Uncle Tom's Cabin Essay

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Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: Sentimental Fiction As Political Catalyst

It is said that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he "greeted her with these memorable words, 'So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!" (Vollaro 2009: 1). Although this may be an apocryphal story, is a powerful testimony to the mythology surrounding the popularity of Stowe's famous fictional narrative of slave life. The compelling nature of Stowe's tale was due to the author's ability to take the conventions of a romantic, sentimental novel and use them to convey a political and moral message, namely the evils of slavery. According to Stowe, the greatest crime wrought by slavery was the fact that it disturbed the family unit. "Stowe relocates the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen" (Tompkins 1985). The institution of slavery severed the bond between husband and wife, and wife and child. Even in its most benign forms, as in the case of the Shelbys, what should be permanent and unbreakable family ties are threatened. Because of the Shelbys' debts, the plantation owner Arthur Shelby sells Uncle Tom, a wise old man, and the son of his wife's maid to a slave trader. Eliza, the maid, escapes with her son Harry, so she will not be parted from her little boy.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Essay on Uncle Tom's Cabin Assignment

Stowe is careful to show that Eliza does not want to 'steal' from her owner. Of Mrs. Shelby, Eliza says: "If she an't a Christian and an angel, there never was one. I'm a wicked girl to leave her so; but, then, I can't help it. She said, herself, one soul was worth more than the world; and this boy has a soul, and if I let him be carried off, who knows what'll become of it? It must be right: but, if it an't right, the Lord forgive me, for I can't help doing it!" (Stowe 90). Eliza's flight is 'allowed' by the conventions of the novel, as she is fighting to protect her child, but Uncle Tom decides to remain. Christ-like Uncle Tom gives himself up, to preserve the Shelby's even though he is well aware that he is being sold 'down the river' to a place where slaves are worked and starved to death. "No, no -- I an't going. Let Eliza go -- it's her right! I wouldn't be the one to say no -- 'tan't in natur for her to stay; but you heard what she said! If I must be sold, or all the people on the place, and everything go to rack, why, let me be sold" (Stowe 90).

The irony of Tom's Christ-like submissiveness is that Stowe based her novel partially on the account of an escaped slave. Stowe, a devout Christian, who uses Christian principles and ideology to argue against slavery, finds it difficult to condone 'stealing' in the context of the novel. Yet Josiah Henson, an old, Maryland slave like Uncle Tom, did not martyr himself to pay for his master's spending habits. Instead, Henson, in 1830, escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad and eventually established the Dawn Settlement, designed "to provide a refuge and a new beginning for former slaves. Through his leadership, the British American Institute, one of Canada's first industrial schools, was founded. The school was intended for the advancement of fugitive slaves" (the history," Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site, 2010).

The motivating action behind Henson's decision to run away is a powerful portrait of the mendacity of slave-owners. "Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland. He was sold three times before he was 18, ending up in Kentucky. He became a Methodist minister and gave talks, for which people would pay him money. By 1830, he had saved up $350 to buy his freedom. His master at the time had quoted that figure but increased it to $1,000 when Henson gave him the money" ("Josiah Henson," Social Studies for Kids, 2010). Unlike Uncle Tom, Henson did not willingly give his body and his life, simply because his master was 'good,' to pay off his master's debts.

In Stowe's novel, as well as harming the family structure, slavery is also portrayed as morally corrupting of the young, and of women. Marie St. Clare, the wife of Tom's next owner, sells Tom to the evil slave-trader Simon Legree rather than frees him, as her late husband promised to do. Mrs. Clare is shown as a weak-willed human being, who is incapable of mothering her child Eva because of the indolence fostered in white women by the slave system. Little Eva has a deep connection with Uncle Tom that transcends race, and both are granted a Christian vision that unites them, even in death.

Being enslaved corrupts even some children, as seen in the young girl Topsy. Topsy's wickedness, it is said, is due to the fact that she has never had a mother (or a surrogate mother, like Eva has in the persona of her father and Uncle Tom). Only through Little Eva's sacrificial death is the conversion of Topsy, possible, "a motherless, godless black child who has up until that point successfully resisted all attempts to make her 'good' Topsy will not be 'good' because, never having had a mother's love, she believes that no one can love her. When Eva suggests that Miss Ophelia would love her if only she were good, Topsy cries out: 'No; she can't bar me, 'cause I'm a nigger! -- she'd soon have a toad touch her! There can't nobody love niggers, and niggers can't do nothin'! I don't care.'…'O, Topsy, poor child, I love you!" said Eva, with a sudden burst of feeling, and laying her little thin, white hand on Topsy's shoulder; 'I love you, because you haven't had any father, or mother, or friends; because you've been a poor, abused child!'" (Tompkins 1985). Similarly, Cassy, a young woman who has killed her own child rather than see it sold into slavery, is redeemed by the healing presence of Uncle Tom, who also converts the men who beat him to death. Christianity is seen as such a moral force, it can overcome the evils of slavery. God is against slavery, the novel implies. "Stowe conceived her book as an instrument for bringing about the day when the world would be ruled not by force, but by Christian love" (Tompkins 1985).

However, the novel does not emphasize, for obvious reasons, how religion on plantations was often used as a means of control over slaves, as well as a vehicle of liberation in the folk interpretations of many African-American preachers like Josiah Henson. Furthermore, there is the uncomfortable fact that slavery was an imposed religion on blacks, supplanting their own, African religions. The fact that Topsy is converted from her heathenish ways, and eventually comes to minister to black Africans when she is free is portrayed as a universal 'good.'

The fact that Christianity was not always a vehicle of liberation for blacks can be seen in the novel's southern reception, in which the novel was denounced from pulpits. "The response ... To Uncle Tom's Cabin was nearly all outrage and invective…Some Southerners publicly supported the novel (many of them anonymously), but most did not, and their objections came in many forms. Clergymen made personal attacks on" Stowe, and "complained of the novel's suggestion that "black people were like white people" (Vollaro 2009:21). Anti-Tom tracts presented "rhetorical reversals of the Uncle Tom story -- benevolent masters who rarely whip their slaves because such abuse is unseemly and illogical. By contrast, these novels presented abolitionists as well-intentioned but profoundly misguided do-gooders, or as loathsome, hypocritical, and even sexually exploitive" (Vollaro 2009:21).

Even in the north, the novel was not as effective as its reputation might indicate in historical memory. "William J. Wilson, a contributing editor to Frederick Douglass's newspaper, expressed amazement at the novel's impact on the city in 1852 by observing, with a tinge of cynicism, that the same shopkeepers who had displayed Zip Coon or Jim Crow were 'now proud to illumine these very windows through the window of my Uncle Tom's Cabin.' & #8230;Ten years after the book hit the streets of New York, however, the city would erupt into one of the worst anti-black riots in the nation's history" (Vollaro 2009: 25).

A more realistic portrayal of slavery may be found in the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. While Douglass was writing for a white audience, and attempting to convert them to his abolitionist position, as an escaped slave he was blunt at the horrors of bondage, no matter how 'kind' and like the Shelbys that master might be. He felt no affection for the people who enslaved him, and unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin, from the beginning, he tells tales of the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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