Uncle Tom’s Cabin: An Interpretation
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is without a doubt one of the most significant American novels ever written. Its literary qualities are of the highest order while its historical effects stand beyond dispute. Authoress Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote this novel shortly after the promulgation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, an act of legislation that overrode the distinction between slave and free states, thereby eliminating the possibility of a safe refuge for runaway slaves. Multitudes of Americans, in effect, became responsible agents for the enforcement of federal law, while a scourge of bounty hunters was loosed to prey upon the most helpless members of the population. The law sowed a wind of division between North and South that was to burst forth in the whirlwind of the Civil War.
Stowe composed a moving and entirely plausible book of fiction designed to heighten the consciousness of average Americans to the plight of the Negro slave. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is propaganda of the first water, intended to help abet the collapse of the cruel system of forced servility and human trafficking that lay at the heart of slavery. At the time of writing, the slave-holding South comprised the states south of the Ohio River: Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, the Atlantic piedmont and the area of the Mississippi delta. Perhaps no book has had such an immediate effect on historical events as this one, but not necessarily in the way intended by its author.
The story of poor Tom, a young father and husband living in Kentucky and (with his wife and children) owned by the lenient Shelby family, and his subsequent experience of being sold down the Mississippi River, is familiar. Perhaps it is too familiar, since for many generations of our nation’s history this book was required reading by school children. As is the fate with so many standard-fare works of this caliber, a too-young exposure can often lead to contempt for the familiar, especially when the book was taught as abridged, summarized and thematized for elementary or grade-school children. Millions of Americans believe they have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when in fact all they retain of it are characterological stereotypes and general impressions of societal norms and perversions, many of which would be dispelled or corrected by a fresh reading as adults.
Let us first retell the story of the slave Tom, along with the other related personages both black and white, and then raise several themes for consideration.
As the novel opens, we find Kentucky farmer Mr. Shelby in conversation with a Mr. Haley, a buyer and seller of slaves. Mr. Shelby, a decent and well-meaning man, is in debt, and is forced to sell some of his slaves to settle his affairs. He reluctantly agrees to sell to Haley his factotum Tom and a small boy named Harry. The child is beautiful and talented, and Haley sees a good profit in marketing him as an entertainer. Tom, a recent convert to evangelical Christianity, is Shelby’s favorite worker and the owner is reluctant to let him go. But things being what they are, the transaction goes forward. Tom has been schooled by Shelby’s son George so that he is a rare slave who can read. We will meet George Shelby again in the novel.
Tom bids his wife Chloe, his children and friends a tearful goodbye and agrees to accompany Haley to the slave market in New Orleans. Little Harry’s mother, Eliza, however, takes her son and runs away with him. She will eventually escape the country with the help of Quakers and other Christians, after which her husband, George Harris, is reunited with them in Canada. George and Eliza will figure in the conclusion to the novel.
En route to New Orleans with Haley and other slaves, Tom makes the acquaintance of a precocious and pious little girl, Evangeline St. Clare. Little Eva, as she is called, leads Tom to her father, Augustine St. Clare, a rich, sophisticated estate owner. St Clare, as he is known, buys Tom from Haley and appoints him the personal valet of his daughter. When the trio reaches St. Clare’s estate, Tom enjoys a land of milk and plenty: the slaves are mostly content and semi-autonomous in their lives. Tom takes immediately to his duties in caring for the girl. St. Clare’s marriage, however, is another matter. His wife, Marie, is hypochondriacal and emotionally miserable, with little regard for the welfare of the slaves, or anyone else for that matter. Fortunately, St. Clare is boundlessly patient and indulgent with both her and the slaves, though he is an unbeliever.
Throughout the book Tom’s evangelical kindness is bent to the end of helping his fellow slaves and free find their salvation. Little Eva is easily won and becomes the most satisfying character in the book. Her Aunt Ophelia, meanwhile, has come from Vermont to live with the family and take care of the household. Ophelia is straight-laced in her New England Calvinism and sets out to bring order from the genteel chaos of St. Clare’s estate and affairs; she meets only middling success. Ophelia provides Stowe an occasion to contrast the mindsets of the two American nations, North and South. Though by no means a crone, “all her movements were sharp, decided, and energetic; and though she was never much of a talker, her words were remarkably direct and to the purpose, when she did speak… In her habits, she was a living impersonation of order, method, and exactness. In punctuality, she was as inevitable as a clock… The great sins of sins, in her eyes—the sum of all evils—was expressed by one very common and important word in her vocabulary—‘shiftlessness.’”
