Sunday, 31 August 2014

Review of Uncle Tom's Cabin

There were a vast number of incredibly poetic and astute quotations which I could have chosen from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I decided on the above one because it sums up the hypocrisy many slaveholders employed everyday. The idea of America being a "free" country during this time was laughable, but many masters truly believed that they were born with a right to purchase slaves and treat them in whatever way they saw fit. Obviously, the slaves themselves weren't privileged enough to enjoy this "freedom", but in the eyes of certain masters this did not make America any less free - slaves did not "count" as men in the states in which slavery was permissible.

My recent posts make it clear that at the moment I've been reading a number of slave narratives in preparation for one of my modules I'll be studying as a finalist. This is the only slave narrative out of the four that I've read recently which has not been written from a first hand point of view. I can now see why Uncle Tom's Cabin resulted in such immense popularity when it was published, and believe that it's a fundamental tool in understanding that a number of different approaches to slavery existed.

Unlike many other slave narratives, Uncle Tom's Cabin tracks the progression of the lives of a number of individuals, although Tom's is obviously covered with greater emphasis. Tom initially lived under a kind master and mistress who allowed him to marry a cook named Chloe and live with her and their children in a cottage (or cabin) on their property. Though Tom was technically a slave, he worked as a kind of manager for his master. He was renowned for being one of the most honest and hard working slaves a man could meet. Here, Uncle Tom became acquainted with the bible, and was given his own copy to read from and annotate. Unfortunately, Tom's master got into a great deal of debt. Although Tom and a mother and son called Eliza and Harry were the master and mistresses favourite slaves they were also worth the most. Tom's master was forced to sell the three to cover his debts. Now, I don't want to give too many spoilers about the rest of the novel because the beauty and tragedy of this piece of literature are simply breathtaking. However, I will simply state that Tom suffers and rejoices at the hands of both pleasant Christian masters as well as those who are not so wholesome.

As I've said, this is the first slave narrative I've read that looks at the stories of multiple slaves (it also lets you see where Eliza and Harry end up, and how they get there). It's also the first slave narrative I've read which gives some insight into the different temperaments and thoughts of slave owners. There are several key individuals in this category which are particularly striking. Tom and Eliza's mistress treats Eliza almost as if she is a daughter. She has been educated, clothed well, encouraged in marriage, and instructed in appropriate chores. When Eliza runs away to ensure that her and her son will not be separated, her mistress is glad. She vehemently condemns the sale of Eliza, and would much rather see her own finances plummet than have to give her up to being sold down south. This character alone shows far more empathy for the state of slaves than I've read about in any other slave narrative. Another character which stands out in this light is the foolish but kind-hearted St Clare. He treats his slaves as though they are part of the family, to the extent that the house is a place of (slightly chaotic) sanctuary for the slaves. His daughter Eva is almost the embodiment of Christ in a child. Many of the slaves which they own, especially Tom, see true Christianity in her, which completely contrasts the wild and incorrect notions of Christianity many slave owners used to support their mistreatment of many men, women and children. This idyllic view of the support some slaves receive from their masters is shattered by the tyranny of Marie St Clare and Simon Legree. These two expose the corruption and degradation which many slaveholders insisted upon executing in their household. The contrasting set of characters here highlights a different aspect of slavery which I have never read about in detail. Uncle Tom's Cabin indicates that Christianity is more fundamental to an individual's treatment of slavery than anything else. Although I've previously read about the hypocritical ways in which many masters use Christianity to their advantage, it has never been so clear that one's view of what God is or whether He is real greatly affected one's approach to slave holding.

What did you think?

Steph x

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