Caroline's Reviews > Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Oct 22, 12

bookshelves: classics
Read from September 11 to 21, 2012

** spoiler alert ** Firstly, I should admit that my only knowledge of Uncle Tom's Cabin was that it was important re. abolition and the Civil War and what I gleaned from The King and I ... so, for a start I was surprised at Eliza's story-line being so secondary to Tom's! Overall though, I enjoyed the story - until the very end.

Tom dying I was alright with. I would, in fact, have been annoyed if it had all wrapped up nicely for him and, to be honest, was kind of annoyed that George Shelby even managed to track him down (would that ever really have been possible?!), much less that he conveniently arrived five minutes before Tom's death.

Eliza, George, Cassy and Madame de Thoux, however took it all a step too far. I mean, seriously. Tom knows Eliza and gets sold round and round and happens to end up on the same plantation as her long-lost mother (who was also sold round and round)?! And not only that, but Cassy ends up on the same boat and almost under the protection of George Shelby whose father owned Eliza and in the cabin next to Eliza's husband's sister?! I understand that it was nice to have some happiness at the end of the novel and I understand that some slave families must have managed to reunite, but this stretched it to a ridiculous extent. The only way it would have been more contrived would have been if George's sister had been younger than him and turned out to be Emmeline. And that would only have been marginally more ridiculous.

The last three chapters' sermonising I also could have done without, although I realise that when the book was written they were designed to convince people that there was an option other than slavery and to set out the facts as to how well former slaves could do for themselves etc. etc. Obviously, most of it was blah blah to me as having been born in this age things such as slavery or one race being unable to do well is an alien concept to me. I thought perhaps it might be better if it was re-edited to move these parts to more of an epilogue, rather than having them listed as just further chapters... but then I thought that that would possibly have made me less likely to read them, so I finished un-decided about them. I suppose it's better that they're there to get the book as a whole as it was intended, but coming at the end of a story that kept me hooked for 400+ pages it was a bit of a anti-climatic ending.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of the whole book for me however and one that I probably should have realised would have been there was Stowe's clear belief that, while slavery was bad, the "Africans" were very much an "other" and that the best option was to educate them (in a western, Anglo-Saxon manner, of course) and then send them on their way to Liberia to educate the rest of Africa (Topsy being the prime example of this). The fact that all the liberated characters either don't know what to do with their freedom (a la the Shelby slaves) or get educated then head off to Liberia (a la Eliza, George et al) was a huge surprise to me given how Stowe spent much of the book talking up characters like Tom, Eliza, Chloe and George and showing how much they achieved even as slaves and how hard-working and good at their jobs they were ... yet clearly to have too many Africans like this free and running around US society was a step too far for Stowe.

Right from the start of the book however, this latent prejudice against the blacks was clear - even when writing from her viewpoint, not that of southern slave-owners, I read comments such as -
"It must be remembered that all the instinctive affections of that race are peculiarly strong ... they are not naturally daring and enterprising but home-loving and affectionate"; "Tom, who had the soft, impressible nature of his kindly race"; "If ever Africa shall show an elevated and cultivated race" (Stowe seems unaware of one of the largest and oldest examples of civilisations in the world - the Egyptians); "their gentleness, their lowly docility of heart ... their childlike simplicity for forgiveness"; "The principle of reliance and unquestioning faith ... is more a native element in this race than any other: and it has often been found among them, that a stray seed of truth, borne on some breeze of accident into hearts the most ignorant, has sprung into fruit, whose abundance has shamed that of higher and more skilful culture."

To give her some credit however, Stowe does address this, mostly through the character of Ophelia - St Clare calls her out on the fact that she "shudders" to see Eva touching Tom and Topsy herself brings about the change in Ophelia's mindset that from there on allows her to not recoil from Topsy's touch (although it's unclear whether she ever reacts to it as simply as she would from a touch from, say, Eva).

Stowe also seems aware that it is a lack of contact issue and one of education for the whites - when describing George protecting his family as they make their escape, she compares him to (white) Hungarian fugitives who were at that point being welcomed to the US and their struggle reported in the papers noting "If it had been only a Hungarian youth ... this would have been sublime heroism; but as it was a youth of African descent ... of course we are too well instructed and patriotic to see any heroism in it" - and later when St Clare and Ophelia are talking St Clare asks her "You send thousands of dollars to foreign missions' but could you endure to have the heathen sent into your towns and villages ...?" to which she responds "I know there are many good people at the north, who in this matter need only to be *taught* what their duty is, to do it. It would certainly be a greater self-denial to receive heathen among us, than to send missionaries to them; but I think we would do it"... and yet when it comes down to it, at the end of the book, Stowe still pushes education followed by Liberia as the best course for emancipated slaves.

I suppose I shouldn't be so shocked given that the book was written over 150 years ago and that, even today, there are plenty of people in the world who assume anything they do not know is "other" and "different" and, even in the US, those who think that black people have higher poverty and crime rates because of some kind of intrinsic "black" mindset and not because of socio-economic and education factors, but I was and I can't decide if it's sad that abolition came about despite the fact, or if the abolitionists deserve even more credit for pushing such a cause despite their underlying prejudices.
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