It is by means of conversations between Ophelia and St. Clare near the middle of the novel that Stowe portrays the clash of civilizations that defines the nation’s soul circa 1850. Ophelia, who in general loathes slavery (though she is no abolitionist), has objected to the intimacy between Tom and Eva. It strikes her as inappropriate. St. Clare remonstrates: “You would think no harm in a child’s caressing a large dog, even if it was black,” says St. Clare, “but a creature that can think and reason and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at; confess it, cousin. I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having it; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north, how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; yet you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?” Ophelia admits that her cousin lays his finger on real double-mindedness among the self-righteous northerners.
All too soon, little Eva takes sick. “The friendship between Tom and Eva had grown with the child’s growth. It would be hard to say what place she held in the soft, impressible heart of her faithful attendant. He loved her as something frail and earthly, yet almost worshiped her as something heavenly and divine.” She foretells her own death to him one night as they gaze at the stars. “I’m going there, to the spirits bright, Tom. I’m going before long.” She broaches the subject of her coming death with her unbelieving father, who, grief stricken, admits that she is all he has. The girl presses him to free Tom, which he promises to do after she is gone. Then she tells her father she wants him to be with her forever. “How I wish we could go together!” she whispers to him. “Where, dearest?”, he asks. “To our Savior’s home,” she replies. “It’s so sweet and peaceful there—it is all so loving there! Don’t you want to go, Papa?” “I shall come after you. I shall not forget you,” he whispers in reply. He recalls his own mother’s goodness and piety, her prayers and hymns, and, his heart breaking, sings her to sleep.
Days, perhaps a few weeks later, she takes a fever and lies dying, her father and Tom and all the household, at her side. The scene of the little girl’s death is of the profoundest pathos, and few will read these pages without tears. Her father asks her what she sees as she nears eternity: “O, Eva, tell us what you see! What is it?” “O! Love—joy—peace!” she said, as she “passed from death into life.”
Tom’s broken heart is scarcely on the mend when another hammer blow falls. His master, Augustine St. Clare, is carried home one night with a mortal knife wound. He had tried to break up a fight in a pub. He dies that same evening, in the arms of his servant Tom, singing one of his mother’s favorite songs. “His mind is wandering,” said the doctor. “No! it is coming home at last!” protests the dying St. Clare. “At last! At last!” “The sinking paleness of death fell on him,” writes the narrator, “but with it there fell, as if shed from the wings of some pitying spirit, a beautiful expression of peace, like that of a wearied child who sleeps.” St. Clare, long the skeptic and stoic, has found his Savior, or returned to Him, and to His peace.
The greatest fear of the slave is the death of the kind master, for, unless the slave owner has arranged for the manumission of his slaves before his death, his survivors are free to dispose of them in any way desirable. Often, whole families are formed under the master’s years-long solicitude, only to be broken up when he passes. In the case of the young and healthy St. Clare, no arrangements seemed urgent nor had been formalized. When he died out of season, his unstable, self-absorbed and unfeeling wife Marie was left in sole possession. Her first and only instinct was to dispose of them. This she did with little concern for their welfare, over the objections of Ophelia, who has come to regard the slaves with compassion. They were all sent to the slave warehouses of New Orleans to be examined like livestock by potential buyers, parceled out like so many other objects from an estate sale.
At the slave warehouse, Tom gains the attention of a stout man, vulgar and sadistic, who buys Tom and a beautiful and cultured girl named Emmeline, who is torn from her mother and sister. The man takes them down to the wharf where they are put aboard a boat called “Pirate” to be taken up the Red River to a plantation. They have met their new master, one of the most infamous characters in all of literature, whose name is Simon Legree.
Legree is a godless wretch of a tyrant, whose greatest delight is “breaking In” his slaves. What that entails is a severe beating by two of his ghoulish acolytes, Sambo and Quimbo. Early on, Tom indicates that he will not be part of the cruel system that Legree has established; Legree has told him he must whip one of the girls, Lucy, who has been slacking off in the fields. Tom refuses, so Legree strikes him in the face with his whip, followed by a shower of blows. “There,” Legree said. “Now will ye tell me ye can’t do it?” “Yes, Mas’r,” replies the bloodied Tom, “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!” Legree turns the helpless Tom over to his two savages, who leave the poor man a bloody pulp.
