“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” 19th-21st Century American Literature

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also known as “Life With the Lowly,” is an anti-slavery satirical novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1860. The American theoretical literature was responsible for setting the groundwork for the civil war sparked by Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Stowe was a quiet Connecticut native who later served as a tutor at the Hartford Female Seminary. She was a fervent and committed abolitionist, and her religious upbringing influenced much of her literary works. The novel is about Uncle Tom, a long-suffering African-American slave who is at the forefront of the racial integration movement and serves as the story’s starting point. The novel is quite sentimental and subtle in the way it reflects reality as it was back then and applies the Reformation themes and imageries. This story went to become the best-selling novel of the 19th century and was acclaimed as the second best-selling book following the Bible (van Os 5).

This paper will demonstrate the analysis of literary forms, imagery, genre, characters, and themes present in the book and how they reflected on the ideologies of that time. It will also illustrate the meanings of the text and how it also impacted its audience at a contextual level.

To begin with, the genre of this book is entirely fictional though based on a true account of reality. The author chooses a cast to depict her major themes that were the reality during the days she lived, but the encounters were fictional as far as the characters were concerned.

Secondly, having been born during the slavery era, Stowe was well-informed of the situation on the ground regarding the inequality of races and genders as was the norm then. This common situation compelled her to write a literary work that had themes concerning the social injustices evident in the society she lived in. The first theme that is dominant in her novel is slavery. This was the subordination of other non-white races to the white race to serve as caretakers and laborers in their enterprises. Slavery was a tool of social dehumanization that left a trail of horrors in its wake. Black people were the primary subscribers to this trade and were treated as the property of their masters; they were often beaten as a form of punishment, raped to appease their masters, and also sold out to other white supremacist slave traders as payment for their master’s debts. This situation led Stowe to develop the character Uncle Tom who suffers the same fate as any other black man would have undergone. Stowe uses this character to bring to light the unfair treatment and the actual reality of slavery as it was unknown to those who never suffered it. She depicts Uncle Tom as a relatively honest man and of good personality, but those positive traits do not save him from being treated as a slave and being sold. She communicates the fact that the issue of slavery was more than discriminative – it was dehumanizing.

Another theme that is equally explored in this book is the race issue. Race segregation has been a contentious problem in the present times and it goes all the way back to the 1860s (Spiller 42). Stowe, as mentioned, lived during the times when racial segregation was real and was the order of the day. The society was divided into two groups: the white supremacists and the people of color. The former class considered themselves as superior while the other group was found to be inferior. That classification meant that even basic human services were not equally offered and many privileges were given to the whites and not the blacks. This cruel reality compelled Stowe to use this theme to depict her main characters and how they struggle against their white masters to live. She strives in her way to describe the sufferings of the common black man.

The other theme that is also presented is religion. It was prevalent during these times due to the harsh social political and economic struggles that the black communities lived in, as seeking reprieve in religion is a way to escape ordinary daily suffering. Therefore, Stowe, as a staunch abolitionist, used her religious muscle to describe how prayer can be a formidable tool to fighting the monster of slavery and racial segregation. She depicts her main character Uncle Tom as a Christian and faithful person who suffers the full stretch of slavery, but in his way, can still propagate his faith and change the attitudes of people like Mrs. Ophelia and Eva (Stowe 42). It was also evident that much of the charismatic religion-based churches were formed mainly by the black communities, they created the foundations that were fundamental towards human slavery and racism liberation movements (Hamilton 58).

Moreover, this book, apart from portraying and bring to light the reality of the African-American person in the then slavery and racism infested society, also employed the use of imagery and symbolism to effaceable communicate and concretize Stowe’s message. Literature works go hand in hand with the use of symbols and metaphors to effectively bring to context and identify with the audience reading it (Bennett 23). Stowe uses the cabin as her prominent symbol. Notice that the novel is not only referred to as “Uncle Tom,” but as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin;” this demonstrates that insistence is in the cabin to which Uncle Tom is an attachment. It was the norm then that wealthy people lived in magnificent houses in cities, but the ordinary folk and more so the slaves or the black community lived in cabins (Gates 34). They were relatively small shelters that were meant to house, but did not to offer any homily privileges. So the choice of accommodation for Uncle Tom was very contextual to depict the humble and diminished dignity of the black man.

Hair is also another symbol that has been used in the novel. It was prevalent during the Victorian era for people to keep hair locks of their faithful departed as part of keeping their memory (Brown 10). Therefore, in this novel, to depict that cultural norm, Stowe presents Eva who asks Mrs. Ophelia to cut off her hair lock and distribute it to the other slaves as part of sharing her memory. Hair also had a sexual connotation to it. The cutting and keeping or distribution of hair from a deceased woman was part of symbolically sharing out her fertility and productivity to those who inherited her hair (Brown et al. 12). So Stowe uses those cultural ideas to depict how Eva’s civil fight continues and remains productive even to those who inherit her hair locks.

