Stephen's Reviews > Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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Mar 05, 2010

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bookshelves: easton-press, audiobook, historical-fiction, classics-americas, 1800s, classics, good-guys
Read from May 03 to 05, 2011

ONE READER'S CONFUSION ABOUT WHY "UNCLE TOM" MEANS ANYTHING BUT HERO

3.0 stars. First, I am glad I have finally read this book given its historical significance and the very positive impact that it had on American history. That said, from a literary perspective, I didn't find this book to be particularly well written and am doubtful of whether it would be much remembered or considered a "classic" but for the aforementioned historical significance and the creation of the character of Uncle Tom (more on that below). The prose is not horrible, but neither is it exceptional. It's just okay.

Since I assume everyone is familiar with the substance and background of the book I will not summarize it here. Others have done a much bettermjob of it. However, I do want to share an observation about the main character, Uncle Tom, that struck me pretty hard.

Prior to reading this book, if you would have asked me about the character of Uncle Tom, I would have said that he was a character portrayed as a "weak willed" slave who did everything he could to please his white master no matter what abuses were heaped upon him. This opinion, wrong as I now think it is, would have been based in large part on the derogatory nature of the term "Uncle Tom" in the African American community as someone who has "sold out" their heritage and beliefs in order to be successful.

After reading the book, I don't think I can adequately express how STRONGLY I disagree with that characterization. I would place Uncle Tom among the pantheon of truly HEROIC figures in American literature. Granted, Tom was no Hollywood square-jaw who armored up and went Braveheart on the slave holders slaughtering them by the bushel. However, he was most definitely a HERO in the mold of "Gandhi" who NEVER ONCE...NEVER ONCE compromised his principals and belief in "non violence" and Tom CHANGED those around him (both white and black) for the better.

Tom's non violence came not from fear or cowardice, but from his deeply held Christian faith and his belief that he would rather suffer unjustly (as Christ did) than raise a hand to another. Whether you agree with that philosophy or not, it is beyond debate that to accept hardship rather than compromise your inner compass is called INTEGRITY...it's called COURAGE.

In one very memorable part of the book, Tom is ordered by his sadistic slave owner to whip a female slave. Tom refuses and is savagely beaten. Thereafter, Tom is repeatedly beaten because he continues to refuse to engage in conduct he finds reprehensible. Despite this repeated abuse, Tom NEVER, NEVER backs down or compromises on his beliefs. In fact, the book goes on to describe the slave owner's realization that while he may own Tom's body, he could never acquire his soul. FOLKS, FOR ME, THAT IS A HERO!!! How many people would subject themselves to that kind of abuse rather than rationalize their principals.

Reading that portion of the book, I was struck by the similarities between that scene and a speech given by Gandhi in the movie with Ben Kingsley (which I loved). While speaking to a group of South African's about the need for "non violent" protest Gandhi says (I am paraphrasing somewhat):
...This is a cause for which I am prepared to fight, but my friends there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill...However, fear not for we can not lose...They can beat my body, break my bones, even kill me...then they will have my dead body, NOT MY OBEDIENCE!!!...

I found Tom's struggle to be very similar and the character of Tom to be VERY HEROIC. For that reason alone, I bumped this up to 3 stars and HIGHLY RECOMMEND this book.

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Comments (showing 1-43 of 43) (43 new)

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message 1: by Kathryn (new)

Kathryn Excellent review. The Ghandi quote is one of my favorites too. I love that movie.


Stephen Thanks Kathryn. I feel the same way about the movie. It is one of my favorites.


message 3: by Werner (new) - added it

Werner Stephen, great review! Personally, I would rate the literary quality of the writing a bit higher than you did --but then, I have a lot higher tolerance for 19th-century diction than most modern readers do. (Some would say I'm more of a glutton for punishment than most. :-) )


message 4: by Manny (new)

Manny Some like drink
In a pint pot,
Some like to think;
Some not.

Strong Dutch cheese,
Old Kentucky rye,
Some like all of these ;
Not I.

Some like Poe,
And others like Scott,
Some like Mrs. Stowe;
Some not.

Some like to laugh,
Some like to cry,
Some like chaff;
Not I.

- Robert Louis Stevenson


Karla When I read this years ago, I also thought I knew what Uncle Tom was going to be like and I was totally blown away by how he actually was. I kept trying to see the gross subservience that the insult implies, but I couldn't find it. I thought Uncle Tom was an awesome character, and the romance between Eliza and George Harris one of the most memorable in the books I've read from the era.


