Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I did manage to finish Uncle Tom's Cabin over the weekend. I just didn't have a chance to write out my thoughts. Honestly, I don't know that I'm quite ready to type my impressions up just yet because I'm still mulling the story over. (I have not yet read anyone else's reviews, choosing to wait until I've written my own.)

I had read Uncle Tom's Cabin in high school. Last year I began re-reading it but this one was side-tracked for reasons which I cannot remember. I was glad when Barbara chose it for the Reading to Know book club as it would give me the opportunity to re-read it in it's entirety this year. I'm very grateful that I have.

As for what I thought of this book back in high school, I can't say. My memory of books fades over time and I honestly can't remember character's names or plot very well. (Hence Reading to Know has been handy for me! Frequently I find myself going back and reading my own thoughts to refresh my memory of what I thought of any particular book.)

Like many of you, I began to read this book at the beginning of October but I stagnated about mid-way through it. Because the first half of the book was relatively fresh on my mind, I just couldn't seem to get into the flow of it. By the time I reached the second half though, I became engrossed, as it was all "new to me" . . . again. (You can kindly assure me that you forget details of stories as well if you like.)

For purposes of sharing/retaining my thoughts on Uncle Tom's Cabin I'll mention what stood out most to me. That was? The extremes in the personalities of the individual characters - which allowed me to see myself all throughout this read.

I would say that Beecher does exaggerate her characters. As she describes them individually, they are either wholly good or wholly evil. There are a few "in-betweens" but you are made to feel that they are eventually going to "take a side" at some point, allowing you to classify them neatly as a "good guy" or a "bad guy." For my part, this generalization did not bother me, as I rather like my characters clear cut. I had to think about why I like my characters so defined - as the common complaint against such writing is that people in real life are not really clearly defined. We are messy humans and it's hard to tell sometimes what motivates and drives us to think or do certain things. I get that human nature is something of a complicated affair but I think the reason I like my characters in books so 'easy to read' is because it appeals to my sense of humor. I have to confess to you that the things I find humor in are people's tics and traits. Say for example someone has a habit of saying "Don'tcha know?" all of the time. I will hear it repeated and find it a hilarious statement and will start making jokes about them overusing that phrase. Or say they have a habit of constantly brushing hair out of their eyes or waving their hands a certain way . . . anything that might be repetitious in their words or behavior. I notice these things and I find great humor in them. Those traits teach me something about the people even though I am amused. So it goes in books - I find the thing that sticks out about a character and latch onto it and the more pronounced the better. I just get a kick out of it and it teaches me about them, the story and myself. (Hopefully I've explained that in a way that makes sense. This might be one of those things that are further explained/defined in the comment section through conversation.)

In short: Stowe's manner of writing her characters into neat little boxes of good and evil does not bother me but moves me emotionally - which is exactly what I think she was trying to do with this work in the first place. (Read the history behind the book HERE if you are not familiar.)

Because of Stowe's straight forward manner of presentation . . .

I saw myself in George. I note injustices and am riled by them (easily). My reaction is not always the best and this is something I've had to work on. To be sure, he suffered a grave injustice and I find his reaction perfectly justifiable.

I saw myself in Eliza. Very much so. When you are a mother and someone threatens your child in any way, shape, or form, you'll flee from the danger as fast as you know how and protect your child and your family at all costs.

I wish I could say that I saw more of myself in Tom. It is very hard for me to be patient under affliction. It is very hard for me to trust that everything is working out for my ultimate good. Tom mentions more than a few times that he is putting his trust in the Lord and intends to hold tight. I repeat to myself constantly that I must trust. But my periods of trusting are interspersed with periods where I'm freaking out. I am one of those complicated works in progress I mentioned earlier.

I saw myself in St. Clair. It's so easy to drift into periods of relaxation where we find it easier to do nothing to fix a bad situation than to do something. Yes, we can recognize atrocities all around us, but we as one lone individual feel powerless to stop it and so we slip into apathy at a great cost. We fool ourselves into thinking that we cannot bring about change and only too late discover that if we had obeyed God and conscience, we could have made all the difference.

