‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Where to start with this one? If I had to sum it up in one sentence, I would say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel entrenched in its 19th Century context and whilst I am sure it was progressive at the time, in the present it primarily serves as a reminder of just how problematic the white abolitionist movement was.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was just how patronising it is. I was somewhat prepared for this – as a student of English Literature, it is not a text that has gone unreferenced – but it still disturbed me. Despite her protestations that she believe slaves are humans (unlike a shamefully large portion of peers), Beecher Stowe continually insinuates that they are less than their white masters. There is an uncomfortable revelry in the subservience and unwavering obedience of Uncle Tom that seeps throughout the novel and made my skin crawl. Rather than view slaves as true equals, Beecher Stowe seems to think of them as on the same level as infants, with the same level of intelligence and inability to control their emotions. This portrayal of African Americans as overly emotional was one trope that was difficult to stomach. It reeks too much of the pro-slavery argument that slaves overreacted to their treatment.

Beecher Stowe’s basic and frankly offensive opinion on the nature of slaves means that, as with the infants she likens them too, she often suggests that only ‘good’, Christian slaves are worthy of freedom. This explains why her titular character is obedient and doggedly Christian, able to forgive every master he has despite their brutality. Sure, the ‘good’ slave stereotype probably won around some white Americans at the time. But the fact that only these ‘noble’, forgiving slaves are used to support abolition is simply not ok. Misbehaviour or immorality in a person does not justify their ownership by another human being.

Finally, to the white characters of the novel. The ones that were not outrightly brutal, those that were apparently tormented about the idea of slavery were the ones that troubled me the most. Little frustrates me more than the ‘good master’ character, who is shown treating his slaves with basic human decency, is troubled over his slaveholding yet does nothing about it and is praised for all this. A base level of care and a bit of resistance to the peculiar institution does not excuse your part in it. That is why Beecher Stowe and all her African American characters’ worship of St Clare and his daughter Eva riled me. Eva’s character in particular angered me; how it was inevitable that every slave in the house adored her and thought her an angel because of her perfect whiteness and purity. Compare this to the thinly veiled disgust at the caricature Topsy, who is dark-skinned, ugly and crass, and it is clear that Beecher Stowe was not as benevolent to African Americans as she thought she was.

Of course, I read this book in 2017, when perceptions of slavery and racism have altered (though perhaps not as much as they should have). At the time, I am sure this was a radical novel and I cannot begrudge how it brought the abolitionist movement to the fore. However, that did not prevent me from feeling distinctly uncomfortable and frequently frustrated whilst reading it. I am glad it is over.

N.B. If you want to a better read about slavery and abolition, I would recommend Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass by Fredrick Douglass, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.

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