Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Tom is a good man, a Christian man. Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest. He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father. But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.
Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio border. While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt. His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader. Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm. Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.
Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up. Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master. Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night. But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.
This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.) Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child. The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had. So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.
At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods. Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers! As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.
In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans. He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants. But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?” Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.
Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith. She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks. Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.
Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom. Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl. While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.
Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves. Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork. Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves. Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom. But this is where Tom draws the line. He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life. Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.
This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message. Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians. Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery practiced in the United States, and this is on full view. At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts. We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont. She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.
And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout. Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked. It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.
The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists. Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction. The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.
As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.) There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage. The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.
This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm. If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.