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Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Stowe, H. (1852). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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OVERVIEW

 

(Download Uncle Tom's Cabin overview as a PDF)

 

According to historian Mark Noll

, this novel was a watershed in the anti-slavery movement. Brilliantly written, Stowe evokes an amoral world from which God has apparently removed himself:

 

Night came on—night calm, unmoved, and glorious, shining down...silent. There was no speech or language, no pitying voice or helping hand, from that distant sky. (p. 210)

 

Yet, upon further investigation, the text portrays a powerful realism, the horrors of slavery and the twisted sources of its continuation—Christianity’s failure and potential. The novel introduces the reader to a myriad of characters, each rich, and provides profound insight into the American response to the "problem" of slavery. This work is the starting place for questions : What was slavery really like? How did the church function? What were relationships like between slaves and slave owners? And perhaps most importantly, why didn’t the institutional church do something sooner?

 

The book begins at the plantation of slaveowners Mr. and Mrs. Shelby. One of their slaves is named Tom. Unfortunately, Mr. Shelby has run into terrible debt, and is "forced" into making the difficult decision to sell his friend Tom to a deplorable slave trader named Haley. Included in this sale is a beautiful child named Harry—apart from his mother Eliza. Instead of watching her son be sold, Eliza—a committed Christian—decides to run away. Her powerful escape is one of the most dramatic scenes of the text:

 

If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow moming,—if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o’clock till morning to make good your escape,—how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom,—the little sleepy head on your shoulder,—the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck? (p. 105)

 

This passage is an example of Stowe’s sudden moral challenges. As the text moves along, the voice suddenly switches to second person and calls the reader to examine his or her own actions, feelings, and opinions.

 

Next, Tom is sold to an avuncular man whose daughter is described as an angel of the Lord. Tom is happy with his new owner, but is inwardly torn and longs to be with his family. Eliza, on the other hand, continues to move toward freedom and is taken to a Quaker settlement in which she in reunited with her husband George. Tom’s new owner, Mr. St. Clare, agrees to grant Tom his freedom upon the death of his daughter, Eva. Unfortunately, St. Clare himself is killed shortly thereafter, and Tom is sold to a horrible new owner, Legree. The allegorical nature of the rest of the text compares Tom’s behavior and temperament to that of Christ. Throughout the text, Tom acts like Jesus and relies on God. Not only does this show the equal respect before God of every individual, but shows the powerful witness of the gospel message. Tom, too, dies a martyr’s death, whose wording and power are impossible to reword.

 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has no equal in portraying the harsh realities of the slave world, and the church’s failure to respond, despite the authentic faith of a number of white Christians in the text. The myth of American "freedom" apart from equality is another central theme to the text:

 

Is there anything in it glorious and dear for a nation, that is not also glorious and dear for a man? What is freedom to a nation, but freedom to the individuals in it? What is freedom to that young man, who sits there, with his arms folded over his broad chest, the tint of African blood in his cheek, its dark fires in his eyes,—What is freedom to George Harris? To your fathers, freedom was the right of a nation to be a nation. To him, it is the right of the man to be a man, and not a brute; the right to call the wife of his bosom his wife, and to protect her from lawless violence. (p. 544).

 

Stowe offers the world a confrontational book, and calls the church to a holy anger at the institution of slavery.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

  1. Does the publication date of this book surprise you? (1852, Almost a decade before the Civil War, 1861-1865.)
  2. Why do you think the issue of slavery was so tangled for white Americans? For example, Mrs. Shelby is a committed Christian who hates the slave system, but feels powerless against it.
  3. What could the church have done to deal with slavery before the civil war?
  4.  

  1. Do you think that an institutional form of prejudice is in any way comparable to the slave system? If so, what can the church do now, and what can we learn from the church’s silence as a whole as slavery took root in America?

 

IMPLICATIONS

    •  
    • Stowe argues that the American slave system continued primarily because of the church’s failure.
    •  
    • The immediate implication for us is that we are doing the same thing to our principal minorities today.
    •  
    • Activism begins with one act, one relationship, one decision to work for change.
    •  

  1. There is no better text to understand the dynamics of American slavery than Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

T.J. Tomlin cCYS