are repulsed by Stowe’s desire to reform society, but that is because in our times the purpose of literature is to represent the world, not change it. Because the modern critic finds it hard to identify with Stowe’s genuine desire to improve society, he sees it as an example of her self-righteousness.
Because the sentimental novel appeals to the reader’s emotions, many of its scenes may strike the modern reader as overly dramatic. Baldwin claims "the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumani...
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...lture. Most twenty-first century readers are annoyed by the novel’s sentimentality, the religious undertones, and the martyr figures, among other things, but these same qualities that we dislike are what appealed to the novel’s original audience. Being outsiders, it is hard for us to accept Stowe’s message that love must conquer social injustices. However, one must wonder if her own contemporaries accepted this message, since Stowe would have seen the Civil War as forcing change within society without eliminating the prejudices that produced it.
Baldwin, James. “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 1994. 495-501.
Tompkins, Jane. “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton; 1994. 501-522.
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