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“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Stowe

Introduction

What if someone told you, that the Civil War was started by a simple book? Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly was written by the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was a teacher and prominent abolitionist. Published in 1852, the novel gained widespread popularity and became the centerpiece of public discord, emphasizing what everyone knew – the horrors of slavery. It was a fictional piece but inspired by real-life events. The Civil War, which was fought over slavery as a primary political issue, began in 1861. Anecdotal evidence suggests that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, President Lincoln commented, “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” (Largent, n.d.). The novel presents a variety of themes centering around slavery and the Southern way of life at the time, highlighting themes of Christianity, abolitionism, human dignity, and others. While the book does focus on portraying the terrible inhuman aspects of slavery, it also drives the message of change and reconciliation, primarily through Christianity. The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and critically analyze the novel using book reviews and personal perspectives.

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Summary

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is written as a chronological series of stories, describing the life of two slaves – Uncle Tom and Eliza. At the beginning of the novel, both of them worked for a Kentucky farmer, Arthur Shelby, and his wife Emily, who treat their slaves well. Eliza had a son named Harry and is a maid to Emily. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom was a family man, well-respected on the plantation, and was a friend and mentor to Shelby’s son George. However, Shelby was forced to sell two of his slaves, choosing Tom and Harry. Eliza, having overheard the discussion and not bearing to lose a child, chooses to run away with Harry. Tom was sold to a rough slave trader, Mr. Haley, and taken to a riverboat. There, he befriended and after unfortunate circumstances, saved from drowning a little white girl named Eva. Her father grateful for Tom’s heroism decided to purchase him and took him to their family home in New Orleans.

In the next chapter, the adventures Eliza are described who met with her escaped husband George Harris. They attempted to reach Canada in order to secure their freedom but are intercepted by a slave hunter Tom Loker that was hired by the Shelby’s. In order to survive, George had no choice but to shoot him but to help preserve Loker’s life, they took him to a Quaker settlement before escaping further. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Tom lived in the St. Clares household for 2 years, becoming very close with Eva and the family due to their shared Christian faith. There is much discussion regarding the aspect of prejudice and the treatment of slaves. However, Eva became ill and eventually died, but before she did, she shared a vision of heaven that she had. Her death struck everyone in the family, with everyone pledging to change for the better. Eva’s father promised to free Tom as part of his pledge to change.

However, St. Clare was brutally murdered before fulfilling his promise. His wife had no intention of following up on her husband’s vow and sold Tom at an auction to a plantation owner Simon Legree. There, Tom is severely abused because of his convictions, both religious and refusing to harm other slaves. In fact, Tom attempted to comfort and help other slaves, including several female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, which Legree raped. Tom was abused to the point of almost succumbing to hopelessness but had a vision of Jesus and Eva which brings him faith. He encouraged Cassy and Emmeline to escape, while he covers for them. After refusing to tell Legree where the other slaves escaped, Tom was beaten to death. In his dying breath, Tom proclaimed his faith and forgave his abusers. This affected the slaveowners significantly as they became Christians later on. George Shelby, whom Tom previously mentored at the beginning of the novel, arrived in order to secure Tom’s freedom but unfortunately, it was too late.

Meanwhile, Eliza and her family escaped to Canada successfully. With the help of the slave hunter Tom Loker, who after his brush with death, also became a Christian and renounced slavery. Cassy and Emmeline, on their path to freedom, encountered George Harris’ sister. Cassy found out that Eliza is her daughter who was separated from her mother as a child slave. The family reunited, eventually traveling from Canada to France, and then to Liberia, a country where former slaves could be free. George Shelby returned to his family’s plantation, deciding to live a devoted Christian life similar to Tom. He freed all his slaves and encouraged them to remember Uncle Tom’s life and sacrifice characterized in his humble cabin (Stowe, 1995).

Book Review

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a challenging read for the modern audience, not because of its literary difficulty but the topic which it describes. Albeit, it is a necessary reading given the period of racial tension undergoing the United States currently. As a reader, the novel was pleasing and interesting to read, keeping one intrigued and worried for the fates of its protagonists Tom and Eliza. Being at once, thrilling and devasting, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a profound effect on the reviewer. The twisting and tumultuous plot made the reading of the novel intense. In parallel journeys of the two protagonists, there was a mirroring of hope. Harriet Stowe created a chilling thematic effect, as one character’s hope for a new life grew stronger, the other’s was extinguished. Despite Uncle Tom’s tragic demise, his influence for positive change in people even after death remained as an inspiration to many.

Faith was a persistent and unifying theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as the author sought to demonstrate both its inability to be shaken and as a medium by which slavery can be reconciled. Tom remained strong in his faith, both in times of stability and in hardship which never broke him. That had a poignant and profound impact on the reader, admiring Tom for his steadfast belief, contrasting with many other characters who either succumb to hopelessness or become evil. However, faith brought people to realization and reconciliation. Due to faith, partially irradiated by Tom or others, they came to the conclusion about the evils of slavery and sought to make amends.

