Uncle Tom's Cabin | Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin | Chapters 38–40 | Summary



Chapter 38

Back on the Legree plantation Uncle Tom has been facing physical suffering, forced to labor day after day before his horrible wounds are fully healed. Exhausted, he joins the other enslaved people in losing interest in anything except whatever rest he can find at the end of the day. For weeks and months he lives "in darkness and sorrow," so bitter that he believes God has forgotten him.

Then one night as he tries to read his Bible but feels no inspiration from it, Legree sees it and mocks him, saying "join my church!" Suddenly Tom's faith returns to him in full force, and with it his cheerfulness and positive attitude. Gradually his influence spreads among the other enslaved people on the plantation who are lifted up by him and his messages of God's love and grace.

One night Cassy comes to Tom and asks him to kill Legree, whom she has dosed with something so that he is dead to the world. Tom is so passionate in his refusal to do this or any other evil deed and so sure that Cassy will be delivered from her miserable situation if only she will believe that even Cassy vows she will try having faith.

Chapter 39

On the night Cassy finally accepts Tom's views, she has an idea that will allow her and Emmeline to escape the plantation. Because Legree is so afraid of hauntings and demons, she decides to use this weakness to her full advantage. A story already exists that the attic (called the "garret" in the story) of the house is haunted. Everyone avoids it, convinced that moans and other sounds emanating from up there come from ghosts.

Cassy's room is directly beneath the attic, and one day she suddenly decides to move to a different room. When Legree questions her motives, she darkly hints at the sounds of haunting that keep her awake at night. To bolster her story she goes into the attic and positions a bottle so that it will make moaning sounds whenever winds blow. She begins to suggest that she has seen ghosts and often fixes her eyes on Legree with a "keen, sneering glitter in her eyes" as she warns him on stormy nights that "they're at it." Legree becomes afraid.

Meanwhile, Cassy has begun to turn the garret into a safe hiding place. She makes a large box a comfortable bed. She puts most of her clothes and Emmeline's clothes up there and stores plenty of food for them as well. Then she explains the escape plan to the younger woman.

While traveling to a neighboring town with Legree, Cassy has memorized the route and knows how long it will take to get there on foot. So that will be their destination. But first they must fake their escape into the swamp, then sneak back into the house and occupy the garret until the search for them is abandoned.

On the chosen night just before dark, the women follow their plan, making sure Legree sees them as they begin to flee. He calls for all men to hunt them down, but the women safely return to the house. Cassy takes money from Legree's desk before they hide themselves in the attic to await the time of their real escape.

Chapter 40

After a second unsuccessful day of hunting for the women, Legree demands that Tom be brought to him. He is convinced that Tom knows where they have gone, and indeed Tom does know all the details of the plan. However, he is determined to die rather than reveal anything. Legree warns him that he is bound to kill him, but Tom remains silent except to beg his master not to "bring this great sin on your soul." Legree remains unmoved and gives the order for Sambo and Quimbo to beat Tom to death.

Even in death Uncle Tom manages to convert two more people to Christianity. Witnessing his faith firsthand and hearing his words of forgiveness, the two people who kill him become believers.


Cassy's clever plan proves her intellectual superiority over Legree, but her ability to control him so completely is somewhat surprising. Stowe wants readers to understand the power of women, however, since she views women as the keys to social reform. She credits Cassy's strength to her "hardened womanhood" and "the fires of fiercer passions." She will do whatever it takes to protect those she loves. Emmeline has become her surrogate daughter, and she is determined to save her.

Stowe speaks directly to readers to justify her graphic depiction of Tom's beating: "What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear." She believes that only by revealing the true horrors of slavery can the tide be finally turned against it. The violence is tempered by Tom's peaceful acceptance of his fate and the blatant way he is directly compared to Jesus Christ in his martyrdom. Tom speaks Jesus's words in death. His body is "taken down" by Sambo and Quimbo, who wash and bind up his wounds, just as Jesus's body was taken down from the cross and gently prepared for burial. Stowe seems to be saying that her fictional Tom must die a martyr's death for the greater good just as Jesus had to die for the salvation of all.

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