Discussion Post: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Welcome to the Uncle Tom’s Cabin discussion post! Remember, those interested in entering the drawing for the beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic must participate in at least one discussion before December 11th. Your last chance to do so will be next week, when we’ll be discussing The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (aka Marian Evans).
Ann Douglas argues in her introduction to the Penguin edition that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is ‘profoundly feminist.’ In what ways do women display their power in this novel? How much power do they have in comparison to the men?
This is SUCH a feminist novel! First of all, from the very beginning the reader is told that Mrs. Shelby is the true force behind the running of the plantation Tom and Eliza are from, and the powerful women, both black and white, continue to come out from the woodwork at every opportunity.
Stowe is, in several ways, markedly Victorian in her feminism. By that, I mean that her women tend to show their power in two ways: through religion and through food. Eliza is said to be a perfect Christian, even bringing her rather bitter and anti-theistic husband into the fold (he credits her solely for his Christianity, with the possible suggestion that her worships her above Christ). Eva too is able to convert almost all of the slaves in her father’s keeping to Christianity — of course, keep in mind this is 19th century England and Christianity is synonymous with morality and the Right Way to Do Things.
Additionally, the women are the ones in charge of food, suggesting that they are the physical and spiritual nourishers of the characters in the novel. Notedly, Quakeresses Ruth and Rachel put out an enormous amount of food for George and Eliza, and one’s goodness seems to be defined by one’s readiness to feed others. As the women have the power, then, to bring the men closer to God, as well as to provide physical well-being through food, it seems as though women have more de facto power, even if the men are legally superior.
Harriet Beecher Stowe has been accused of being racist, portraying her African-American in exaggeratedly passive and stereotypical ways. Is this true, in your opinion? Is it fair to call her racist considering this work’s historical context?
This is a tough question, answering it as I must from the perspective of a 20th-century middle class white person. Stowe has a tendency to make her more sympathetic and stronger characters whiter, which bothers me a great deal — both George and Eliza can and do pass for white, and Cassy and Emmeline are also quadroon. Stowe’s blacker characters, such as Aunt Chloe and Uncle Tom, tend to be drawn in more exaggerated ways.
However, there was a whole social strata regarding slaves in the antebellum South which I don’t understand and that I have a feeling she is portraying very accurately. Most of the exaggeration is in accent — Tom and Chloe are field servants, and therefore have a very strong African-American dialect, whereas Eliza and George have been raised as house servants and made to speak more like the people they serve.
What bothers me more is that Stowe’s solution to the slave problem is “send ’em back to Africa!” While certainly a noble sentiment the way she describes how former slaves can return to their homeland and build a republic, it smacks of just wanting to be rid of the problem. Additionally, she expects this nation of former slaves to be Christian, which smacks of religious colonialism. But if this is her only flaw, I’d say she was doing well for her time.
Stowe was the daughter of a minister and surrounded by religious leaders her whole life. However, she struggled with the question of whether slaves and former slaves could accept a Christianity which justified slavery by quoting Scripture, and this tension comes out in her work. Does she resolve this issue within her novel, and if so, how?
I didn’t feel as though the issue was resolved, but that might just be me. Poor George is still struggling fiercely with a religion that could justify the evils he’s borne, though Eliza and Tom and Topsy seem to see Christianity as a sort of salvation. The kindest masters appear to be true Christians, which helps with the problem, I suppose.
Still, the slaves Stowe portrays as Christians appear to have a sort of blind, unquestioning, saint-like faith which seems to survive only by sheer willpower. George and St. Clare, the most rational men in the novel and the most opposed to slavery, are also the good characters with the hardest time accepting Christianity, because they simply cannot reconcile it with the state of the South. They only accept Christian beliefs for the sake of a beloved wife, mother, or daughter, rather than on their own.