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The most important theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was undoubtedly slavery. For most modern-day readers, it was not hard to condemn slavery as a universal evil, which it is. However, the novel highlighted the intricacies of slavery which was rooted in the national identity in the 19th century and continues to be reflected in modern-day race relations. An 1852 review, the year that the novel came out, states that the novel, “an attempt to present the accidental and inevitable evils of slavery side by side with the practical advantages of the system” (W.B.S., 1852, par. 2). It goes on to describe the book as ultimately fiction and attacking of the slavery institution which is meant to exist as “paternal care of a long depressed…inferior race” (W.B.S., 1852, par. 2). That was of course highly racist in the modern-day perspective and highly contrasts with a modern-day review of the book.

Gordon-Reed (2011) wrote that through the context of slavery, the author did not demonize all Southerners nor create a pedestal for all Northerners. As demonstrated time and time again in the novel, slavery corrupts everyone and everything it touches. Even the benevolent owners such as the Shelby’s and the St. Clare’s ultimately bought and sold human beings, separating families, and abused free labor. Meanwhile, many Northerners benefited from the slave industry in the South and were required by the Fugitive State Law to return runaway slaves, which is why Eliza and her family sought to escape to Canada.

The organization of the novel, into two volumes, divided into chapters which serve almost as vignettes of sort unified into the two parallel storylines of the protagonists, greatly contributed to the telling of the story. Uncle Tom’s Cabin takes place over the course of several years, and the chronological storytelling approach showed to the readers the evolution of the characters but also the environment surrounding the institution of slavery. The 1852 review seemingly disagreed, suggesting that the aggregation of so many horrors of slavery into two small volumes is not justified, overexaggerating the state of slavery in the South (W.B.S., 1852). This is highly disagreeable; the book is detailed and does not leave out anything. In fact, it should have told more about abolitionist efforts at the time, including the Underground Railroad which was already functioning at this time. Meanwhile, the modern review embraced the structure of the novel and emphasized how the distinct plotlines of the protagonists heading far North and into the deep South highlighted slavery’s national reach (Gordon-Reed, 2011).

Stowe was a well-known supporter of the abolitionist cause, and references to this are spread throughout the novel. However, the dominant theme of slavery was placed at the center of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a disturbing lesson for the world as to the extent that slavery had reached in the United States. The institution had damaging effects on American society, beyond physical abuse of the slaves or even the violation of the most fundamental principle of freedom and human dignity. The novel demonstrated something that none did before, and few have since – the psychological and emotional toll of slavery. It included the cruel dehumanization of slaves, the separation of families, the loss of loved ones, and the systematic approach to extinguish all hope by one group of people in another, parallel to only a few other horrific historical events such as the Holocaust. The personal touch offered by Stowe in the novel makes many of the characters relatable to the reader. Therefore, one begins to question one’s own perspectives – what would have you done if you were living in a time of slavery? Humans are complex but predictable creatures. In 1852, many in society viewed slavery as status quo, but as the novel plotline demonstrated – even the most vilified supporters knew better deep inside. This brought up difficult questions for those who ever supported slavery and racism.

This iconic and psychologically challenging novel may not be for everyone, but it certainly pushed the boundaries of society, academics, politicians, and even everyday readers. It is a novel that I would recommend to everyone even remotely interested in the history of the United States, slavery, or race relations currently experiencing so much turmoil. Despite being fiction, the plot emphasized so many nuances of the institution of slavery and its embodiment into the national history, which continued to challenge the U.S. for many decades since. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a heart-wrenching story that explored one of the most potent social evils of humanity, all the while demonstrating that no matter the circumstance, there is always hope for change.

Conclusion

Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe is an iconic novel of the 19th century, a literary representation of the struggles of slavery and subsequent attempts to abolish it. The novel undoubtedly changed history and provided perspectives on slavery which were extraordinarily controversial at the time and remain as a horrendous reminder of this evil institution to modern-day readers. Many lessons can be taken away from this novel including how slavery was more than simply abuse of free labor, but a consistent degradation of one race by another, physically and psychologically – all as a result of ideology. However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers valuable positive lessons for the modern-day, which is that change is possible, reconciliation is within reach – either through faith or understanding, it calls upon us to reconsider our own beliefs and prejudices which can help heal relationships and the country.

References

Gordon-Reed, A. (2011). “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the art of persuasion. The New Yorker. Web.

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Largent, K. J. (n.d.). Harriet Beecher Stowe: The little woman who wrote the book that started this great war. Web.

Stowe, H. B. (1995). Uncle Tom’s cabin or life among the lowly. Project Gutenberg. Web.

W.B.S. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Boston Post. Web.

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