Stephen Karla (Mossy Love Grotto) wrote: "When I read this years ago, I also thought I knew what Uncle Tom was going to be like and I was totally blown away by how he actually was. I kept trying to see the gross subservience that the insul..."

Thanks, Karla. I'm glad I am not alone in this. I didn't quite have the same connection to the Eliza/Harris aspect of the story, but I think I was so carried away by the character of Tom that everything else got lost.


message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye Great review, Stephen.
I wonder how many of us in our day and age have a cause that we would be prepared to die or suffer for.
Who would have been prepared to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War?


Stephen Ian wrote: "Great review, Stephen.
I wonder how many of us in our day and age have a cause that we would be prepared to die or suffer for.
Who would have been prepared to fight for the Republicans in the Spani..."


I'm afraid not enough of us, Ian. Sacrifice has become something of an anachronism.


message 9: by Helen (new) - added it

Helen What an amazing review, Stephen. I have never read this but know that I have to now.


Giddy Girlie Agreed! I couldn't have said it better. I was expecting Uncle Tom to compromise at some point, his cabin to represent a place of weakness. Instead, he was the most steadfast person in the world. I can't understand the term being used as a derogatory phrase at all.


Stephen Mia wrote: "Agreed! I couldn't have said it better. I was expecting Uncle Tom to compromise at some point, his cabin to represent a place of weakness. Instead, he was the most steadfast person in the world. I ..."

Thank you, Mia. I'm glad I'm not alone in finding its use as a derogatory term baffling.


Lisa (Harmonybites) Just wanted to say that, first, having just read the book I really appreciated your review--but also, I think I understand how "Uncle Tom" became a derogatory term given the introduction to the edition I read. It turns out that Uncle Tom's Cabin was popularized by plays that popularized depictions that weren't congruent with the book or Stowe's intentions. In the book, for instance, Uncle Tom is represented as a physically powerful man still in his prime--many posters for plays showed him as an old white haired and bearded frail man. Other characters like Topsy also got "minstralized." So the popular perception of the book splintered away from the actual book. I knew before reading it, my knowledge of the book came primarily from The King and I!


Stephen Harmonybites-

Thank you very much for letting me know that. What you told me makes perfect sense and I can completely see how some "minstralized" version of the character could have given rise to the stereotype. That has really bothered me since I read this because I found Tom to be such a strong, courageous person.


message 14: by Jodi (new) - rated it 2 stars

Jodi Thanks all, that explained a lot! I mainly read this so I could understand more fully what the derogatory 'Uncle Tom' term meant, the detail of it, but was just left confused as it didn't seem to match the actual book character much. He didn't seem worthy of so much scorn.


Frederick Uncle Tom is one of the most Christ-like figures in modern literature. His spiritual victory over Simon Legree is a classic and the conversion of his two executioners makes this great for Christians. For non-Christians not so much. Most people think you have to cut a few throats to accomplish anything heroic but unless you're a Bible believing Christian, some kinds of Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Jain you just will scratch your head and not get it at all. I really enjoyed the book and was inspired by Tom's committment to Christ and by Stowe's characterization of him. Worth reading.


midnightfaerie reading this now and completely 100% agree with your first paragraph.


midnightfaerie I mentioned ur review in my review...hope that's ok.
Click here for Midnightfaerie’s Review


Melissa Profound and insightful review. Thank you.


message 19: by Davesincere (new) - added it

Davesincere I have always known of this book but was never interested in reading it until recently. Your review helped spark more interest in me picking this up again.


Andrew Webb Yeah, the term "Uncle Tom" is a complete misnomer.


Hliyang1 couldn't have said it better my self, great details and thoughts. I loved how you made the two connections


Karen Just one correction to your review. The mischaracterization of Tom did not emerge from the black community. Rather, it came from the stage productions put on by white people in blackface and it is probably more correct to say that in an effort to discredit Stowe's book ad de-sanctify Tom, they created a character who was a sell out - the opposite of what Tom's character is in the book, as you so rightly described.


Kristie Hayes I agree...it's amazing that term has come to mean what it does today.


message 24: by Eli (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eli I love your review. It's what I was saying all the time when i finished the book.


message 25: by Yakub (new) - rated it 1 star

Yakub Medici The "Uncle Tom" derogatory term came because he was nonviolent. The zealous black nationalists at the time were often not big on nonviolence. I'd have to agree with them to some extent, although you have a point.


message 26: by Ian (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ian Karen said it all. "Uncle Tom" became a slur after black face and minstrel shows appropriated the characters name for their own supremacist agendas. "Uncle Tom" therefore is used most commonly in reference to the caricatures of black people that the name would represent in blackface and minstrel shows.