Another important symbol is the flowers. Flowers have a contemporary connotation of depicting life and propagating aspects of something to which they are related to (Smagorinsky 55). This novel captures that reality very well, as it demonstrates how regardless of the efforts of whites i.e. Mr. Simon and George to stop the revolts that emerge in their black back yards, the struggle continues. Just as a flower is delicate, if it happens to grow on a piece of soil, it is indicative that there are productive elements. Therefore, even as the key protagonists to this anti-slave struggle are killed (Uncle Tom), the struggle continues as long as the flowers grow around Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

A dollar is also another symbol illustrated in this novel. It was the norm then that slaves were bought and sold as common goods to their master, either to gain funds or to repay debts. These transactions in America were done under the monetary dollar. Therefore, the use of a dollar that George Shelby gives to Uncle Tom after he is whisked away by the slave trader was symbolic of him purchasing his freedom. Freedom then was not a right guaranteed to all Americans as it later became with the passing of the 13th amendment that abolished slavery (Foner 45). To the black it was a commodity that one had to work and save a lot of money for and then purchase. It was this reality that Stowe sought to depict in line with the fundamentals that the white people took for granted the very life of the blacks.

Moreover, Stowe, who was a well-versed teacher and a literature enthusiast, knew too well for the entire black struggle to fall into perfect shape and take form, she had to include characters that were indicative of those themes. To begin with, her choice of names for the characters was quite indicative and pragmatic. For the black characters, she chose names that were common in her days within those respective groups. For instance, Tom was a common name within the black community and, hence, “Uncle Tom” fitted the best depiction of a black person of respect and dignity. On the contrary, she also used the names George Shelby and Chloe to represent the white supremacists (Williams 56). Those names were indicative of the white race and so the audience would be at a vantage point of creating a mental picture of a white and possibly mean person that they know.

She also presented the characters in a dualistic nature by introducing a specific theme and for showing a character that propagated actions contrary to that theme. In a sense, for each topic, she depicted both protagonists and antagonists. For instance, in the slavery theme she presented Uncle Tom on one side versus George Shelby on the other hand. For the idea of religion and faith, she introduced Uncle Tom and Mrs. Ophelia. In short, she had a dualism of character personification for each of her ideas and seemed to balance the presence or evil with good and vice versa.

She also introduced a new twist in her works that were unique. She presents an irony in her expression of the outcomes of the black struggle. As mentioned previously, she used the theme of religion to demonstrate how it can be a formidable tool towards the abolishment of the slave trade. However, she at the same time depicts Uncle Tom as a Christian and a relatively religious person who undergoes suffering as any other black person would have during those days. Hoping that since he is prayerful, his end would be victorious, Stowe makes a twist in the story by changing the predicted course of the story to have Uncle Tom sold to Mr. Simon, another slave trader, where he suffers much harsher fate and is eventually killed in horrifying circumstances. It would have been the expectation of the reader that Uncle Tom would have finally overcome his sufferings just as many other characters that had been portrayed by Stowe within the story achieved success through the power of prayer. But the character that is the center of the entire story ends up dead. That is ironic, considering the already set prayer remuneration precedent.

Finally, having gone through this book, it is noticeable that the message of the author was well-communicated and that she used all literature tools at her disposal to deliver her message to the world. Her primary insistence was that the societies must change. Human beings must go beyond perceiving each other as commodities either superior or inferior and it was time for social evils and injustices to come to an end. It was time for those crimes that were hidden from the rest of the world to be made known and for the black community to keep up its struggle for liberation. It is a text that offers hope for the marginalized and those in dire life circumstances.

Works Cited

Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. Routledge, 2016.

Brown, Daniel. Representing Realists in Victorian Literature and Criticism. Springer, 2016.

Foner, Eric. “Abraham Lincoln, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the Problem of Freedom.” Geo. JL & Pub. Pol’y 15, 2017, pp. 59.

Gates Jr, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Hamilton, Charles V., and Kwame Ture. Black Power: Politics of Liberation in America. Vintage, 2011.

Smagorinsky, Peter. “The Territory of Literature.” English Education, vol. 48, no. 2, 2016, pp. 109.

Spiller, Robert Ernest. The Cycle of American Literature: An Essay in Historical Criticism. Vol. 643. Macmillan, 1955.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and Charles Edward Stowe. Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Compiled from Her Letters and Journals. S. Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1889.

Van Os, Marleen. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Woman’s Struggle against Slavery.” Yapp, vol. 1, 2013, pp. 122.

Williams, Andreá N. “Recovering Black Women Writers in Periodical Archives.” American Periodicals: A Journal of History & Criticism, vol. 27, no. 1, 2017, pp. 25-28.

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