Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Fiction — audiobook. Read by Richard Allen. Tantor Audio, 2008. Originally published 1852. 20 hours, 8 minutes. Library copy.

Subtitled “Life Among the Lowly”, Stowe’s anti-slavery novel begins with Eliza learning her son, George, and the middle-aged Tom, who has a wife and children, have been sold by the Shelbys to pay off their debts. Eliza and Tom have been with the Shelbys since Arthur and Emily were children and the Shelbys consider themselves good, caring masters.

But Arthur ignores his earlier promise of giving Tom his freedom and Emily is unable to hold her promise to Eliza that her only child will be not be taken from her. While Eliza makes a run for freedom with her little boy across a treacherous river crossing, Tom is sold and travels on a riverboat down the Mississippi River.

Once on board, Tom is purchased by Augustine St. Clare and taken to New Orleans where he continues his friendship with Eva St. Clare over their shared Christian faith. Eva eventually becomes very ill and her deep faith in the face of death at a young age convinces her father to free Tom and her cousin Ophelia, who is against slavery, to reject all her prejudices against blacks and finally accept Topsy, who St. Clare purchased to show Ophelia that he is not biased against blacks despite owning slaves. After Eva’s death and the sudden death of her father, Tom is sold to Simon Legree and taken to a plantation somewhere in Louisiana. Tom refuses to whip the other slaves on the plantation and is punished for both his refusal and his deep faith in God by Legree.

Meanwhile, Eliza locates her husband George Harris, who ran away after his owner pressed him to set aside his marriage vows to Eliza and marry a slave on his new owner’s plantation. Their escape to Canada is thwarted by the slave hunter Tom Loker, and George pushes the man over a cliff after her and Eliza have been captured. Despite the risk to them, Eliza insists George take Tom to a nearby Quaker community for medical treatment.

According to the case of this audiobook, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War and “Stowe’s Tom is actually American literature’s first black hero, a man who suffers for refusing to obey his white oppressors”. Both statements make me glad I finally read the novel, and her didactic arguments are particularly important in framework of understanding American history.

Listening to the audiobook read by Richard Allen allowed me to appreciate the dialects employed by Stowe in her characterizations and helped distinguish between each of the characters. Given the title, it is certainly understandable why people remember Tom most vividly, but I thought the “secondary” character of George was largely exempt from many of the problems — one-dimensionality, caricature, stereotypes — that plagued the majority of the characters in this book, which clearly arise due to the edifying purpose of the novel.

As I was listening to the novel, though, I could not help but wonder if the reason the book has not stood the test of time — that is, there has not been a film adaptation since 1965 and the novel is not taught in public schools — is due to its heavy reliance upon both stereotypes about black people and Christianity. Both Uncle Tom and Eliza are presented as people pleased with slavery while under the ownership of the Shirleys. It is only after they are sold (and the Shirleys succumbed to the sin of greed) that slavery is shown to be the true evil that it is.

In addition to advocating for the end of slavery in America, Stowe’s novel puts for the idea that a strong Christian faith can help slaves overcome the violence inflicted on them and help slave owners see the errors of their way and, therefore, appears to suggest that being morally opposed to slavery comes about solely as a result of being a Christian. Given the time period in which the novel was written, it is understandable for a large number of the characters to proclaim to be Christians and, personally, I’m glad she addressed the claims on the part of slave owners that owning slaves is Christian.

But I would also argue against her equation of Christianity with moral authority, and I can see how such assertions would make it difficult for the novel to be covered in a public school such as the ones I attended. (Her advocating for freed slaves being sent to Africa rather than integration in American society in the epilogue could also be difficult to “teach” to students.) So, yes, the novel is historically important and filled with very memorable characters with, sadly, not entirely unique experiences, but the problematic stereotypes and didactic nature of the novel makes it understandable as way the novel has faded from prominence.

Others’ Thoughts:

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

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