Thursday, March 17, 2011

Book #11: Uncle Tom's Cabin

"This is God's curse on slavery!--a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!--a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil."
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin

My Alternate Title:
Slaves of the South: The Honest Truth

It was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It was written nine years before the start of the Civil War. It played a major role in cementing Northerners into abolitionism and Southerners into entrenched slaveholders. It may very well have been partially responsible for the bloodiest war in America’s history and the consequent freedom of an entire race of enslaved people.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been described as a “sentimental novel”. It was heavily criticized in its own day as being grossly inaccurate, and is largely ignored today as a melodramatic novel chock full of nasty stereotypes. But there has to be something in this very long book that struck a chord in the hearts and minds of thousands of Americans, and indeed, the world.

The Style
The writing is sophisticated and a tinge flowery, with a strong motherly air of sympathy throughout. The narrator often speaks of slaves with emphatic sarcasm (repeatedly referring to them as property, i.e., “the property did this and that”). It is also heavily laced with aside notes appealing to readers’ humanity, and asking wives and mothers to put themselves in the slaves’ positions. Critical points are driven home by long dialogues in which characters discuss the causes, repercussions, and moral dilemmas of slavery.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
By Francis Holl (1815–1884)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On one hand, nearly every character is a “type”, e.g., the wicked master, the lazy master, the
 ambitious slave, the hardened slave, the crushed slave. Many characters (Evangeline, for example) are pathetically melodramatic, and I sometimes wished Harriet would just cut the sappy imagery and get on with the story.

On the other hand, the characters are all separate people whom the reader loves or loathes in turn. By the end of the book you are aching for Tom, wishing good for him even when you know it’s hopeless, and imagining the worst kind of death possible for people like George Harris’ master, and Simon Legree.  

Two Stories
There are two major plot-threads that weave in and out of this chronicle, that of the title character—a kind, devoted, Christian, slave—and the Harris family—slaves George, Eliza, and little Harry. All of them are beset by the ills of a twisted system and the cruelty, or apathy, of their masters. It is the way that each character deals with their own situation that brings them to such very different ends.

The two tales begin on a plantation in Kentucky when the vicious slave trader, Haley, buys Uncle Tom and little Harry to pay off their master’s debts. Eliza is terrified at the thought of losing her only child and decides to take him and run away to join her husband in his journey to Canada and freedom. Tom meekly accepts the transaction for the sake of the other slaves on the plantation, who would have to be sold if he didn’t go.  This sets the stage for the end of their stories, when the Harrises get across the physical border into free Canada, and Tom trusts in Jesus and crosses the spiritual border in the freedom of the soul.

The Climax
Apparently, one of the best-remembered scenes from the book/plays/movies is the part when Eliza crosses the river from Kentucky to Ohio, running and jumping over blocks of floating ice. The real climax of the novel, however, is the moment when Uncle Tom realizes that man can do no more than kill his body, and that death is merely the way into Glory. This epiphany gives him strength to carry on in his hard servitude, be kind to others, and die a noble death in peace.

The Impact
Uncle Tom was meant to put a face on slavery. If a Southern belle had just read this book and then heard about an escaped slave woman being hunted down on the neighboring plantation, she might have pictured Eliza—frightened eyes, pounding heart, bleeding feet—rather than a nondescript black figure. The book also placed a huge emphasis on what slavery did to families: severing mothers from their babies, ending happy marriages, shattering the closest bonds of the heart. What might hit a little closer to home for white slaveholder is that many of the major characters are not 100% African, but are “mulattos” and “quadroons”.

It is clear that Uncle Tom was written more with the intention to make a moral point than to tell a rousing good tale. Nevertheless, I think that Harriet did an admirable job on both counts. She gets the point across that slavery is an evil and that no one is capable of reforming the system in any way, as well as the secondary concept that Christianity is the only hope for anyone—white or black. At the same time she tells a generally enjoyable, if rather long, story.

I came away impacted by Tom’s realization that we have nothing in this world to fear, for what can man do to us? I was also reminded that God’s love for his creatures is the only rationale that makes slavery morally unjustifiable, unlike the philosophy of a certain man who wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

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