The main focus of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is to show that African American’s have souls and feelings just like other humans. In her time it was common for white plantation owners and slave holders to view black people as cattle or a degraded species of humans. Slave auctioneers and sellers separated mothers and children on the idea that they couldn’t really feel the loss, at least not like white people.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s goal in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is to show African American’s as people. Her basic argument is that black’s suffer just as much as whites, and therefore it is just as wrong to mistreat them. Throughout the book Stowe approaches the idea of slavery from an unwavering Christian viewpoint. This is not surprising considering that she had a very religious family, with her father being a famous minister.
The single most important character in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is Uncle Tom himself. Uncle Tom is a middle aged black man who is very honest and intelligent. Uncle Tom’s master, Mr. Shelby, entrusts him with many of the dealings of his house, even trusting him to take large sums of money of business trips for his master. For Uncle Tom this could be a prime opportunity to escape. However, Uncle Tom always returns because he cannot violate Mr. Shelby’s trust by running away with his master’s money. Given Harriet Stowe’s religious background it isn’t surprising that Uncle Tom’s story mirrors the biblical story of Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt. Even as the Joseph’s Egyptian master Potiphar chose to entrust Joseph with all his belongings, so Mr. Shelby entrusts his dealings to Uncle Tom.
Uncle Tom enjoys a rather comfortable if limited lifestyle at the home of Mr. Shelby. Mr. Shelby respects Uncle Tom for his Christian values and gives him many freedoms that other slave owners wouldn’t. Uncle Tom enjoys spending time with his family, wife, and children in their own small cabin.
The turning point in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” comes when Mr. Shelby finds himself in debt to Haley, a slave trader. Although Mr. Shelby tries to avoid it there is only one solution to his debt. He has to give Uncle Tom to Haley to get his debt canceled. Haley even refuses to accept Uncle Tom as payment unless Mr. Shelby throws in Harry, the son of Eliza, one of Mr. Shelby’s maids.
At this point the plot splits off in two major directions. Eliza doesn’t want to part with her son Harry, so she runs away with him, later meeting up with her husband George. George ran away from his cruel master who forced him to do manual labor despite his intelligence and skill working at a local business. A rather humorous scene shows the slave trader Haley trying to catch Eliza, but hindered by the covert sabotage of Mr. Shelby’s other slaves, who first “accidently” set his horse loose in the field. Then they use reverse psychology to direct him down the wrong road. They mention a small back road offhand and then they swear up and down that Eliza is sure to take the more direct main road. Ever suspicious Haley is sure that the slaves are lying to him, so he orders them to take him down the back road. Naturally, this was exactly what the slaves wanted, so they quickly end up completely lost, and is hours before they finally get to the town where Eliza was headed. Eliza manages to escape across the frozen river and evade Haley.
Haley is forced to give up for the moment, though he sends few slave catchers after Eliza and her boy. Angry and tired, Haley returns to Mr. Shelby’s farm. Uncle Tom, honest as always, agrees that he will not run away like Eliza. He knows that if Mr. Shelby doesn’t get the debt paid by selling Uncle Tom then he will just have to sell some of the other slaves. So instead, Uncle Tom prepares to part from his family. The slave trader Haley plans to take Uncle Tom down the river, and sell him in the deep South. Uncle Tom’s wife Aunt Chloe is heartbroken, not only because of the parting, but also because she knows that very few slaves ever return from the deep South. The plantation owners kill them off by overworking them, even when they are sick or hurt. The only hope for Uncle Tom is that Haley sells him to a kind master who will recognize his worth and intelligence and treat him well.
Haley takes Uncle Tom with him on a riverboat that travels down the Mississippi toward New Orleans. Along the way author Harriet Beecher Stowe takes the time to show a typical and all to common occurrence, the parting of a young black mother from her child. During the course of the journey the mother commits suicide by throwing herself overboard. Uncle Tom, though also missing his family, perseveres with great courage and meekness. He uses the boat ride as an opportunity to befriend young Evangeline, a white girl who is the daughter of an affluent slave owner. When Eva falls overboard and Uncle Tom saves her life by jumping in after her, it leads to Eva’s father, Augustine St. Clare, buying Uncle Tom to serve as a horse driver.
I find the reflection between the young mother jumping overboard and Uncle Tom jumping overboard to be quite interesting. Both of them jumped overboard because of a child, one because she lost a child, the other to save a child. In the young mother’s case it was a desperate thing that did no good in the long run except sacrifice her life. In Uncle Tom’s case it was a beneficial action that not only saved the child’s life but gained a beneficial position for him. I think that author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s point here is clear: she knows that the slaves feel bad about their situation, but there are still things that they can do to make it better for themselves. Committing suicide is not the answer.
Uncle Tom’s new life with Augustine St. Clare is not only a big change in his life, but it also marks the start of a new writing theme in the book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Author Harriet Beecher Stowe uses this relatively peaceful interlude to allow her white characters to have intellectual and philosophical discussions about slavery. There are several key players in these arguments and discussions.
One principal character is Augustine St. Clare. He is a fundamentally lazy man, who doesn’t like slavery, but can’t seem to build up the strength to oppose it. He even purchases slaves for himself because he doesn’t want to appear different. In his mind slavery is an institution that he can do nothing to oppose, at least, nothing by himself.
