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.
B God and Religion
Religion and faith play a central role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A character’s relation to Christianity-believer, lapsed believer, nonbeliever-is part of how that character is defined. Eliza, Tom, Mrs. Shelby, Eva, and Ophelia are all described as dedicated Christians, and they are mostly good. George, Augustine St. Clare, and Cassy are basically good in spite of their inability to believe in Christianity (they are presented as having justifiable excuses not to believe). Simon Legree’s complete lack of religious faith is connected to his depravity. Christianity is linked in the novel to morality, humaneness, and generosity. The Christian faith of slaves gives them courage and the strength to go on. Tom’s and Eva’s religious convictions transform them into Christlike figures, and their deaths, like Christ’s, are meant to be redemptive. Although she dies of tuberculosis, Eva appears almost to give her life for the antislavery cause, as slavery pains her so profoundly. Tom converts Sambo and Quimbo to Christianity as he dies at their hands. In using religion to define her Characters and her cause, Stowe speaks directly to her 19th-century audience. Slaves portrayed as pious-devoted to divine worship-and even saintly would be more sympathetic to that audience, and abolitionists often questioned how slaveholding and Christianity could coexist.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin explores the power of love, specifically love of God and love of family. A mother’s love for her children is built up in the novel as the most powerful kind of love. This portrayal serves Stowe well when she depicts the anguish of slave mothers who are torn from their children. A mother’s love can be transformative: witness Eliza summoning the courage and strength to cross the river on the floating ice cakes. Her love for her child makes her almost superhuman. Love of God is also portrayed as being transformative. Although they are but a lowly slave and an innocent child, Tom’s and Eva’s powerful love of God raises them to the stature of Christ in their capacity for love, forgiveness, and moral valor. They die like saints, with Eva giving out locks of her hair like religious icons to her loved ones and Tom being tortured and killed by those who are galled by his faith. Love and prayer are the two most potent forces in the world of the novel.
D Morals and Morality
Discussions of moral principles in Uncle Tom’s Cabin converge in the central issue of slavery. Basically, the novel asks, is human slavery right or wrong? It is not difficult to see that the novel portrays the practice of slavery as immoral. Slavery breaks apart loving families, degrades both slaves and their owners, and robs human beings of their freedom. While the novel presents not only an obviously evil, immoral master in Simon Legree, it also gives readers so-called “kind” masters like Mr. Shelby and St. Clare. However, it points out that, kind or not, a master is still a master, and one human being should not be allowed to own another.
More subtle than the blatant antislavery theme in the novel is the treatment of attitudes toward slavery. Here, Stowe presents some moral gray areas. What about the people who believe slavery is wrong and do not practice it but who despise blacks? And what about slaveholders who are uncomfortable with owning slaves but do not know what to do about it? In conversations about slavery between St. Clare and Ophelia, St. Clare asserts there is something immoral about the way Northern Christians condemn slavery but do not want anything to do personally with the blacks themselves. In St. Clare himself, Stowe expresses the difference between belief and action. He is troubled about the enslavement of blacks and believes that blacks are treated inhumanely, yet he does not free his own slaves. George Shelby and Little Eva are in a sense yardsticks for morality in the novel. Both Characters truly love the black slaves in their families, vehemently oppose slavery, and attempt to persuade the adults around them to condemn slavery and free their slaves. As children, George and Eva are powerless to effect real change-George will finally free the Shelbys’ slaves when he grows up-but they are moral in that they believe in what is right (according to the moral code of the novel) and they live by their beliefs.
E Race and Racism
In the world of Stowe’s novel, Characters are defined in large part by the color of their skin. In this kind of stereotyping, Stowe herself is guilty of a certain kind of racism. While white Characters are not necessarily all good, as illustrated by the likes of slave trader Haley and Simon Legree, slave hunters Loker and Marks, and Alfred St. Clare and his son Henrique, black Characters’ virtue is related to the lightness or darkness of their skin. For example, slave mother Eliza Harris, set up as a model of piety and moral integrity, is one-quarter black, so light-skinned as to be almost white. Her husband, George, an admirable example of honor and decency, is also light-skinned, as is their son, Harry. Stowe presumes that her white 19th-century reader will be better able to identify with the Harris family because they look so much like her own. Stowe depends upon that identification of reader with character for the success of her novel. Darker-skinned figures, like Topsy, Aunt Chloe, and Black Sam, seem more like stock Characters. They are simple, speak in dialect rather than standard English, and are more comic than heroic. Tom, although dark-skinned, is noble in his Christian humility and patience, but he is also characterized as simple, innocent, and uneducated. Stowe uses her white Characters not so much as vessels of racism but more as mouthpieces of racist attitudes. In particular, Augustine St. Clare’s conversations with others on the subject of slavery bring up many facets of the problem of racism. When he debates the issue of slavery with his Northern cousin Ophelia, readers see how hypocritical she is. While she opposes the institution of slavery, she also personally dislikes blacks. When St. Clare discusses their slaves with his wife, Marie, readers see Marie’s belief that blacks are suited only for slavery. St. Clare’s conversations about race with his brother Alfred reveal Alfred’s position that the white race is meant to be dominant. While St. Clare’s various discussions on racism often read like the texts of political debates, readers can see that Stowe is using these dialogues to shore up her antislavery message.