Mostly, I saw myself in "Vermont" or Miss Ophelia. I'm good with going half-way into a commitment but being afraid to follow through to the end, no matter how great or how bitter the end might be. I have great thoughts and convictions about what is right and what is wrong, but I don't always back up my words with actions. It's hard to find the courage to get on my hands and knees and "get dirty" in the details of things I feel passionately about. Reading the story of Miss Ophelia made me sad over my attitude, at times, in not putting forth effort in the hard work of loving. Love is frequently the most needed thing necessary to bring about change.

And sadly, I also must confess that I saw my sinful heart in the character of Legree. His hard heartedness was all too familiar. He failed to listen to the honest thoughts and valid excuses of those around him and he suffered miserably as a result. In his desire to be in charge, he lost all sense of decency and love for his fellow man and that was hard to read. It's easy to say that I wouldn't and couldn't be exactly like Legree (I truly would like to believe not!) but a hardened heart can take you to places where you never thought you'd end up.

So, I ended this book with the following verses in mind:

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12: 21

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways, acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths." Proverbs 3:5-6

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me." Psalm 51:10

Slavery may be behind us - in some form or fashion - but there are still evils in this world which demand our attention and that would and should call us to action. We see injustices in society and in our daily lives - in our tight social circles. We really ought not to tolerate them but pray to the Lord to bring about conviction of sin wherever it is needed. We should pray to see the changing of hearts.

I'm really glad to have read this book again. I felt and do feel convicted by it in so many ways. It's a powerful book because it is an emotional plea for truth and justice and is just as fitting a read for today's society as for readers in the 1850's. We all still have much to learn.


Sherry said...

"A hardened heart can take you to places where you never thought you'd end up."

So true and a good warning. Thanks for sharing your insights from Uncle Tom's Cabin. I read it a long time ago, but I can remember some of what you write about.

Diary of an Autodidact said...

I enjoyed your thoughts - you nailed it that we can see ourselves in the flaws of the characters.

I must admit I find it amusing that you like your characters clear cut, and find a person's tics to be amusing, yet you are not always a Dickens fan ;)

I'll link your review on my post, along with the others that have come in.

Carrie said...

Yes! Dickens DOES do this! (So does Dumas.) And when I launched into Bleak House I found myself chuckling quite a bit! I don't think I can say that I'm not a Dickens fan any longer. Instead I have to confess that I have a whole lot of his works to read! ;) (A Tale of Two Cities has to be next, as that's Jonathan's favorite.)

I just finished reading through the reviews that came in and it looks as if this is a book which was truly impacting to individuals for one reason or another. Makes for an excellent book club selection!

Beth said...

Great thoughts, Carrie! You said it so well. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.

Gail @ said...

I haven't read Uncle Tom's Cabin for about 15 years, but I remember how much it moved me and my high school aged children who read it with me. I really appreciate the way you broke down the characters and the elements you see in our own sinful nature. And yes, like you, I don't see much of Uncle Tom in my character, but I wish I did. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Bless you

Barbara H. said...

I'm not sure if I feel the same way about tics and traits. I was talking to someone the other night who kept saying, "You know," inbetween phrases and as filler for when he was trying to put things into words. I was getting so irritated I was tempted to make hash marks every time he said it and then show him. But I figured that would not be very kind and would not be received well. :-) I guess in a book it is ok if it is done well enough to show a characteristic of that person and yet not so overdone that it distracts.

I like how you saw a bit of yourself in so many characters. I could definitely identify with Eliza and Mrs. Shelby.

Barbara H. said...

OK, I had to come back and say that I am listening to At Home In Mitford, and one character does say, "Dontcha know," and another does say, "Aha" at times, and it is endearing. (I almost considered this as an option for the book club next year except that since I am reading it now it would be too close to read it again next year -- unless I just held my review until then. But I had too many choices to consider as it was.) :-)

BerlinerinPoet said...

And THAT is why I get along with you so well, Carrie. I too find that sort of humor hilarious (one of the top reasons I love Dickens). In fact, last night after evening service I was telling Sarah (who was sick) how it had gone, and did impressions of everyone who was there. My dad has always been good at doing impressions and I guess we kids picked up on it.
And for the record, it's not making FUN of them, it's enjoying other people's differences.

Sarah said...

I've never read this book. I've heard mixed reviews of it, but I really think I need to read it for myself and judge for myself. Thanks for your thoughts. They actually encouraged me to check it out.

And yay!!! I'm happy you're willing to tackle Dickens. You have finally been converted... somewhat? Yes?

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