Uncle Tom in the novel was exceedingly selfless and virtuous. I too only understood the difference after reading the book.


message 27: by Joanna (new)

Joanna I completely agree with the reviewer's characterization of Uncle Tom. Additionally, the book shows that while slavery was wrong, and there were many injustices, not all owners were terrible sadistic monsters. It also illustrates how life was then- the children being raised at least in part together, which wouldn't happen in the south for 100 years after the war.

This is a book all Americans should read. Not only to remove the slur Uncle Tom from our vocabulary, but to show what life was like then. History is meaningless without context, and this book gives plenty. It also is one of the better books of the time period, style wise.


Pamela Mikita "Uncle tom"is a derogatory term used by African Americans because he was totally subservient to his white masters. It has nothing to do with his


Pamela Mikita Pureness or good character.


SeanM Excellent review. I found the last 150 pages to be far better than the first half of the story. I also thought of Gandhi when Tom refused to do what he felt was wrong.


message 31: by John (new) - rated it 5 stars

John Curry Agree with you 100% about Tom, upon finishing the book my thought was Uncle Tom is much maligned, he was no Uncle Tom! Obviously a heroic figure, how did this mis-characterization come about? I researched the early film versions, particularly, the silent era and in an attempt to make their point in the film, they over-animated the characters. Perhaps then through lax research the characterization if of an "Uncle Tom was derived from film rather than literature.


message 32: by Mara (new) - added it

Mara Great review Stephen. Thanks for taking the time to write it.... Thinking about using it to entice my high school Italian students to read it (in Italian) , since they know little or nothing about it....
I was thinking about starting with the quote from Ganghi. What of you think? Suggestions are greatly welcome .
Mara


message 33: by Dana (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dana Excellent review. I too read this in part to comprehend the negative connotation. Really appreciate the other comments which provide quite plausible explanations.


Allison Ruvidich Fantastic review! People betray their ignorance when they use Uncle Tom as a derogatory term, when it is really one of the greatest compliments you can receive.


Ronando @Stephen - Excellent review. I had no idea about the real Uncle Tom. So sad that he has been (inappropriately) reduced down to a pejorative. I have to read this book, and your review just moved it to the front of my long list of books to read.


message 36: by Adelide (new) - added it

Adelide Sorenson That is so true. I love the book. And the "bad English" isn't their fault. It was written during the civil war period of time. And that was how people talked back then. When I started reading it, I had just finished trying to read "Great Expectations". "Uncle Toms Cabin" was a breeze after that. I think Uncle Tom is a real hero. But so is Eliza.


Jessica Watson The character of Uncle Tom was reduced to the derogatory phrase we know now due to what was commonly known as Tom Shows. Shortly after the publication of the book a theatre company made a dramatisation, changing the end of the story and making Tom and the Harris family return to their old owners, happy to be slaves. Over time, more and more theatre companies produced their own Tom Shows, and the novel was further bastardised until Uncle Tom (usually played by a white man in black face) no longer resembled the Christ-like figure we have in the book but was reduced to the typical black minstrel found in theatre the time. A crying shame. I personally really enjoyed the book, and whilst fully intending to go to sleep hours ago and finish it at a later time, I found myself gripped in the last 100 pages and refused to finish. I studied the Civil War in secondary school and wrote about the significance of this book - and 7 years later I have finally read it!


message 38: by Scott (new)

Scott Seeger I think the person who came up with that term only read the first half of the book. When Uncle Tom tries to convert his captors to Christianity while they are torturing him, the character came off as one of the strongest I've ever met in a book.


message 39: by Kirsten (new)

Kirsten Beecher Stowe shows so clearly how ironic it is that the slaves, who were treated as possessions, and not even counted as full people for census taking, were such better Christians than the people who tried to justify their behaviour via the Bible.


message 40: by Josh (new) - rated it 1 star

Josh I would like to find that town in Kentucky called P——


message 41: by Werner (new) - added it

Werner Josh wrote: "I would like to find that town in Kentucky called P——"

That's actually a very common device in 19th-century fiction, both in English and in other languages (such as Russian). The writer is trying to create the illusion that the (fictional) town is a real place, and that the name is suppressed. A modern writer would usually just make up a place name.


Hailey White Excellent.


message 43: by Anne (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anne I wish you could read my college book report on this. I feel exactly the same way. I believe people use "Uncle Tom" when they have NO idea what he was really all about


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