Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel (1852) is a complex and hyper-melodramatic chronicle of slaves and slave owners in the decades before the Civil War.
The true force of the novel lies in its dramatizations of the impact of slavery on both the slaves and their owners, especially those owners who have qualms about the practice but lack the moral resolve to address act on them.
Most of the characters are stereotypes: Little Eva, Simon Legree, Uncle Tom, Topsy, Chloe. The writing is florid and overwrought and often sentimental but the human story has force and energy, and we care about what happens.
Southerners claimed not to like the book because Stowe, who knew “nothing” about the South, did an injustice to slave-owners by impugning their honor with her descriptions of the indignities of slavery: in the course of the novel, she covers most of those indignities, which involve family members broken up and sold apart from one another, broken promises by owners, sexual exploitation of young woman, cruel beatings, and so on. Stowe distinguishes between various kinds of slave-owners—those who believe in the institution but are kind to their slaves, those who have doubts about slavery but are too cowardly to act on them, those who believe that slavery gives them license to do whatever they wish with their slaves, and those who are malignantly evil, like Simon Legree. She excuses none of these slave owners. She also takes issue with Northerners who turn their backs to slavery or who in one way or the other conspire in allowing it.
Despite her clear belief that slaves are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, she invokes numerous stereotypes in depicting them: heavy dialect, shallow thinking, easily tempted, superstitious. She clearly favors those slaves of mixed ancestry: they are more intelligent, more attractive, and more capable of managing their own affairs than slaves with a purely African genealogy.
Stowe sees Christianity as the way that slaves can survive and endure the cruelties of perpetual bondage. She doesn’t favor social solutions, though at one point she hints at the possibility that slaves will rise up against their owners. Uncle Tom, the novel’s paragon of loyalty, human kindness, and piety, remains loyal to all his owners—the one who sells him away, the one who makes the promise to emancipate him but fails to do so before dying, and the one who has him beaten to death. Tom tells Simon Legree that he will be a loyal slave but that he will disobey commands to inflict cruelty on another human being. Tom never tries to run away, even when he’s being mistreated. He counsels other slaves, such as Cassie, Legree’s former lover, not to act against him. When he knows he may be beaten to death for failing to submit to Legree, his faith that he will be leaving one life for another better one consoles him. Stowe holds up Christian faith and piety as the consolation that allows believing slaves to accept the life of pain and servitude.
The African Americans who survive to the end of the novel decide to go to Africa, to Liberia, to work among the African peoples there. This seems to be Stowe’s concession that the United States in the 1850s was not ready for freed slaves to live alongside white Americans. It must also be her concession that she is far more comfortable with the concept of human rights for slaves than she is with the realities.
Whatever faults it may have as literature, few novels can equal the power and moral intensity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.