Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Reading to Know - Book Club
Carrie’s “Reading to Know” Book Club pick for the month of October is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. If you’ve read this book for this challenge, drop by Carrie’s to let her know, link up your review if you wrote one, and see others’ thoughts.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a story on two levels. On one level we trace Tom’s life and the people he encounters through three masters, and we see how he responds to the difficulties he faces by God’s grace. On another level Beecher demonstrates many times over that slaves are real people rather than property and have real souls and real feelings and real family ties and, therefore, slavery is a horrible thing for one person to do to another and for the nation to allow.

The story opens with the news that Tom will have to be sold. His master, Mr. Shelby, is in deep debt, and Tom is so experienced, trustworthy, and valuable that his sale will almost cover the debt. If he doesn’t sell Tom, he will lose all. Though Tom is devastated by the news, especially the thought of leaving his wife and children, he doesn’t run away when he has the chance because he is willing for his sale to help everyone else.

Mr. Shelby’s debt is not quite covered, though, and the slave trader spies a bright and beautiful child that he says will make up the difference. Shelby resists at first, but being over a barrel, feels he has no choice but to give in. The child, Harry, is the son of Eliza, his wife’s personal maid whom she has raised from girlhood. Eliza overhears this news, takes Harry, and runs away.

The story then splits into two, following both Eliza and Tom’s journeys. Eliza’s path leads to Quaker people who endeavor to help slaves escape. Tom’s leads first to a kind master, a Mr. St. Clare. Tom helps save St. Clare’s daughter from drowning while on the ship, and the little girl, Eva, begs her father to buy Tom. St. Clare doesn’t like slavery in itself but feels it’s too big and engrained a problem for one man to combat, so he feels the best he can do is provide a good home for the ones he has, and he also buys those who are in troubling situations, like little Topsy. His Northern cousin, Miss Ophelia, who is visiting, tells him that it is respectable men like him who are doing more harm than good because they lend an air of respectability and acceptance to the practice. But though Ophelia is against slavery, she is blind at first to her own prejudices against black people until her care of Topsy reveals them to her.

St. Clare decides to free Tom so he can be reunited with his wife and children but dies before he can get the legal paperwork done. His wife, Marie, has no problem with slavery or sympathy for slaves and will not honor her husband’s plans. She sells Tom to a cruel master, Simon Legree.

One of the most touching moments in the books for me was when Tom, on the way to Legree’s cabin, starts singing:

Jerusalem, my happy home!
Name ever dear to me;
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?

The choir of the church my husband and I attended for our first fourteen years of marriage used to sing this song regularly (leaving out some of the more Catholic-sounding verses at the end of the original text as well as about 2/3 of the original verses — I hadn’t realized it was quite so long!), and they used to have a bass solo somewhere in the middle. I always loved it, but when I saw Uncle Tom singing it, setting his hope in heaven while on the way to cruelty in earth, my heart melted, and I couldn’t hear this song afterward without thinking of him.

I understood and appreciated Mrs. Stowe’s desire to show the evils of slavery, both in practice and principle, with good masters or bad, but I hadn’t appreciated how she did this in quite so many layers until I was looking over the SparkNotes for the book, particularly Themes, Motifs, and Symbols section as well as the major character analysis and the analysis of the chapters. I would recommend them to you if you have the time. Just about every character and many of the conversations show by either what is said or what is happening, positively or negatively, plainly or by inference, the various ways in which slavery is wrong and why. Tom’s experience’s, George’s passion, Prue’s self-destruction, Eliza’s fear and bravery, Haley and Loker’s cruelty, St. Clare’s reasoning with himself, Marie’s telling comments, Ophelia’s observations — all of these and so much more help to promote her theme.

She also shows the preeminence of Christianity through Uncle Tom as well as several other characters: Mrs. Bird, the Quakers who help not only runaway slaves but also the injured Loker, Eva, and several others. As I said in my introductory remarks about the book, Tom’s submission is seen these days as a weakness, but it was a submission born of his Christianity, not of weakness or lack of courage and character. Tom has perhaps more character than anyone in the book. The SparkNotes Character Analysis does a great job against this charge as well. As I said before, I was first inspired to read this books years ago when a former pastor whom we highly respected described Tom as “the kind of Christian you always wanted to be.” Tom took seriously Jesus’s admonition to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” he sought the good of all others, and he refused to compromise his principles even at severe danger to himself.

But even Tom valued freedom. One conversation is as follows:

“Why, Tom, don’t you think, for your part, you’ve been better off than to be free?”
“No, indeed, Mas’r St. Clare,” said Tom, with a flash of energy. “No, indeed!”
“Why, Tom, you couldn’t possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you.”
“Knows all that, Mas’r St. Clare; Mas’r’s been too good; but, Mas’r, I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ‘em mine, than have the best, and have ‘em any man’s else – I had so, Mas’r; I think it’s natur, Mas’r.

Some sources say Stowe advocated early feminism by the fact that most of her good, moral characters are women. But I don’t think feminism had anything to do with it. I think she was just showing that women could have great influence. In some cases that’s all they had: I haven’t researched this aspect of those times, but I don’t think they could vote or hold office then, and the husband was very much the lord of the manor. But even so, a woman’s character and influence carried great weight and could be used for great good. Her biggest illustration of that was her own writing of such a book.

Stowe’s writing has its flaws by today’s standards — some characters are too idealized, some passages are wordy, others are preachy, some scenes are a little too melodramatic or sentimental. But she shines in others. Though today we would let a scene speak for itself rather than turn around and appeal to the reader as she does, in some scenes she has a delightful ironic touch, such as in slave trader Haley’s expostulations about how humane he is or Marie St. Clare’s lamentations, and biting sarcasm in others, such as her comments about the man who helped Eliza out of the river: “So spoke this poor, benighted Kentuckian, who had not been instructed in his constitutional relations, and consequently was betrayed into acting in a sort of Christianized manner, which, if he had been better situated and more enlightened, he would not have been left to do.” Her style probably went over better in her day, but the truths she conveyed are timeless.

And it is because those truths — the value of every human life, the Christian way to respond to adversity, the Christian responsibility to live and act in a way that reflects their Savior and to defend the defenseless — that this book is a classic and is still valuable reading even in our day.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  1. Barbara, thanks for your great thoughts. I enjoyed reading this and it has probably shot up on my “best read books” list.

  2. I started reading your review and instantly realized I shouldn’t because I can’t remember what happens to Tom. I’m near the end though and am hoping to finish it this weekend, after which I’ll hop around and read everyone else’s thoughts! Just. must. finish!

    I’ll be back. 😉

  3. What an excellent and thorough review, Barbara. I had never read this book but had heard the way Uncle Tom was used as a slur on a person as being weak willed. Now I understand better and certainly appreciate your insights.

  4. Coming back and reading your post and the ensuing comments now that I’ve finished reading the book for myself. Thanks for the back ground and study that you gave to this read and discussion.

    I didn’t realize that Tom’s character had ever been critiqued as being weak-willed. That is certainly not at all how he reads off! Choosing to stick around and face hard things is never a sign of weakness, but rather of great strength! I can see why your pastor would have said that Tom is the type of Christian we’d all like to be – or should be. I certainly wish I were more like him and reading this story was quite powerful for me.

    So glad you picked it!

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