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Introduction

When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in 1852, no one-least of all its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe-expected the book to become a sensation, but this antislavery novel took the world by storm. It was to become the second best-selling book in the world during the 19th century, second only to the Bible, and it touched off a flurry of criticism and praise. Stowe had written the novel as an angry response to the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which punished those who aided runaway slaves and diminished the rights of fugitive as well as freed slaves. Hoping to move her fellow Americans to protest this law and slavery in general, Stowe attempted to portray “the institution of slavery just as it existed.” Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was nearly unique at the time in its presentation of the slaves’ point of view.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe seemed destined to write a powerful protest novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: her father was Lyman Beecher, a prominent evangelical preacher, and her siblings were preachers and social reformers. Born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, Stowe moved with her family at the age of 21 to Cincinnati, where she lived for eighteen years. In Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from slaveholding Kentucky, Stowe was exposed to the institution of slavery. Although she made just one brief trip to Kentucky, which was her only personal contact with the South, she knew freed and fugitive slaves in Cincinnati. She also had friends who participated in the underground railroad, the secret system for aiding runaway slaves in their flight to freedom. Stowe learned about slave life by talking to these people and by reading a great deal, including slave narratives and antislavery tracts. She also saw northern racial prejudice. Stowe began writing while living in Cincinnati. In 1836 she married Calvin Ellis Stowe, a distinguished biblical scholar and theology professor, and they had seven children. After marrying, Stowe continued to write, supplementing her husband’s limited earnings.

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Plot Summary

Following three slaves and their experiences in and out of slavery, Stowe’s novel deals with the effects of slavery on both blacks and whites in the antebellum, or pre-Civil War, South. Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be seen in four uneven parts: Part I consisting of chapters one through nine, about the slave Eliza and her escape to freedom; Part II consisting of chapters 10 through 29, about Uncle Tom and his relationship with Little Eva on the St. Clare plantation; Part III consisting of chapters 30 through 42, about Simon Legree and the death of Uncle Tom; and Part IV consisting of chapters 43 through 45 consisting of a resolution of the action and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s appeal for the end of slavery.

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Characters

A Adolph Dolph

Augustine St. Clare’s personal slave, Adolph, is something of a dandy. He wears his master’s castoff elegant clothing and looks down on slaves who he thinks are less refined than himself.

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Themes

A Human Rights

Slavery took many rights away from the enslaved. The loss of the basic right to have an intact family-and especially for parents and children to be together-was perhaps its cruelest effect. Stowe targeted her white female audience in addressing this denial of human rights, knowing she would find empathy in this group that was devoted to family and home. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she emphasizes the slaves’ right to family by focusing on the destructive effect slavery has on several slave families. Speaking for Stowe, Mrs. Shelby asks her husband not to sell Harry and Uncle Tom because she believes slave families should be allowed to stay together. On her deathbed, little Eva tells her father that the slaves love their children as much as he loves her. Through Eliza’s courageous escape with Harry across the frozen Ohio River, the tearful separation of Uncle Tom from his wife and children, and Cassy’s devastating story about her children being sold away from her, Stowe powerfully demonstrates that slaves are human beings who need, desire, and deserve family attachments. By pairing white mothers like Mrs. Bird, Rachel Halliday, and Ruth Stedman with Eliza, Stowe contrasts the white mother’s right to love and enjoy her children with the black mother’s powerlessness to do the same.

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Construction

A Point of View

The third person (“they,” “he,” “she”) omniscient or all-seeing narrative point of view is necessary to Stowe’s novel, as the novel follows simultaneously the activity of several Characters in different places. The point of view occasionally shifts to second-person (“you”) for the purpose of drawing the reader into the story at moments of high emotion. For instance, during the description of Eliza’s flight with Harry from the Shelbys, the narrator suddenly confronts us: “If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn away from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning… how fast could you walk?” Since the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin depends upon the reader’s ability to empathize with the Characters-and particularly the black slaves-these shifts into second person point of view are crucial to Stowe’s purpose. The omniscience of the narrator also enables the reader to empathize with the Characters by showing the reader the emotions and motivations of the Characters. When readers learn about how Tom feels upon hearing that St. Clare plans to free him, they can feel compassion for him: “He felt the muscles of his brawny arms with a sort of joy, as he thought they would soon belong to himself….”

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Historical Perspective

A The Fugitive Slave Law

In its early years as a nation, the United States gradually became divided into two main regions, the North and South. These regions were growing increasingly more different in terms of their economic systems and ways of life. By the 1830s the North was becoming more urban and industrial, employing free labor. The South was evolving into a more agrarian, or agricultural, culture that depended upon slave labor. The two regions were beginning to share less and less, and they began to disagree over the issue of slavery.

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Questions

Research mid-19th-century American views of motherhood and domesticity and compare those views to Stowe’s portrayal of mothers and motherhood.

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Compare and Contrast

1850: The U.S. Congress voted to pass the Fugitive Slave Law, which required Northerners to return runaway slaves to their Southern masters and tightened restrictions on free blacks as well as fugitive slaves. 1950s: Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the southern states, limiting the rights of African Americans. Slowly, many of those laws began to be reversed in the 1950s, such as the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared school segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Today: Many African Americans now serve in Congress, sit on the Supreme Court, and have been considered credible candidates for president by both major political parties.

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Further Reading

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Douglass’s autobiography, was first published in 1845. Douglass tells of his life as a slave in the American South, the cruelty of Christian slaveholders, and how, after learning to read, he finally was able to escape to freedom.

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