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Exploring the Classics – Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly

Harriet Beecher Stowe; Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Page notes refer to the 2009 version of the text.

Published in serial form in abolitionist newspaper the National Era beginning in June 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is a harrowing read: the violence is unflinching and brutal.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is, without hesitation, a product of its time. The overt and covert messages of the text contradict each other so that the Christianity and equality that is overtly preached in both plot and dialogue is tainted by the innate racism of the prose. Non-white characters are condescended to and stereotyped: slaves are described – by a character who is ostensibly on the side of the oppressed – as ‘poor, simple, dependent creatures’ (p. 31); Stowe states that ‘the negro mind, impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and expressions of a vivid and pictoral nature’ (p. 29); the children are ‘pickaninnies’ and the mixed-race women are sexually available. All of the black characters are ‘woolley headed’.

Stowes racial essentialism is paternalistic and unpleasant to modern readers, but, perhaps (and this is not to excuse her) they are a product of her experiences. Stowes ideas of race are socially constructed, a product of a divided world that truly believed in the natural characteristics of the races.

“Don’t natur herself kinder cry out on ’em?” said Aunt Chloe. “Don’t dey tear der suckin’ baby right off his mother’s breast, and sell him, and der little children as is crying and holding on by her clothes, – don’t dey pull ’em off and sells ’em? Don’t dey tear wife and husband apart?” said Aunt Chloe, beginning to cry, “when it’s jest takin’ the very life on ’em? – and all the while does they feel one bit, don’t dey drink and smoke, and take it oncommon easy? Lor, if the devil don’t get them, what’s he good for?” And Aunt Chloe covered her face with her checked apron, and began to sob in good earnest.

(p. 75)

One of the main tines of Beecher’s anti-slavey argument is that it divides families, both physically (as with Eliza) and philosophically (as with Senator and Mrs Bird).  This argument reaches into the soul of readers – who has not been forcibly separated (perhaps by death) from a loved family member? The integrity of the family as the keystone of a civilised society will be an uncomfortable idea too some modern readers, but nevertheless the idea of forced separation is a powerful one. The prospect of separation from her son causes slave Eliza to run away, marriages between slaves are not legally recognised and so are easily separated. A slave can be removed from their family unit at the whim of their owner. Tellingly, the character of Topsy is wild because, having been raised by a speculator, she has no natural family. For Stowe, natural families are sacred, and a civil society does not separate them. Central to this argument is the premise that a mother is a mother, regardless of colour. It seems unthinkable now that this idea could ever be questioned, but, if Uncle Tom’s Cabin is any witness, it certainly was.

Eliza escapes with her son over the frozen Ohio river

Much has been said about the racism and racial essentialism of of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. With this reading, I am much more interested in the feminism inherent in the text*. The novel is by no means about the emancipation of women, but it certainly aligns itself with the feminist movement as it was in the post-colonial USA. Women’s suffrage had been proposed just two years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published and was part of the convsation, especially among middle- and upper-class women like Stowe.

Stowes women are, with the exception of Mrs. St Claire and Cassy, presented as more moral and more pious than her male characters and their anti-slavery stance is invariably a product of their religious convictions. The woman’s role of ‘mother’ is foregrounded (a device which, while couragous and decidedly pro-woman in 1850, seems disempowering now) and this domestic sentimentality provides an authority in the voices of her women; they rule the home and have a persuasive power over their husbands and sons that stems from their moral (read: religious) superiority. As if to underline her point Stowe gives us Simon Legree, who does not have a good Christian wife but a slave mistress named Cassy. His home, his business and his personality are repugnant.

Stowe’s female characters, denied a voice by their government, are nevertheless politically minded and fully able to hold their own in debate. It is a ‘women save the world’ narrative in which – and please keep in mind the novel’s context when I say this – the feminine virtues of piety, love and quiet suffering win out over masculine materialism and violence. Uncle Tom himself is evidence of this – his personality traits – godliness, kindness, chastity, sacrifice – are exactly those of any given nineteenth-century heroine. He has a ‘gentle, domestic heart’ (p. 124) and soft voice: Uncle Tom is Stowe’s heroine.

Throughout, femininity is aligned with Christian goodness and masculinity with cruelty and sophistry.

As Stowe pokes fun at the slaveholders who think that they are not doing any harm, so she pokes fun at husbands who think their wives only capable of domestic work. Mrs  Shelby, who, we are told, is has ‘a character every way superior to that of her husband’ (p. 330) is nevertheless barred from helping out with business affairs because women ‘don’t understand business; — women never do, and never can’ (p. 329).

For Eliza freedom comes when she dresses as a man, literally and figuratively taking on the mantle of her oppressor in order to beat the system. The change of garb is symbolic of her newfound freedom and power.

Stowe, through the interactions between Ophelia and Topsy (particularly Topsy’s recitation of the catechism) argues that it is not enough for people to support abolition through a sense of duty – they must truly hold anti-slavery sentiments and feel love for their fellow human beings. The presentation throughout the novel of slavery as unchristian however, has the opposite effect; Stowes characters do not come to their abolitionism through humanism or moral soul-searching, but through the teachings of Christ. It is this dutiful Christianty that pervades the novel. I don’t like it. I want people to change their minds without the fear of a vengeful God. This is not Stowe’s mission though – for her, as for many, God is love.

What was once progressive is now reclusive, primitive. Stowes characters are underdeveloped and sentimental; their sole function is to make an argument. It’s difficult to get attached to them and as a result it’s difficult to sympathise, even when the horrific cruelties of slavery are revealed. Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin is like being hit about the face and chest with a blunt instrument – it’s impossible not to take notice. There’s no subtlety (the chapter that foreshadows Little Eva’s death is called, cryptically, ‘Foreshadowings’), the melodrama of the novel is more irritating than effective, the characters incredible. There’s no doubting that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an important artefact in the history of US race relations, but is it any good?

‘Fraid not.

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*Of which, to be fair, much has also been written.

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