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.

A Part I

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and was understood to take place in “real time,” so the initial Setting can be described as a plantation in Kentucky in 1852. The plantation owner, Mr. Shelby, is negotiating with a coldhearted slave trader named Mr. Haley to sell some of his slaves in order to pay his debts. Though it is considered a bad practice to sell slaves and break up families, Mr. Shelby agrees to sell Uncle Tom, a devoted and hard-working slave, as well as Harry, the five-year-old child of the house servant Eliza. When Eliza overhears the plan, she decides to run away from the plantation with Harry and to take the “underground railroad” to freedom in Canada. She tries to warn Uncle Tom of his danger and to persuade him to join her, but he is too honest to violate the trust Mr. Shelby has placed in him not to run away.

When Haley discovers that Eliza has run away, he chases her to the river, which is covered with floating ice. Eliza must jump from one slab of ice to the other in order to escape. When she and Harry arrive on the other side, injured and exhausted, they are rescued by kind people who take them to a Quaker family. She and Harry are then reunited with Eliza’s husband, George, who had run away previously. Together the family is placed on a ship bound for Canada, escaping the slave hunters that Haley has sent after them.

B Part II

In this longest section of the book, Uncle Tom’s saintly character is revealed as he accepts the indignity of being sold “down the river” to New Orleans. On the steamboat Uncle Tom makes friends with a little girl named Eva St. Clare, who is as good-hearted as he is. When Uncle Tom saves Eva after she falls into the river, her father agrees to purchase him in gratitude. Uncle Tom is taken to the St. Clare plantation where he lives a relatively easy life as the head coachman. The mistress of the house, St. Clare’s sister Miss Ophelia who moved from New England to the South, is extremely critical of lazy southern ways. St. Clare buys her an eight-year-old slave, Topsy, to distract her from reorganizing the household. Topsy is contrasted with Eva, who is the same age, but whose saintliness is the opposite of Topsy’s rascally, naughty nature, just as Eva’s blonde hair and white skin contrast with Topsy’s black hair and black skin. Eva tries to reform Topsy, to no avail. Only when it is clear that Eva is slowly wasting away does Topsy promise to be good.

Before she dies, Eva makes her father promise to free all of his slaves. Eva gives each of the slaves a lock of her golden hair as a keepsake and begs them all to become Christians. St. Clare tells Uncle Tom he is going to be freed, but the old slave prefers to stay with St. Clare in order to convert him to Christianity. When St. Clare dies unexpectedly before freeing the slaves, his wife sells the slaves at public auction. Uncle Tom is bought by the villainous Simon Legree.

C Part III

Stowe describes the slave auction at which Uncle Tom is sold for the benefit of her Northern readers who are not familiar with slavery. She explains why negroes appear to be happy in slavery when in reality they are not: The dealers in the human article make scrupulous and systematic efforts to promote noisy mirth among them, as a means of drowning reflection, and rendering them insensible to their condition. The whole object of the training to which the negro is put, from the time he is sold in the northern market till he arrives south, is systematically directed towards making him callous, unthinking, and brutal. The slave-dealer collects his gang in Virginia or Kentucky, and drives them to some convenient, healthy place-often a watering place-to be fattened. Here they are fed full daily; and, because some incline to pine, a fiddle is kept commonly going among them, and they are made to dance daily; and he who refuses to be merry-in whose soul thoughts of wife, or child, or home, are too strong for him to be gay-is marked as sullen and dangerous, and subjected to all the evils which the ill will of an utterly irresponsible and hardened man can inflict upon him. Briskness, alertness, and cheerfulness of appearance, especially before observers, are constantly enforced upon them, both by the hope of thereby getting a good master, and the fear of all that the driver may bring upon them if they prove unsalable.

Simon Legree is a brutal master who takes pleasure in tormenting his slaves. When Uncle Tom tries to help another slave, Lucy, by filling her bag with cotton after she has been beaten and cannot work anymore, Legree commands Uncle Tom to beat Lucy. When Uncle Tom refuses, Legree beats Tom so badly that he almost dies. Another slave, Cassy, comes to Uncle Tom to bind his wounds and declares that God has forgotten the negro race, but Uncle Tom never loses his faith. Cassy develops a plan of escape and invites Uncle Tom to come along. Once again, Uncle Tom refuses to run away, seeing it as his Christian duty to stay behind and comfort the slaves who cannot escape. After Cassy drugs Legree so that she and another slave, Emmeline, can leave, Legree suspects that Uncle Tom knows where they have gone. In a scene that is reminiscent of Christ being tormented and spat upon before his crucifixion, Uncle Tom is taunted and spat upon by Legree before his master delivers the blow to Uncle Tom that ultimately kills him.

In the meantime, George Shelby, the son of Uncle Tom’s original owner, has been searching for him ever since he was sold down the river. George finds Uncle Tom in time to bid him farewell before he dies. In a fury, George threatens to charge Legree with murder, but Legree points out that no white person will convict another for killing a slave. George realizes sadly that Legree will go unpunished. But George vows to do “what one man can do to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!” He returns to Kentucky and frees all of his slaves, calling on them to “be as honest and as faithful a Christian as Tom was.”

D Part IV

Stowe ties up all the loose ends of her story. George and Eliza have been free for five years, and little Harry is going to a good school. Cassy, who turns out to be Eliza’s mother, joins the family in Canada, and they all emigrate to Liberia. Topsy lives a happy life with Miss Ophelia in Vermont. In the final chapter, Stowe claims that although Uncle Tom’s Cabin is fiction, it is based upon actual facts that have been enacted in the history of slavery many times. She makes a direct appeal to Southerners to release their slaves and to Northerners to become active in denouncing slavery. She argues that all Christian people, North and South, must unite in ridding America of this great evil for the sake of their souls. She believes that freed slaves should be trained and educated in the North and then sent to Liberia to begin life anew. She argues that the negro race, persecuted though it is, has done much to educate itself. “If this persecuted race, with every discouragement and disadvantage, have done thus much, how much more might they do if the Christian church would act towards them in the spirit of her Lord!” Stowe ends Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a warning that unless the slaves are freed, both North and South will suffer the wrath of Almighty God.

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