Marie St. Clare is Augustine St. Clare’s wife. In the story Augustine married her in rapid desperation after receiving the rejection of another woman who he loved. After his marriage to Marie, however, he discovered that the rejection of the other woman was actually fabricated by her relatives who did not want her to marry him. He can not get along with her, not only because he never really loved her, but also because she is a spoiled woman used to being looked after by men. She does not understand Augustine’s dry humor and wit. Marie St. Clare tries to gain Augustine’s attentions by constantly complaining of various imaginary ills such as “sick headaches.” Marie is very attached to the institution of slavery. In her mind the slaves are there to do her bidding. She take out her anger and frustration at her husband on the slaves.
The third character is Miss Ophelia, Augustine’s cousin. Miss Ophelia is from the North, and as such she is fundamentally opposed to slavery. However, she also has a great loathing for the black slaves. She can not tolerate them touching her, an so she maintains a frigid distance from them. Miss Ophelia also does not like Marie St. Clare. She feels that Augustine could have done much better in choosing a wife, and indeed he could, and should, have.
The fourth character that Harriet Beecher Stowe introduces is Augustine St. Clare’s brother, Alfred. Alfred is the exact opposite of his brother Augustine. Whereas Augustine feels that slavery is wrong, Alfred’s opinion is that slavery is a necessary thing, and that there is nothing wrong with it as long as he is able to dominate the slaves. Augustine does nothing about his feelings, though. Alfred ridicules his brother for being a hypocrite and not doing something to advocate an end to slavery.
The fifth player in Stowe’s philosophical discussions is Eva, Augustine St. Clare’s young daughter. In the story Stowe portrays Eva as an angel of sorts. Eva does not approve of slavery, and she wants her father to free all the slaves. Augustine always laughs when he daughter makes this suggestion, but he admires her innocence.
Harriet Beecher Stowe uses these five characters to explore the different views about slavery and the attitudes that people have toward it. In between these discussions Stowe develops a rather heartbreaking plot: Eva develops a wasting disease that gradually kills her. This leaves both Augustine and Marie heartbroken. Soon after Eva’s death Augustine also dies, and this leaves Uncle Tom in the ownership of the cruel Marie St. Clare. Marie ends up selling the slaves to another slave trader and moving North.
Unfortunately, the very thing Aunt Chloe feared most happens: Uncle Tom is sold to Simon Legree, an evil man who has a very different view of slaves than Augustine or Mr. Shelby had. Simon Legree works his slaves to death. According to Simon Legree:
I don’t go for savin’ niggers. Use up, and buy more, ‘s my way;--makes you less trouble, and I’m quite sure it comes cheaper in the end….Harriet Beecher Stowe shows Simon Legree as an animalistic man, who sets his slaves against each other, even putting two of the slaves as task masters over the others. Legree encourages the slaves to snitch on each other.
Stout fellers last six or seven years; trashy ones gets worked up in two or three…
When one nigger ’s dead, I buy another, and I find it comes cheaper and easier, every way.
To Uncle Tom, this doesn’t make sense. He is determined to help the other slaves, even at his own expense. When he notices an older woman struggling to meet her daily quota of cotton he transfers some cotton from his own bag to hers. Uncle Tom helps many of the slaves and he even uses his Bible to preach to them about Jesus.
This captures the attention of Simon Legree and his two black task masters. The last thing Simon Legree wants is for his slaves to have Christian values, a thing he hates himself. Legree is determined to crush this spirit in Uncle Tom. He wants to make Uncle Tom a taskmaster over his slaves. To do this, he needs to get Uncle Tom to start doing things for himself rather than helping others.
Simon Legree commands Uncle Tom to flog one of the slave women for not bringing in her full quota of cotton. Uncle Tom refuses, saying:
I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do; and Mas’r, I never shall do it, never.Needless to say Simon Legree is outraged. He screams in rage:
Well, here’s a pious dog, at last, let down among us sinners! A saint, a gentleman, and no less, to talk to us about out sins! Powerful holy critter, he must be! Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious, didn’t you never hear, out of yer Bible, “Servants obey your masters”? An’t yer mine, now, body and soul?Uncle Tom returns:
No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it, ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it; no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!Uncle Tom says that his soul has been bought by Jesus, and that Simon Legree will never get him to leave behind his Christian values. In Uncle Tom’s eyes, the ultimate reward of living a Christian life is well worth the pain of anything Simon Legree can do to him.
Simon Legree orders that Uncle Tom be beaten until he obeys. In the end Uncle Tom ends up following in the tracks of Eva. Just like Eva he dies despite being a good person. Harriet Beecher Stowe shows Uncle Tom as winning despite his death. According to her Uncle Tom was a good person so he went to heaven. The reverse of this statement is also true. Stowe hints that Legree’s ultimate destination will be the fire of hell. This religious theme would not be nearly as effective today as it was when “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was first published.
At the time this idea that black people had souls just like white people was a very novel idea. For the first time it made white people responsible for their actions either to the good or to the bad of their black slaves. Rather than just viewing black people as animals, the slave owners were forced to see their slaves as humans just like them.
This is the reason why “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was so powerful, and ultimately was one small spark that helped to ignite the Civil War between the anti-slavery North and the slave holders of the South.
I don’t think that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a book is particularly amazing. Neither the plot, nor Uncle Tom’s heavenly escape hatch, are very satisfying. Fortunately, the characters are extremely rich and vibrant, and this makes up for many of the book’s shortcomings. I also feel that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is important because it teaches about the slavery that effects thousands upon thousands of Americans in the past. I would definitely recommend “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a historical book that all people should read at least once.
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