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Uncle Tom's Cabin (Dover Thrift Editions: Classic Novels) Paperback – August 1, 2005
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Stowe's characters are powerfully and humanly realized in Uncle Tom, a majestic and heroic slave whose faith and dignity are never corrupted; Eliza and her husband, George, who elude slave catchers and eventually flee a country that condones slavery; Simon Legree, a brutal plantation owner; Little Eva, who suffers emotionally and physically from the suffering of slaves; and fun-loving Topsy, Eva's slave playmate.
Critics, scholars, and students are today revisiting this monumental work with a new objectivity, focusing on Stowe's compelling portrayal of women and the novel's theological underpinnings.
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Uncle Tom's Cabin (Dover Thrift Editions: Classic Novels)
The moving abolitionist novel that fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852
Melodramatically condemning the institution of slavery through such powerfully realized characters as Tom, Eliza, Topsy, Eva, and Simon Legree. First published more than 150 years ago, this monumental work is today being reexamined by critics, scholars, and students.
- Publisher : Dover Publications; 1st edition (August 1, 2005)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 384 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0486440281
- ISBN-13 : 978-0486440286
- Reading age : 18 years and up
- Lexile measure : 1050L
- Item Weight : 9.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.2 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #100,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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In the opening chapters, a wealthy landowner forces Mr. Shelby to sell two of his slaves, Tom and Harry, or face greater financial loss. Mr. Shelby is a slave owning white man who is kind and compassionate to his black slaves. As a benevolent slave owner, Mr. Shelby provides a good quality of life for his slaves and many of his slaves are happy working for him. Although Mr. Shelby is reluctant to sell Tom and Harry, financial troubles force him to sell two of his most valued slaves. Later that evening, Mr. Shelby explains to his wife “there is no choice between selling these two and selling everything” (Stowe, 30). Looking after his own personal interest, Mr. Shelby is a pawn in the institution of slavery selling off his most valuable slaves saving himself from financial ruin. Mr. Shelby knows that Tom and Harry will be sold at auction and more than likely be purchased by a harsh master. Complicating Mr. Shelby’s benevolent nature, selling Tom and Harry demonstrates that even a kindhearted slave owner perceives his slaves as property that can be traded and exchanged. The bottom line, business is business, and slaves come and go.
Shifting the narrative from the Shelby plantation, Tom is shackled and chained together with other slaves and transported to New Orleans like human cargo where he will be sold at auction. While reroute, Tom rescues a young girl named Eva who fell overboard. In gratitude, Tom is sold to another master named St. Clare. St. Clare is a kind man and takes good care of Tom. St. Clare provides Tom with nice clothes, a good home, and gives him the gentle duty of marketing for the St. Clare family. Tom also drives Eva around in a carriage every once in awhile and Eva and Tom form a special bond. While St. Clare is a good man and treats Tom well, the institution of slavery unveils the evil within St. Clare. St. Clare does nothing to prevent or stop slavery; he is part of the system using slaves to his benefit as a means to get the work done. St. Clare’s lassiez-faire attitude and participation in slavery makes him weak and brings out the evil within an otherwise compassionate man. St. Clare’s casual outlook of letting slavery take its own course demonstrates that at the end of the day, similar to the actions of Mr. Shelby, business is business and slavery is an institution that is too large for one man to escape.
Two years pass and it is apparent that Eva is dying. Eva’s dying wish is that Tom be released of his service and St. Clare agrees. Unfortunately, Eva passes away and St. Clare is fatally wounded breaking up a bar fight and there is no written record of Tom’s freedom (Stowe, 270). Mrs. St. Clare sees nothing wrong with slavery and sends Tom off to auction exclaiming to Ophelia that “Tom is one of the most valuable servants on the [plantation]” (Stowe, 275). While at the slave auction, Tom is treated harshly. His mouth is forced open, and his clothes ripped from his body so that he could be inspected, similar to the purchase of cattle before the slaughter. Seeking fortune in the slave trade and cotton production, Tom is purchased by a harsh man named Legree. This is important because even with the death of St Clare Tom is not considered free. Tom is the property of St. Clare’s wife and is sold back into slavery, reiterating that slaves are considered chattel that can be bought and sold.
