Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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Some novels reflect the time in which they are written whilst others contribute to shaping it. Stowe’s novel, the second best-selling of the 1800s following the Bible, does both. The aim of Stowe’s novel is self-evident and phrased by her sister-in-law as ‘mak[ing] this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is’. It is therefore unsurprising that when it was published in 1852 it caused a huge stir across America, with hordes of people buying it in the ‘free’ North and ‘anti-Tom’ novels being written in the South.

Perhaps a reason for its contentious reception is because the novel is difficult to disassociate from the real world; indeed, Stowe writes herself how ‘the separate incidents that compose the narrative are, to a very great extent, authentic’. This statement relates not only to broad and contemporary federal issues referenced in the novel, such as the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required escaped-slaves to be returned to their masters, or whether lands newly gained from the 1846 Mexican War should be slave states or not, but also the specific characters.

For instance, the fate of the eponymous Uncle Tom ‘has too many times had its parallel’ in real life whilst Eliza’s character derives from ‘sketches drawn from life’. The slave-owners in this novel are also inspired by real-life figures. Therefore, considering it is so much based on reality, it can be in little doubt that Stowe wanted to have a real impact. Indeed, given Abraham Lincoln’s famous comment to Stowe when she visited the White House, ‘So you are the little woman who started this great war’, a war which killed 600,000 in pursuit of its eventual aim of ending slavery, she succeeded.

If Stowe’s aim, however, was to support abolition, it is perhaps surprising that two of three main slaveholders depicted in the novel are benevolent to the extent their slaves mourn having to leave themselves or the slaveholder passing. Far from serving to support African Americans’ emancipation, it could be deemed as corroborating the commonly used southern argument that African Americans were better off in captivity.

Yet these tales of generous masters also serve a powerful purpose, demonstrating that without legalised freedom, slaves were powerless in the Southern legal system, meaning they were safe only so long as their good-natured masters were living or financially afloat. Hence, Stowe indicates that slavery, even in its gentlest form, has the potential for evil, as proven by Uncle Tom’s eventual fate.

Evidently, Stowe uses this novel to communicate her personal beliefs. Obviously, one of Stowe’s beliefs is abolition, but beyond this she also believed in colonailism. In the context of slavery, this entails African Americans resettling in Africa instead of becoming amalgamated in America. In many respects, when reading the novel, it is difficult to empathise with this view; many of the slaves, such as Uncle Tom or Eliza, appear as positive societal components – they represent Christian values, so valued in nineteenth century America, and do little harm unto others – in stark contrast to white masters. Largely, this view is represented through the fugitive slave, George Harris, who desires a black ‘republic’ located ‘on the shores of Africa’. However, unlike the clear denouncement of slavery, the reasons for a colonialism never do appear very convincing to me, although perhaps they never would from my modern perspective.

In summary, whilst Uncle Tom’s Cabin can, at times, feel overly moralising and didactic, it is a novel that is successful in achieving its purpose as it does indeed ‘awake sympathy and feeling for the African race’, an aim set out by Stowe in the preface; therefore, it is little wonder that this novel has obtained a special place in American history as it encapsulates, accelerates even, the spirit which led to America’s most defining event since the Revolution.

Rating: 3.5/5