Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Book Description:
Uncle Tom is a high-minded, devoutly Christian black slave to a kind family, the Shelby's. Beset by financial difficulties, the Shelby's sell Tom to a slave trader. Young George Shelby promises to someday redeem him. The story relates Uncle Tom s trials, suffering, and religious fortitude. Uncle Tom s Cabin was revolutionary in 1852 for its passionate indictment of slavery and for its presentation of Tom, a man of humanity, as the first black hero in American fiction. It became an overnight sensation and was hailed by Tolstoy as one of the greatest productions of the human mind. It remains a shocking, controversial, and powerful work, exposing the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward slavery and documenting in heart-rending detail the tragic breakup of black families.
My thoughts:
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a book that I have never read and it was only in the last few years as I became more serious in my reading that it was a book I needed to read. But...I didn't want to read because I knew it would be a difficult and challenging read considering the topic of the book.

I had three things that propelled me into reading this story: My son started reading it for one of his literature book this year, it was on the Reading to Know Book Club list, and then to top it all off I found a copy at Goodwill for the right price. It took me a while to get through the first half of the book, and so to help myself get through the book I ended up reading and listening to it picking up on the audio where I had left off in the book and vice versa. I don't believe I have ever done this before, but it helped immensely.

I haven't done a lot of research on the background of Uncle Tom's Cabin , but I'm just going to put down a few (ha, ha, it is actually an epistle!) of my thoughts about some of the characters and the author. Please note that this does contain some spoilers, so if you haven't read the book I highly recommend you run and get yourself a copy and dig in immediately!

At the beginning of the book when we first meet Tom we also meet the Shelby family. The exchange between Haley and Mr. Shelby really made my stomach sick and I found it hard for a while to pick up the book after that. I felt in the Shelby's are portrayed as "good" slave owners that took care of their slaves, though Mrs. Shelby vocally objects to it when she find out that Tom and Harry have been sold.

"This is God's curse on slavery!--a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!--a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours,--I always felt it was,--I always thought so when I was girl,--I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over,--I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom,--fool that I was!" p. 44
George and Eliza Harris are the slaves that actually make it to freedom. Their story seems to represent the slaves that did make it to freedom and all the people that took them in and hid them and helped them to escape to freedom in Canada. George passionately express the desire of every man--freedom!

After Tom leaves the farm with Haley he meets the little girl, Eva, which result in him being bought by her father, Augustine St. Clare. Eva is the darling of her papa, and soon has Tom as her confidant and friend. Eva as an innocent child loves all thing pure and right. Eva, though innocent, is bothered by the horrible treatment of the slaves, even though the slaves in her house are treated well. She seems to know that there is something morally wrong with slavery and before she dies she begs her papa to find a way to persuade people to abolish slavery. Eva's love for Jesus shines through when her dying request to their slaves to think about their souls and to become Christians.

At the St. Clare house we are also introduced to Miss Ophelia, a cousin of St. Clare, who comes from the north to help run his house. Miss Ophelia, who of course opposes slavery, is thrown into the running of the household which consists of quite a few selfish and lazy slaves. She is ultimately tested in her theory of educating the African-American when she receives as a gift from St. Clare, Topsy, a young slave girl. Topsy becomes a challenge to Miss Ophelia, who struggles to make the young girl behave. She refuses to send her out to be beaten, but Topsy claims that is the only thing that will make her behave. One day she is challenged in her "beliefs" on slavery, when Eva takes Topsy aside and show her love. Miss Ophelia learns that in her own way she wasn't any better than those around her due to her inability to look beyond the girl's skin color and love her for who she was.

I have to say beside Uncle Tom, I found Augustine St. Clare to be a fascinating character and one I really liked. He seemed to represent the people who didn't care for slavery as a whole, but wouldn't do anything about it. Caught in an unhappy marriage to his wife, Marie (a truly selfish woman), he enjoys pleasure more than work, and the apple of his eye is his daughter, Eva. He also has a very callous attitude toward God, but don't let that fool you, since he was well versed in the scriptures and teachings of the Bible. It was amazing to see how much Tom cared for him and pleaded for his soul many times, which came to fruition at the end of St. Clare's life.

After St. Clare's death, we are then introduced to Simon Legree, the man who becomes Tom's next owner. Legree seems to represents the cruel slave owner and the ugliness of mankind when man chooses despise God. Legree shows no mercy and is not bothered to kill a person when he desires. Tom stands up to him many times and ultimately loses his life due to his severe treatment caused by Legree's hand.