Comparatively well off under Mr. Shelby and St. Clare, Tom slips from a decent life to an abusive one under his third and final master, Legree. From the moment we meet Legree we know that he is a harsh man. Knowing that Tom is religious, Legree yells at Tom demanding Tom give up his religion saying, “I’m your church now! You understand, you’ve got to be as I say” (Stowe, 286). A broad and domineering man, Legree breaks his slaves quickly letting them know who is boss what to expect. Compared to Mr. Shelby and St. Clare, Legree is an awful human being and a typical slave owner having no respect for his slaves. Legree views slaves as cheap labor meant to be controlled working his slaves to death. Legree dislikes Tom’s mild attitude and hopes to break his spirit before they arrive at the plantation. Tom preserves his honest; kindly manner despite how many times Legree beats him. Of Tom’s three masters, Legree is the most evil. A cruel man, Legree epitomizes the brutality of a slave master and embodies complete control and power over other individuals. Unchecked, Legree’s coarse morals are terrifying and exemplify everything that is wrong with slavery and why the institution needs to be abolished.
Tom’s situation goes from bad to worse as he is loaded on a wagon and chained together with other slaves. They travel along a wild and forsaken road through a series of desolate woods towards Legree’s neglected plantation that is stopped up by boards and shutters hanging by a single hinge (Stowe, 290-293). Essentially, Tom is taken to a place where escape is impossible. The remote location and uncomfortable crumbling neglect of Legree’s plantation suggests that Tom is in the hands of a truly evil and cruel master. Legree’s decrepit plantation is an outward manifestation of his inner cruelty. If Legree disregards his home as Stowe descriptively narrates, one can only image how harsh and unjust he will treat his slaves.
An efficient laborer, Tom gets caught helping out one of the women by putting extra cotton in her bag by a principal slave in authority and is told to beat her as punishment. Tom refuses and Legree beats Tom saying, “now will ye tell me ye can’t do it?” (Stowe, 302). Tom refuses a second time but is “willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do” (Stowe, 302). This is significant exhibiting how slave owners used violence to pit slave against slave so that masters would always know what was going on around the plantation. This also expresses the power and authority slave masters, and often times other slaves, had over those working the fields. Slavery is about the influence of power and control over another human being. The greater the power, the greater the control; and increased control over slaves leads to more efficient workers and greater profit.
Direct actions from slave owners towards their slaves were evil; however, Stowe brings to light the inhuman disintegration of families caused by slave owners buying and selling their slaves like property. It was common for slave families to be separated, sold off, and to never see each other again. Family separation is an evil caused by the institution of slavery and Stowe provides many examples where families are separated, and would rather die then continue a life of servitude. Seeking freedom, Eliza escapes the horrors of the south with her young child around her neck braving the icy and treacherous water of the Ohio River (Stowe, 51-53). This is a sign that Eliza would rather face death then continue to be enslaved. Committing infanticide, Cassie murders her young child rather than have him live a life of slavery, and a woman who found out that her child was sold to another master, jumps off the side of a boat near Louisville committing suicide rather than live apart from her baby (Stowe, 310-311; 110-111). When Tom is auctioned to Legree, the mother and daughter pair of Susan and Emmeline are separated when Susan’s master is outbid for Susan’s daughter Emmeline (Stowe, 283-284). Creating a sphere of family life was an important way for slaves to cope with the brutality of slavery and many slave families lived in perpetual fear of having their family units broken apart. Breaking up families shows how the institution of slavery leaves parents and children with little hope, and in most circumstances death is preferred over living a life of servitude. Family disintegration is another harsh reality of the evil brought about through slavery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a comprehensive assessment of American slavery. Stowe argues fundamentally that everyone is a human being; everyone deserves equal rights, and no one should be a slave to someone else. Although slavery existed for many centuries in many civilizations, American slavery was extreme. Exposing the extreme evils of slavery, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a story about the pursuit of respect and freedom inspiring a nation to change and denounce the evils of slavery.
Sometimes conflated to be the story of one African-American family (that of Tom) and evil slaveowner Simon Legree, the book actually follows two heroic leading characters from separate families - the title character of field slave Uncle Tom and house slave Eliza. As the book begins, both are property of relatively benign master George Shelby in Kentucky. Unspecified economic troubles force Shelby to sell some of his "stock" - he chooses his two most valuable properties - the reliable and loyal Tom and Eliza's young son Harry. The buyer has no interest in Eliza and Harry as a package. Eliza learns of the transaction and plans her and Harry's escape, a courageous journey along the Underground Railroad to Canada. Tom, a deeply spiritual man, accepts his sale as God's will and leaves his family for an almost certainly more difficult live further south.
