Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Harriet Beecher Stowe   Leave a comment

This book is on the ‘1001 books to read before you die’ reading list, which I am trying to complete. It is famous for being the anti-slavery book which was claimed to be responsible for the American Civil War.

It is mainly read and judged from this point of view. As an abolitionist novel, it is strong in its claims of the equality of the black man with the white. It places a lot of the arguments for and against abolitionism into the mouths of the characters. Marie, Eva’s mother, sympathises with her cook’s grief at losing all of her children, as they were sold and taken from her when still young, but claims that it is impossible the cook can feel pain in the same way she does herself. That this character is a completely selfish hypochondriac, who has never experienced a tragedy she herself did not invent, only adds to the irony of the statement.

Beecher Stowe covers the importance of education for slaves, the responsibility of owners to treat their slaves as human beings, showing kindness and fairness. She makes the point that, however well an owner treats their slaves, on dying, the slaves can then be sold on to any new owner, their home lost, separated from close family members, often expected to abandon wives, as a black marriage is not worth the same as a ‘real marriage’.

She uses her characters to show the pain the slaves experience at having lost their freedom. George Wilson, a black escaped slaves, denies being an American as he is not free. He claims he belongs nowhere, and his worth to his owner was only as a piece of chattel.

The author’s most powerful example is the mothers who have their children taken from them and sold, often after being impregnated by the white owner or his son. One woman is told she is to be sold with her son, but once on board the ship, her son is taken from his crib whilst she is distracted, and sold without her knowledge. She commits suicide later in complete despair.

The point of view of the black slave is presented, in a very powerful way. When an owner orders a slave so badly beaten that he dies, an outraged white man swears he will report him to the authorities, for murder. The owner maliciously retorts, who will be a witness against him? We are coldly reminded that no black man’s testimony is valid in a court of law.

We are introduced to men who trade in slaves, from manipulating a kind owner into debt so they can make their purchase; the lies they readily tell all parties in order to achieve their aims; the cruelty and inhumanity with which they treat their charges. We also meet a group of men who are contracted to find runaways, who they treat like cattle, and show great dishonesty at every turn.

Reading the book purely from the point of view of an abolitionist device, the characters all become very stereotyped and two dimensional. Beecher Stowe becomes very idealistic and simplistically ideological. It feels naive and shallow, and we feel it more a child’s book in its narrow attitude.

However, it is important to remember that Beecher Stowe was a committed Christian, a Methodist, and a part of the great awakening which had been sweeping the United States for the last 50 years. This movement had transformed entire communities into passionate Christians, whose first and last aim was to emulate Jesus, their Lord.

When you approach the book from this angle, it changes dramatically. Now the focus is on each character’s relationship with God, or how they are being challenged in their errors and drawn towards a new relationship of commitment with Jesus.

Ironically, now our greatest examples are a black slave and a small white child. The world is turned upside down. The owner is challenged in his thinking, including abolition, by listening to the honest prayers, his slave, Tom, honestly prays for his owner, ignorant he is being overheard.

Even Tom, the great evangelist of the novel, goes through his own time of testing, and finds it so difficult he almost despairs. This section is impassioned and genuine, as Tom cries openly, fearing he cannot take anymore abuse. To me, this is the critical part of the entire novel.

He experiences two visions, of his dear deceased friend encouraging him on, and of his master, Jesus on the cross. Sadly, at this point, Beecher Stowe justified these visions as possibly the hallucinations of a man in much pain; this I feel was a mistake, and dilutes their powerful effect. I believe they would better stand on their own.

However, I challenge you to reread this novel, from the point of view of a Christian novel primarily, placing it soundly in historical context, and with fresh understanding of the motivations of the writer as she sketches her characters and twists and turns of her story.
The author herself, in the epilogue, makes the point, that each is drawn from similar real life events and characters. When read this way, I am convinced you will see a greater depth to it, than you may have previously seen.

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Posted July 17, 2017 by dianne7 in book review

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