During his recovery, Tom is ministered to by a mysterious woman, Cassy, a light skinned mulatto, who seems somehow to possess a strange power over Legree, with whom she lives. She reads the Bible to Tom at his request. Cassy is older, perhaps early middle age, and is quite beaten down, though still beautiful. Her desperate demeanor gives her a certain manic power over everyone around her, and Tom tries, unsuccessfully, to help her. “O, Missis, I wish you’d go to him that can give you living waters!” “Go to him! Where is he? Who is he,” she asks. “Him that you read of to me,” he replies. She tells him that she has had too much tragedy to believe, though as a younger woman she had a keen faith. She had once even had to end the life of a child to keep it from being separated from her as her former son and daughter had.
Cassie determines to kill Legree. She tells Tom, who begs her not to do it. She relents but comes up with another plan. She and Emmeline will escape through a subterfuge. Legree is superstitious and can be led to believe that an abandoned room upstairs in the derelict mansion is haunted. He will never go near the room, so it can serve as a redoubt for the two women if they can convince Legree they have escaped. One night, they run into the swamp, but loop back to follow a creek and return unseen to the room. In the morning Legree sets out to find them but returns home that night empty-handed and furious. He forces Tom to admit he knows the plot, but Tom refuses to betray Cassie and Emmeline. Once again Legree turns his two field hands on Tom, who proceed to beat him nearly to death. Mortally injured though still conscious, Tom reaches out to his two tormentors with forgiveness, an act that touches them to the quick. “Sartin, we’s been doin’ a drefful wicked thing!” cries Sambo. “O, Tom!” says Quimbo tearfully, “We’s been awful wicked to ye! O, Tom! Do tell us who is Jesus, anyhow… Jesus, that’s been a standin’ by you so, all this night!—who is he?” “Why didn’t I never hear this before?” asks Sambo. “But I do believe!—I can’t help it! Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.!”
Tom lingers for two more days, during which time many of the other slaves come and tend to his wounds. Cassy had also sneaked into the shed where he lay to weep and pray over him. She has not been able to pray for years. Incidentally, the parallels between Tom and his Lord are well-etched throughout the novel. On the “third day,” a wagon enters the yard with a young man driving. The young man jumps down and approaches Legree, asking the whereabouts of Tom. This is George Shelby, now a strapping young man. He is responding to a letter that Ophelia wrote many months prior. He has come to redeem Tom. Legree points him to the shed. George, infuriated by the tyrant’s nonchalance, runs to see his father’s former slave. When the broken Tom is brought around to consciousness and recognizes his beloved visitor, he says: “O, Mas’r George, ye’re too late. The Lord’s bought me, and is goin’ to take me home,–and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kentuck.” With his final breaths, Tom tells George not to hate Legree. Then, citing Romans 8:38—”Who,–who,–who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”, he ‘falls asleep.’
George takes Tom’s body, and with the willing help of two young slaves, lays him in his wagon. Approaching Legree, who has been watching with contempt, George lays him low with a blow to the jaw. Cassy, watching from her hiding place, thrills to this act of courage. George then takes Tom’s body to a small hill outside the plantation, where he buries him. Kneeling down, George prays: “oh witness, that from this hour, I will do what one man can do to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!”
George returns to New Orleans and prepares to board a steamer that will take him up the Mississippi and back to Kentucky. Unknown to him, Cassy and Emmeline have also escaped the plantation and made their way to the same point of embarkation. Cassie has taken a roll of money from Legree’s desk, along with some of the clothes of her genteel youth, and has impersonated a lady of the south. She and her young charge Emmeline befriend George.
We leave the story at this point. The novel still has two or three surprises, which I will not disclose. They are of the happiest kind, however, and bring as much a happy ending as this tragic novel knows. Legree is left to his own fate, and the narrator indicates that he, suffering guilt and degeneration, dies a horrible death and reaps the perdition to follow.
One of the first impressions gained by reading this book is the deep evangelical piety of the writing. Indeed, one wonders whether the book is more an evangelistic tract in the form of a story of slavery than the other way around. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, was one of the principle figures in what has been called America’s Second Great Awakening. That religious phenomenon, with its surpassing influence on nineteenth-century America, had both a Puritan and a “popular” (Methodist/Baptist) branch, both with many sub-branches. One of the awakening’s societal bequests was the abolitionist movement and eventual emancipation, which was part of a greater humanitarian impulse implicit in the Gospels. The Second Great Awakening provided both form and substance to many civilizing movements and attitudes that we take for granted in today’s culture. But undergirding all of evangelicalism’s benefactions to America was the conversionist theology of the revival movements, whether the quiet conversionism of the Puritan Timothy Dwight, or the more expressive conversions of frontier Finneyism. The urgency of personal conversion of self and neighbor, not liberation, is the driving force of Tom’s life, and nobody can understand this novel without making this distinction.
