Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Written in 1852, it energized the anti-slavery movement and contributed to the start of the Civil War. It was translated into all major languages and made a worldwide impact. Today, it’s better known for its stereotypical depictions of black people. (There’s also an off-hand anti-Semitic remark and Haitians are called effeminate.) So while it was undoubtedly progressive for its day, it doesn’t entirely hold up now.
Harriet Beecher Stowe based many of the incidents in the novel on real life, particularly on Josiah Henson’s autobiography. It was originally serialized in an abolitionist periodical and was so popular, Stowe expanded upon it. Once it was published, Stowe received many threatening letters from Southerners, including a package containing a slave’s severed ear. A bookseller in Alabama was forced to leave town for selling the book.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin focuses on the horrors of slavery such as whippings and families being forcefully separated. One slave is branded by his master and masters can kill their own slaves with impunity. One mother wishes her teenage daughter wasn’t so beautiful because this means she’ll likely get abused by her owner. Slaves put up for auction are manhandled by potential bidders who force their mouths open to check their teeth and grope the women.
Stowe occasionally interrupts the story to directly address the reader, pleading for us to empathize with the slaves. It gets melodramatic and heavy-handed at times, so some may not consider it great literature, however few books in history have been this influential, so it’s definitely worth reading.
I was surprised to find Tom himself remains largely off screen for the first half of the novel. Instead we focus on Eliza who decides to run away with her son after her kind master sells her son to a slave trader to get out of debt.
The slave trader, Haley, believes buying and selling slaves is wrong, but he does it because he’s got to make a living somehow. He plans on repenting of it later, so he’s not a cardboard cutout villain. The slaves who are supposed to help him track down Eliza instead make a fool out of him, providing some comic relief.
One of the people who helps Eliza escape is a Northern senator who made a law against helping runaway slaves. It was easy for him to pass the law when runaway slaves were an abstraction, but once he’s face to face with someone in need of help, he can’t say no. One of the slave-catchers chasing after her ends up going into a different line of work after being nursed back to health by Quakers who convince him of the error of his ways.
Eliza’s husband, George, who is owned by a different master, also runs away. He has light enough skin to pose as a white man which helps him slip past slave hunters undetected.
Tom, in contrast to George, doesn’t try to run away, but rather submits to the slave trader. He prides himself on being obedient to his master and doing whatever he’s told, even if he ends up getting sold to a cruel master. Tom is the Christ figure of the novel, forgiving those who abuse him, loving his enemies, and trying to convert as many souls to Christianity as possible.
With both Eliza and Tom being heroes in the novel, it’s unclear whether Stowe thought it was better for slaves to rebel against their masters or patiently put up with whatever happened to them. Perhaps she presented two different paths to indicate there’s more than one way to react to the horrors of slavery.
Just as Tom was largely forgotten about during the first half of the book, Eliza’s storyline is put on the back burner during the second half of the novel as we focus almost exclusively on Tom.
Tom gets sold to another good master, Augustine St. Clare, who, if anything, is too lenient. One of his slaves, Adolph, is a dandy who likes to dress up in his master’s clothes and put on airs. Augustine’s daughter Eva loves the slaves and treats them like family. Like Tom, Eva is another Christ-like figure, who is pained by the mistreatment of her neighbor’s slaves. Augustine himself isn’t very religious and Tom makes it his goal to convert him to Christianity.
Augustine’s hypochondriac wife, Marie, however, has no sympathy for her slaves. She complains that they’re too pampered, even though she’s clearly the one who’s too pampered. She also says they complain too much without realizing she complains more than anybody. She even calls herself the real slave!
Augustine’s cousin, Ophelia, moves in with them at the same time as Tom. Ophelia is from the North and finds slavery repugnant. However, just because she’s opposed to slavery, doesn’t mean she isn’t racist. She’s horrified at how familiar Eva is with the slaves.
Although the book is overwhelmingly Christian, Stowe does acknowledge that the Bible can be used to both justify and condemn slavery. It all depends on which verses you choose to emphasize and which verses you choose to ignore.
Stowe applies “the last shall be first and the first last” to Africans. Although they weren’t the first group to become Christians, they’ll be first in the kingdom of heaven. She wonders if God has afflicted them in order to lift them up later. Tom’s time as a slave in New Orleans is compared to Joseph’s time as a slave in Egypt.
Tom ends up getting sold to a harsh master named Simon Legree who forces him to work in the fields. Legree thinks it’s more cost effective to work slaves to death and buy new ones rather than properly care for them and heal them when they’re sick.
Stowe makes a point to not just condemn Southerners, but Northerners as well. She even says the lower class in England is treated just about as poorly as slaves in America. She says humane masters who treat their slaves kindly are the ones who allow slavery to continue. If all masters were as bad as Legree, there’d be no justification for slavery.
Since Legree is the only unredeemably bad person in the novel, and he doesn’t appear until the end, I’d say the institution of slavery itself is the main villain of the novel.
The term “Uncle Tom” is today used as a derogatory term for a black person who is eager to please white people. However, this is due to stage productions which changed the story. In the original novel, Tom is a Christ figure, patiently putting up with abuse in order to be a good Christian. Uncle Tom is no “Uncle Tom”.