Harriet Beecher Stowe was appalled by slavery, and she took one of the few options open to nineteenth century women who wanted to affect public opinion: she wrote a novel, a huge, enthralling narrative that claimed the heart, soul, and politics of millions of her contemporaries. Uncle Tom's Cabin paints pictures of three plantations, each worse than the other, where even the best plantation leaves a slave at the mercy of fate or debt. Her questions remain penetrating even today: "Can man ever be trusted with wholly irresponsible power?"
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First published more than 150 years ago, this monumental work is today being reexamined by critics, scholars, and students. Though "Uncle Tom" has become a synonym for a fawning black yes-man, Stowe's Tom is actually American literature's first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his oppressors. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a living, relevant story, passionate in its vivid depiction of the cruelest forms of injustice and inhumanity-and the courage it takes to fight against them.
A look at the essays
Uncle Tom's Cabin has elicited strong reactions from the time it was published, and so we've included a representative collection of classic criticism, from the effusive praise of George Sand to a skeptical and worldly-wise London Times review and on to an affronted and defensive response from Southerner George F. Holmes.
As for new contemporary criticism, Dedra McDonald Birzer investigates how slavery disrupts the family in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Mark Canada sees the work as a "broader, deeper exposé" than newspaper reports could give in his "Harriet Beecher Stowe's Investigative Fiction". [Read excerpt.] Finally, John J. Han catalogues the many plot points and character traits that lead us to read "Uncle Tom as a Christ Figure".
Mary R. Reichardt situates the reader with the introductory essay.
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In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s view, slavery was an evil against which anyone professing Christianity must protest. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was precisely such a protest. Stowe believed that the debate over slavery often missed or minimized the essential point that the families of slaves were torn apart by the institution. Her own strong family orientation informs the novel throughout, even as her unconventional pursuit of a career as a professional writer gave her the means of conveying her thoughts to the wider world.
Writing this novel gave Stowe a professional outlet. Like many educated nineteenth century American women, she experienced frustration because there was little opportunity for educated women to use their voices to influence the course of American life. Like her father, husband, and brothers, Stowe felt called to preach. Denied a pulpit, she used Uncle Tom’s Cabin as her sermon, her means of educating the world about a system that she was convinced was evil and must be stopped.
As a professional writer of the nineteenth century, Stowe knew that there was a large female reading public. Consequently, much of the novel is designed to appeal to those readers as it paints slavery as a male-devised system that women are called upon to correct. The novel features several strong female characters whose common sense and strong human sympathy recoil from slavery’s inhumanity. Throughout the novel, human feeling is raised above the economics of self-interest and the expediency of laws. Moreover, Stowe “feminized” the slave narrative, stressing Eliza’s heroic escape from bondage with her son as well as the ingenious plan used by Cassy to free herself from Simon Legree. Prior to her novel, most accounts of slavery, such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), were told from the male perspective and celebrated male courage and resourcefulness.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides a panorama of nineteenth century American culture, which suggests that its author was a precursor of the realistic writers who dominated the literary scene after the Civil War. The novel contains innumerable characters of all types and backgrounds: slaves and slave catchers, slave owners and Quakers, a self-pitying southern belle and an unsympathetic New Englander, mothers and children, unprincipled politicians and slovenly cooks, the careless and the deeply caring, the sexually exploited and the sadistic, the angelic and the impish. It includes scenes along the shores of Lake Erie and in the currents of the Mississippi River, in Ohio and in Kentucky, in Arkansas and in Canada. Using a broad canvas as she did, Stowe hoped to show that slavery, far from an isolated and temporary problem, was institutionalized and nationalized and affected not only slaves and slave owners but the entire country. Moreover, she showed that persons of all types, from the good to the evil, were caught in the power of the institution.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been criticized on several grounds. It is said to lack form and control; its social purpose is sometimes seen as incompatible with fine aesthetic qualities. However, the moralism and didacticism displayed in the novel were, in a sense, part of Stowe’s aesthetic. That is, she believed that art was not above morality but was activated by it. She did not believe in art for art’s sake, but rather in the power of art to do good.
The novel’s titular hero has been criticized for his willingness to submit to white men’s arbitrary power and physical abuse. One must remember, however, that Stowe was influenced by her Christian faith when she created Tom and his actions. To her, Tom’s submission was not to tyranny but to Christian principle, and in that submission lay his power to change the world for the better. Stowe created Tom in the image of Jesus Christ.