Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or, Life among the Lowly is an 1852 anti-slavery sentimental novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which she wrote as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This novel is sometimes considered a contributing factor to the start of the American Civil War, as it brought many unpleasant aspects of slave life and the slave trade into the public awareness.
The novel’s events center around two slaves: Eliza, who attempts to flee to Canada with her son, who has just been sold, and Tom, who has also been sold, but who goes along subserviently. And while Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly is about Tom, it is much less about Eliza than it is about the responses of the other characters she comes in contact with.
One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s main themes is the triumph of Christian love over evil, and for overtness, power and sincerity, the novel’s Christian message can scarcely be topped. Eva is an obvious Christ figure, and Tom becomes one as well, but Tom is particularly noteworthy because he’s one of the most eternity-minded characters in all of literature. He endures everything, as Saint Paul said, for the sake of the gospel (which he is always quick to share) – his stated reason for remaining in cruel bondage when presented with a chance of escape is to minister to the other slaves. Because of his selfless love and inner strength, he is the book’s most admirable character.
(It’s interesting (and too bad) how the term “Uncle Tom” – now used to negatively describe a black who is subservient to whites – has become so pejorative. Stowe’s Tom is a loving, strong-willed, eternity-minded character. But lax copyright laws in the nineteenth century allowed for unauthorized diluted and altered stage versions of the story (called “Tom shows,” some of which were even pro-slavery), and many people came to know Tom as a stereotypical minstrel buffoon – certainly a great number more people saw the stage dramas than read the books.)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sentimental novel (in the literary sense), and Stowe goes for the heartstrings at every opportunity. Though the reader may not at any time, many of Stowe’s characters burst into tears at the slightest provocation. Stowe herself is a preachily-involved narrator, and nothing the author has to say is handled subtlely. While Stowe’s many characters debate various “biblical” perspectives on slavery, the narrator’s (and the author’s) views are never in doubt, and she laments to an even greater extent America’s burgeoning disregard for the Bible.
From a literary standpoint, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is largely unimpressive, and sometimes it’s a downright mess. If the novel wasn’t so socially and politically relevant, it would have been lost in the mists of time with countless other sappy, mediocre novels.
In the first place, there are about twice as many characters as there need to be, far too many of whom are named Tom, Henry, or George. And it isn’t always easy to pin down just who the main characters are, because conscientiously-developed characters leave after a few chapters, others arrive, and some characters who are obviously key to Stowe’s tale (Eliza, in particular), vanish for a hundred pages at a time, while others don’t debut until halfway through the book. Many characters are flat, one-dimensional caricatures, present only to offer a particular point of view on a topic. In doing so, Stowe brings the reader into contact with every conceivable position on slavery and human rights, but it doesn’t make for a particularly believable story.
Secondly, the book’s goings-on are equally contrived. The reader can see the hand of Stowe on every major plot point, particularly at the end, where she attempts to tie up matters with a series of heartwarming but preposterous coincidences.
But this doesn’t mean that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is horribly written; that’s simply not the case. Sometimes Stowe produces a very fine turn of phrase, and certain scenes are well done and do produce the intended emotional response. And many of the book’s moral and philosophical debates hold the reader’s interest because Stowe has clearly thought through the issues and educated herself on the various arguments and viewpoints.
So while Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not very impressive as literature, it remains important (and worth reading) because of its message and the role it played in a key era of American history.