At Legree's plantation Tom meets Cassy, Legree's mistress/slave. Even though a slave and not on the best of term with Legree, she still seems to hold a power of Legree. When Tom is whipped, Cassy comes to his cabin and tends to his wounds. While there she shares her heartbreaking story including her children that were sold and of her baby which she smothered because she couldn't bear to lose a another child being sold. Cassy's story reveals a reoccurring theme that Stowe portrays in the book--families being torn apart through wives, husbands, and children being sold and never seeing each other again.

"Oh Em!" said Cassy, "I've hungered for my children, and thirsted for them, and my eyes fail with longing for them! Here! here!" she said, striking her breast, "it's all desolate, all empty! If God would give me back my children, then I could pray!" p. 501

The last character I want to mention is Uncle Tom--the man who at all times kept God first. Who at all times shared the love of Jesus with those around him. Who at all times told people about Jesus' ultimate sacrifice for their sins. Who at all times went to the Lord with his burdens. Who at all times forgave as Christ forgave. He even gave up his life for his friends--like Christ. I honestly don't think I put into words the great character that was portrayed by Tom.

I think this conversation with his wife, Chloe, gives a small sample of his faith and trust in God. Chloe is speaking first:

"S'pose we must be resigned; but, O Lord! how ken I? If I know'd anything whar you's goin', or how they'd sarve you! Missis says she'll try and 'deem ye, in a year or two; but Lor! Norbody never comes up that goes down thar! They kills 'em! I've hearn 'em tell how dey works 'em up on dem ar plantations."

"There'll be the same God there, Chloe, that here is here."

"Well, said Aunt Chloe, 's'pose dere will; but de Lord lets drefful things happen, sometimes. I don't seem to get no comfort dat way."

"I'm in the Lord's hands," said Tom; "nothing' can go no furder than he lets it;--and thar's one thing I can thank him for. It's me that sold and going down, and not your nur the chil'en. Here you're safe;--what comes will come only on me; and the Lord, he'll help me,--I know he will." p. 117

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a remarkable story! I know I wouldn't have been brave enough to write such a book that not only challenged slavery, but challenged those that opposed slavery. I'm sure that not all her descriptions of the African-Americans were entirely accurate, but I didn't find that detracting in the least. Even though this is a very serious story, it has quite a bit of humor rolled up into it.  I also got a kick out her moments of what I would call "preaching" and many a time she came out with both guns loaded!

Overall, I found Uncle Tom's Cabin a read that makes me ask myself some hard questions. If I had lived in the south during that period what would my beliefs have been? Would I be like Mrs. Shelby--accepting it by trying do better for my slaves than the typical slave owner while all the while I'm fighting my personal convictions? Or would I be like St Clare's wife Marie--having the opinion that slaves are for my convenience and if they don't behave they must be beaten to submit. That is the way it is done. Or would I be like St. Clare--disagree with slavery on principle, but not willing to make any ripples in my life by freeing my own slaves and encouraging other's to do so also? Or maybe I would be like Miss Ophelia--against slavery, yet not able to love the slaves as people? Or what if I had been a slave--would I be like Uncle Tom and believe in God no matter what happened to me? Would I stand up for wrong or protect my friends even if it cost me my life?

This is a book written for a different generation and time, but don't let that fool you into thinking that it isn't relevant for today's world. Even today there are lessons to be learned from Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Reading to Know - Book Club


  1. Great review, Beth! I don't know what I would have done in that time. I can understand not liking it but thinking it's too big a thing to fight. I hope I'd be like the folks who refused to keep slaves and helped them escape.

    I thought St. Clare brought up some good points about the difficulties that would be involved when the slaves were freed - the need for jobs and education. That made me wonder exactly what did happen to them after the Civil War, but I haven't read up on that yet.

  2. Good review. One does wonder what we would have done. I'm reading a book right now called They Thought They Were Free, which is about ordinary Germans that went along with the Nazis, and it similarly asks whether any of us could or would have done differently.

    Barbara, I heartily recommend that you locate Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery. We often hear about the Civil Rights movement, but rarely about the struggles of the late 1800s. Washington truly made a difference, and his story is fascinating.

  3. Reading your review makes me think that you'd really like to read Tim's additional thoughts! I'd follow his link as he addresses a few topics you hit on - particularly about Stowe and her bravery. You are right - she was brave!

    OH how I *detested* the marriage of St. Claire and Marie. That was so very miserable.

    Agreed that this book is still entirely relevant for today's society and I'm so glad that Barbara picked it so that we could launch into it. (And I'm also glad that I wasn't the only one who struggled through the first half!) ;)

  4. This was a book that I'd wanted to read for a long time and finally picked up last year for a classics challenge. I was surprised by how readable it was. Your review is great- there are so many relevant messages in the book. It's a very worthwhile read.



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