Friday, November 30, 2007

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Uncle Tom's Cabin”, published in 1852 and written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is historical fiction focusing on the subject of slavery in the United States. The plot follows Uncle Tom, a Negro slave and the hero of the story, as well as the lives and experiences of others in connection with Tom, giving a general idea of what life was like during that era. Stowe does an exceptional job showing that while there were definitely slave masters who were outright cruel, inhumane and evil people, others were kind and treated their slaves like human beings, not beasts. Uncle Tom is a pious Christian who patiently endures the pains and sufferings of being bought and sold many times over by many different masters, all of whom hold a wide range of positions on the treatment of slaves and slavery itself.

Uncle Tom starts out as a father of a family living with other slaves belonging to an overall well-meaning man, Mr. Shelby, who is forced, because of a debt, to give up Tom and Harry, a young, talented boy, to a slave trader. Harry's mother, Eliza, hears of the plan and runs away with little Harry, hoping to find her husband, George Harris, who had escaped from his master and headed for Canada. Eliza invites Tom to go with her, but he declines, saying that although she is right to protect her son, he must comply with his master Mr. Shelby's wishes. Eliza and Harry are pursued by their new “master”, but his guides were two Negroes whose mistress, Mrs. Shelby, hoped for Eliza to escape and had implored them to delay the man as much as possible. Which was what they did, having great fun over their little joke. Eliza and Harry found George and made their way, with great risk to their lives, to Canada.

Uncle Tom eventually ends up in New Orleans on a cotton plantation belonging to Simon Legree, who is the very picture of a ruthless tyrant. Mr. Legree treats his slaves as though they are of no more worth than his dogs, and his general practice is to work the slaves as hard as possible while they last, and simply buy more when the former slaves are worked to death. Mr. Legree originally bought Tom with the idea of forcing him to become an overseer for his other slaves, because of his enormous and strong body. However, when he finds that Tom's faith is so strong that he refuses give whippings to his fellow Negroes, Simon becomes enraged and beats Tom as a punishment; but still Tom respectfully refuses to give in. The cruel master hates Tom and does everything possible to “break him in”, but fails with every attempt. After living on the plantation for several months, Tom helps two suffering female slaves, Cassy and Emmeline, to escape from captivity and refuses to tell where they are, and, in Simon Legree's wrath, he beats the Negro to death. Uncle Tom impressed all as a great holy man and essentially a martyr for Jesus Christ.

Other characters include St. Clare, a temporary owner of Tom, who keeps slaves even though he believes it to be wrong – he just never gets around to emancipating them. Eva, his golden-haired 5-year-old daughter, is made out to be a perfect angelic Christian, loving everyone including their black slaves and associating with them like they were her own family, much to the delight of her adoring father and dismay of her jealous and prejudiced mother. Miss Ophelia, the sister of St. Clare, lives with them for a while, as their housekeeper. Although she is an abolitionist and believe slavery to be a cruel thing, she nevertheless is personally prejudiced against them.

This book raises and considers questions concerning slavery and holds a Christian theme and outlook throughout the story. Characters debate subjects such as whether slaves should be educated, whether their souls are just as immortal as those of the white people, whether owning slaves is biblically and politically correct, and what treatment of slaves was acceptable. One debate that I found to be particularly interesting, was this: One man insists that, though there are a number men as low and cruel as Simon Legree, there are many considerate and humane men among planters. The other replies, “Granted, but, in my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep a foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one,” he said, referring to Mr. Legree, “the whole thing would go down like a mill-stone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.”

Another subject often spoken of was how terrible it was for the law to approve of mistreatment of Negroes. A master could torture his slaves in any way he liked, even to the point of death, and the law would not frown upon him. How can a Caucasian commit murder against an African and not be in trouble with the law, when, if put the other way around, it would be considered a despicable crime? For many years, black people were not allowed to be a witness or testify in court. They weren't allowed to attend the same schools as white people, or use the same drinking fountains. America was supposed to be the land of the free, with liberty and justice for all! How can that be, when humans are buying and selling other humans, breaking up families and treating them like beasts, forcing them to do their will!

I think the author did an excellent job with character development; she brought a good number of other characters into the story and expanded on their lives in a realistic way that kept the interest of the reader, without losing track of the main character in the midst of all the side plots. All of the branching plot lines she intricately interwove together in harmony, expertly avoiding the possibility of all the different elements of the story becoming distracting and uncoordinated. I enjoyed reading this book and believe I gained a deeper understanding of the type of lives slaves had to endure, and the personal beliefs and attitudes of the slaveholders.

-- Review by Caryn (posted by Carrie)


Literary Feline said...

I read Uncle Tom's Cabin in high school and had to give a presentation to the class about it. Oh, how I hated standing in front of my classmates to do that. Such a shame that that is the first memory that comes to mind when I think of that book. :-) I did like the book quite a bit though. Thank you for your great review.

Barbara H. said...

I read this some 20 years ago -- I ought to revisit it. I had no interest in it until a former pastor mentioned Uncle Tom as "the kind of Christian we always wanted to be." I had no idea before that that there was a Christian slant to it. I loved it -- though it was hard to read in parts because of the brutality.

Barbara H. @ Stray Thoughts

A Pilgrim said...

Excellent review! Very nicely thought out and presented.

Knowing the history of this author I have a low opinion of this book; however, if you only look at the story you have much food for thought, debate, and even war. I state it that way because Abraham Lincoln once introduced the author as, "This is the lady who started the war."

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