Book Information – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Author – Harriet Beecher Stowe
Reading Challenge book? Yes. This is a classic novel.
Though I’ve encountered few people nowadays who have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe was wildly popular at the time of its initial publication. Her fictional portrayal of slavery humanized the abolition debate and made a powerful emotional appeal. For that reason, many historians credit the novel with laying the groundwork for emancipation. Some have even credited the book with inflaming Northern sentiment in favor of civil war.
Growing up in the South, I always heard very mixed things about this book, but had not read the novel itself. Going into it, I knew that the book dealt with the slavery issue and I had been told that some of the enslaved characters are subjected to brutal treatment. Based on the descriptions, I had assumed that the book must center on escape from a plantation in the Deep South.
I could not have been more wrong in my assumptions. The book is actually set in Kentucky, and the slaveholder we meet initially is a far cry from the wealthy plantation class. Arthur Shelby, who appears to be a fairly modest Kentucky farmer, has fallen on hard times. As the book opens, he has decided to raise needed funds by selling two of his slaves. This prompts debate between him and his wife Emily – not because they have qualms about buying and selling human souls in general but because one of the slaves to be sold is the son of Emily’s maid and Mrs. Shelby had promised the maid that the Shelbys would keep her son.
What unfolds initially is a plot of great adventure as Emily’s maid Eliza escapes in a desperate attempt to save her son. Readers follow her dangerous path,and it’s almost impossible to read dispassionately as we see the dangers and deprivations she must endure.
And what of the Uncle Tom of the title? Well, his story is a powerful one indeed. In our current age, the term “Uncle Tom” is often used derisively and seen as a weakness, but the original character shows great strength throughout the story. He not only helps, along with other characters, to show black slaves as human beings of dignity, but also to deliver a very Christian message to readers.
Throughout the book, it is Uncle Tom’s faith that helps him and also moves others. At the time the Shelbys decide to sell two of their slaves to a trader, they sell Uncle Tom and he ends up being placed on a ship to New Orleans to be sold. On board the ship, he rescues a young child named Eva. The two share a Christian faith, and speak of love and forgiveness. To modern readers, Eva’s story will probably seem a bit melodramatic and overly sentimental. I certainly felt this, but could also understand how readers of the day would have found it deeply affecting.
Without spoiling the plot too much, I will just add that after reaching New Orleans with Eva’s family, Uncle Tom’s travails do not end. After a time, he eventually finds himself in the clutches of the evil Simon Legree. This is shown in the book both as an example of the depravity than could exist in slaveholding culture, and also as a triumph of Uncle Tom’s faith over many adversities.
While Uncle Tom’s Cabin is sometimes a very difficult read (it’s 500+ pages and quite densely written), it’s a rewarding one. Up until now, I had read and heard much ABOUT this book, but that simply does not compare to actually reading the book itself. Stowe tells gripping stories of slaveholders and the enslaved, and in some ways, her characters help dispel the myths about slavery. In the novel, we meet masters who range from benevolent to neglectful to downright malicious. However, even in the more benevolent households, masters still have absolute control over the enslaved people there and these folks still lack the ability to build their own families, work for themselves, or even make major decisions for themselves. The effect of this over the long-term can only have been crippling for these people.
Stylistically, this novel is very sentimental and also quite wordy. I have probably read more Victorian novels than the average person, but I still found the author’s style in this book slow going at times. The frequent weeping and emotional displays of the characters may seem odd to today’s readers, but I can see where this would have been very moving to the book’s original readers. Not only is Uncle Tom’s Cabin engaging as a story, but the author does a good job of humanizing her slave characters and showing readers the moral effects of the slavery system.