During the journey, Tom's decency improves his lot. After befriending and rescuing a young girl from drowning on a riverboat, he's resold to the girl's father - well-to-do gentleman Augustine St. Clare, from New Orleans. St. Clare accepts the practical "necessity" for slavery while being uncomfortable with its moral implications, a discomfort that he reflects in his hands off treatment of his slaves.
Tom becomes a valued member of the St. Clare household and a Christian soulmate to the sickly daughter Eva, the embodiment of a "pure" Christian view of evils of slavery. She convinces her father (with a dying wish) to free Tom, but before the paperwork can be completed, St. Clare is killed in an accident. St. Clare's callous wife Marie takes control of his estate including the slaves and promptly sells Tom a short ways back up the river to the dreaded Legree, a cotton planter in north Louisiana.
As St. Clare is probably about the most benign slaveowner imaginable, Legree is the most wicked, in fact, probably one of the most infamous villains in literary history, though he only appears in about the last quarter of the book. He envisions Tom as a potential overseer, but Tom's inherent kindness of spirit won't permit him to perform some of the key duties of that position, most importantly whipping the other slaves. The reluctance eventually costs Tom his life, but his nobility and strong Christian faith allow him to accept his fate with his usual dignity, believing that he's being delivered into a better life with Jesus in heaven.
In recent years, the character of Tom has drawn criticism, especially in the young African-American community, as a so-called collaborator with slaveowners. I see him as a more heroic and noble character along the lines of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who maintained his soul and refused to resort to violence. The strength of Tom's spirit, while costing him his earthly life, rescues his soul, and ultimately conquers Legree's soul. As a counterpart to Tom, Stowe also includes the character of George, husband of Eliza, who engineers his family's escape and emigration. While Stowe glories in Tom's moral courage, she in no way denigrates George's approach to his predicament.
Stowe often steps back from the story to preach on a particular evil of slavery (the breaking up of African-American families being foremost), the hypocrisy of white Christians, who find justification for slavery in the Bible of all places, and on the true Christian message that all human beings are equal in God's sight and deserving to pursue their own destinies freely. She also rebuts anticipated criticism of the story that "very few" slaveowners acted like Legree, asking how many owners who treat their mechanical farm equipment better than their human slaves are "too many." Of course, her answer is "one".
As well as being an unrelenting condemnation of slavery, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is to this non-Christian one of the most compelling arguments for Christianity, at least the version practiced by Eva and Tom, I've ever read. For each, their faith provides a moral basis for kind action and the strength to deal with adversity. Many of Jesus' teachings about treatment of our fellow men are put into understandable contexts.
Stowe has been criticized for the romantic and somewhat melodramatic tone of the book, but she knew for whom she was writing - the white women of 19th century America, for whom the stories of families torn asunder - husbands and wives separated; children taken from their mothers - would resonate at a deep level - deep enough for them to convince their husbands to reject the status quo and do something about abolishing the heinous institution of slavery.
Uneven progress over the last 150 years has thoroughly discredited slavery as a sad chapter in American history, though we are left with vestiges of racial prejudice and the ongoing struggle for equal rights for African-Americans. That said, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" still has great value for modern readers as it replaces the idea of slavery as an abstract historical evil with vivid evidence of its human dimensions and costs.
Five epic stars for all readers.
Top reviews from other countries
Many despicable things have happened at the hands of so-called ‘civilised’ nations and Uncle Tom’s Cabin pulls no punches in illustrating the dreadful and barbaric acts of bygone years, whilst comparing the enormous power for good a truly Christian heart can have.
If reading this can help us determine to treat all people with kindness, charity and compassion, the world will be a happier and more peaceful place and Harriett Beecher Stowe will have done us all a great service.
His is how you are made to feel, to think, to feel ashamed.
I’m unashamed to have been under Beecher Stowe’s capable thumb, buffeted with emotions, and made to think more about the North/South divide, which we think of as something so simple in the U.K.
Definitely deserving its status as a classic.