Submitted by Angelicum student, Addison.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is read in our 8th grade Good Books Program.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852, is an abolitionist-themed novel depicting the tragedies of slavery in the United States. It was tremendously influential, led to the creation of a common pejorative, and was perhaps even a cause of the Civil War.
The story opens on a Kentucky farm, home to the kind and revered Uncle Tom, and the young Eliza and her child. The story has several major characters, but centers around Tom and Eliza. The owners of the farm owe money to a slave trader, and are forced to sell Tom and Eliza’s son. “Mas’r” George, the son of the farm’s owners, is dismayed at the selling of Tom. Eliza hears the news the night before the trader is to come, and she flees the farm with her child, intending to find asylum in Canada and possibly to reunite with her husband. Tom takes this potentially terrible turn of events heavily, though without defiance.
The trader finds Eliza and the child gone, and chases after her. With the help of family slaves who hinder his pursuit, Eliza just manages to cross the Ohio River, where she finds temporary safety with a Quaker household. Here she meets her husband, and after a violent scuffle with slave catchers, they escape into Canada as a family. Tom is brought south and sold to a Mr. St. Clare, whose daughter Eva has taken a fancy to Tom. The St. Clares live in a richly appointed mansion in New Orleans, where the slaves are treated so well they have become dishonest and vain. Tom, however, does not succumb to these weaknesses, and eventually becomes well liked by Mr. St. Clare, and adored by his daughter.
At this time Tom receives a letter from his old Master, assuring him that money will be raised for him to be re-bought and reunited with his own family back in “Kentuck.” Mr. St. Clare desires to fill out free papers for Tom and allow him to go back to his family. However, the death of Eva and the violent death of Mr. St. Clare himself land Tom in the ruthless hands of Mrs. St. Clare, who has him taken to auction. Here Tom is bought by the infamous plantation owner Simon Legree, who tries to beat out all his resilience and faith. Meanwhile Tom meets a despairing woman on the plantation who, seizing on the superstitious fears of the godless Legree, hides in a “haunted” part of the plantation house after pretending to escape. Legree beats Tom savagely to force him to disclose where the woman is hiding, but he refuses and is beaten till nearly dead. Desiring to enter the Kingdom of Heaven rather than continue a life of suffering, Tom resigns himself to death, as young “Mas’r” George gallops into the plantation to bring Tom home. Tom dies in the care of George, and is buried after his body is given away by Legree.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is written in a decidedly outdated style, and, due to its historical setting, is no longer directly applicable to the present day. Parts of the storyline are also predictable and contrived. For example, Eva’s death is quite easy to foresee, and the idiocy of it renders it devoid of any genuine impact. The subsequent death of Mr. St. Clare, landing Tom back into the slave market, is a useful plot device but a bit unrealistic. The character and estate of Simon Legree also have a caricaturistic, exaggerated feel. These are what could certainly be called the defects of the book.
Worth noting is that the pejorative term “Uncle Tom,” though derived from the novel, is not based on the actual character of Uncle Tom. The original Uncle Tom is a kind, well-serving, but principled and Christian man, about whom the slave trader says, “The hull world couldn’t tempt ‘em to do nothing that they thinks is wrong.” Uncle Tom is truly beloved or at least in some way admired by almost all the whites whom he serves. And his eventual death is no less than a Christian martyrdom. It is through misinterpretations of the text of the book that “Uncle Tom” has become a pejorative- in fact, to resemble Uncle Tom would be a positive trait.
Despite the somewhat overbearing nature of Simon Legree, he is a complex and notable character. He is ruthless and set in his ways, but retains some common sense and even possesses a flicker of conscience. He is not a villain who delights in evil, but rather has misgivings every time he does something cruel. For example, before making the decision to beat Tom, Legree stands thinking for a minute, nearly convinced that it is too evil an act to commit. Though he never listens to his conscience, he seems capable of rehabilitation.
Also notable is the effect of the book on attitudes towards slavery. After the Bible, it was the highest selling book in the 19th century. In a much-quoted anecdote, Abe Lincoln, upon meeting Mrs. Stowe during the time of the Civil War, said to her, “So you’re the little lady who caused this big war!” The impact of the novel is no doubt greatly due to the fact that many of the events described, particularly the mistreatment of slaves, actually took place and were even observed first-hand by Mrs. Stowe.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book that, despite its weaknesses in storytelling, will always remain a classic. Its real significance is not in the details of the plot, but in its plain exposure of the wrongs of slavery. As a book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin may be either criticized or praised, but as a work demanding social progress it should be praised.