Most commentators fail to take Stowe’s deep evangelical commitment seriously, as though her anti-slavery sentiments can be separated from her religious experiences. This kind of reductionism has hobbled a true understanding of many American traditions, and has led moderns to believe that the sheer march of history brings with it a relentless cessationism whereby earlier ideas, perceptions and institutions are rendered obsolete through natural or secular “progress.” But there was nothing inevitable in the ending of slavery; it was a constant social institution in many societies, and still is today. It did not “fall” on its own. It was pushed; by the very spiritual forces that are discounted wholesale in recent historiography and literary criticism.
Indeed, it is one of the enduring lessons of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that slavery is the natural estate of mankind, and that it is ended only by the spread of liberty, and that liberty comes at great sacrifice when religiously-motivated people push back against the powers and principalities that shackle most peoples, past and present.
So, the reply to the question whether Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a political tract cast in a religious guise or a religious summons in the form of a story of the horrors of slavery must tilt to the latter. This, of course, does not relativize slavery and reduce its profound wickedness, but it does make of slavery a moral issue universal in its scale: humans are curiously attracted to both the temptation to enslave others as well as the paradoxical opposite, to be themselves enslaved. We are each of us grasping tyrant and craven helot, and only genuine submission to transcendent truth can rid us of this double curse. The reality of slavery as metaphor of the human condition is what makes this work so relevant today.
A word or two on the literary and linguistic style of the book is necessary for the modern or postmodern reader. Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses the word “nigger” at every turn. It is the term by which slave drivers identify their wares, slave masters their property, and by which black Americans define themselves. For some reason, this word has taken on talismanic powers in our time, as though by the mere intonation one is tainted with the sins of the fathers. This is silly presentism, the notion that we have so far superseded the benighted state of our ancestors hat we cannot even use the words they used. Every ethnic group elicits pejoratives from its supposed superiors, so to single out one such instance for special execration, especially when the word is used descriptively rather than vocatively, is infantile.
Finally, we find it necessary to address modern attitudes to this novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been called “sentimental,” as though it can thereby be dismissed from the category of great literature. In fact, although Stowe often approaches sentimentality she rarely crosses the line into pure maudliness. If sentimentality can be defined as emotion in excess of its object, it is clear that the boundary is never crossed. If the death of little Eva is sentimental, what of Jane Eyre’s friend Helen Burns, or Richard’s death in Bleak House? As noted above, there is profound pathos in this novel, and even the most hardened of critics must feel something when reading it. Such emotion, however, is never adduced on the cheap, so to speak, as though it could be had without the suffering that leads to it.
Akin to the charge of sentimentality is the slander of Tom himself that has become de rigueur among black-power and “woke” partisans of the political left. Strangely enough, the more radical abolitionists of Stowe’s day might have popularized the “Uncle Tom” slur long before Ta Nehisi Coates and others had they thought of it. The “Yes, Mas’r” stereotype of Uncle Tom is a product of the minstrelsy that emerged in the latter nineteenth century and changed the public perception of black antebellum life. It is a shame that such a perception lingers today.
Tom himself, as portrayed in the novel, is a true hero and a man with a firm grip on his destiny. His piety was a function of his sense that his life mattered as a sign of transcendence made immanent. He was deeply imbued with the belief that the Incarnation did not end with the resurrection of Christ, but that the life of Christ lives on in those who repent and believe and obey the call of their risen Lord. He himself rises far above the evil of his time and so he has the power to call others to such a life.
Tom might’ve spoken to his cultured despisers much the way St. Paul spoke to the Galatians: ‘O foolish people! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much suffering in vain?” (Galatians 3:1-4).
Though now out of fashion, this book is every bit as moving as it ever was. In our time, progressive social programs and political movements have done little to truly liberate millions of America’s black citizens. Welfare has destroyed the black family quite as effectively as slavery ever did. The plantation mentality is as much alive now as it was 170 years ago, and whole generations continue to struggle with the shackles forged by ideologies that have enslaved them by dependence and victimology. The “Yes, Mas’r” mentality has merely shifted from the lords of the land to the Democratic Party. Tom pointed the way: If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed. It is only then, as a son of God yourself rather than as a member of an identity group, that you are fit for this world and a candidate for the next.