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Uncle Tom's Cabin | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In Uncle Tom's Cabin which enslaved woman and which free white woman best represent Stowe's idealized woman?

Of the enslaved African Americans in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eliza is the type of strong, intelligent, faith-filled woman that Harriet Beecher Stowe views as ideal. Furthermore, Eliza acts morally. Although her husband, George, does not share her Christian beliefs, Eliza never stops trying to convince him that her faith's lessons are valid and important—and eventually she succeeds. At the same time she respects her husband and tries to please him, and she always puts her children first. Eliza blossoms under Mrs. Emily Shelby's tutelage. Nevertheless, Mrs. Shelby is not Stowe's ideal free white woman. Stowe cannot support owning slaves, and the Shelbys have plenty of them. Instead, the novel's ideal white woman is Mrs. Mary Bird. The Birds do not own slaves, and Mrs. Bird aids escapees and speaks out against cruelty toward any living thing. The novel's Quaker women, particularly Rachel Halliday, have many traits in common with Mrs. Bird, but such traits are standard in their community. Mrs. Bird makes an individual choice to take action against injustice and immorality, and this sets her apart.

Which relationship in Uncle Tom's Cabin best represents the archetypal battle of good versus evil?

Good versus evil is personified in the struggle between Uncle Tom, a Christ figure, and Simon Legree, a devil figure. Uncle Tom embodies patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-sacrifice, and honesty. He refuses to cause harm and wishes to make others' lives easier by bearing all he can in their place. Legree, on the other hand, mocks others, takes sadistic pleasure in their pain, and robs them of anything that might provide comfort or happiness. The two men's relationship is truly a struggle. Tom fights to remain uninvolved, keep his faith, and avoid becoming less of a man; during the weeks and months he is with Legree he falls into the sort of hopeless depression common in other enslaved people. Legree's struggle comes in trying to break Tom's will. No amount of rage, no amount of violence can achieve this end. Ultimately good wins out over evil.

Based on Uncle Tom's Cabin in what ways does Harriet Beecher Stowe present physical attractiveness as an asset for enslaved women?

Although Stowe, as an early feminist, would dislike this question, Uncle Tom's Cabin gives sufficient examples to validate it as an idea worth considering. For enslaved women at the time the novel was written, being viewed as attractive could ensure that manual labor was not one's fate. However, this was often only true because men purchased such women in order to take sexual advantage of them. Having done so and often having fathered children in the process, these same men had no compunction in discarding the women and selling the children, as in the case of Cassy. So life was very hard for enslaved women, no matter whether they were attractive or not. As for the free women in the novel, Stowe seems to relate physical looks more to the responses of those around the women than to the happiness or unhappiness of the women themselves. Of those who are described, Mrs. Bird and the Quaker women all seem unaware of their appearance except for the desire to be neat. They are sweet and blushing and clear-eyed, and everyone around them sees them as lovely and welcoming. In contrast, although Marie St. Clare was once beautiful nothing about her is attractive, and she has become a miserable human being whom others prefer to avoid. Miss Ophelia is plain and lacks the softness of Mrs. Bird and the Quaker women, but she and those around her are clearly more interested in her mind than in her looks. Her self-concept is based on her inner, not outer, self.

What is especially appalling about Sambo and Quimbo's willingness to accept their roles on the Legree plantation as described in Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Sambo and Quimbo are enslaved African Americans, yet their job is to abuse and punish other people in their same position. Although some modern readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin are quick to disparage Uncle Tom as overly willing to "please" his masters, these two henchmen for Simon Legree are the ones who do whatever they are asked in order to make things easier for themselves. They enjoy their position of power in the hierarchy, beating and abusing fellow enslaved men and women without a twinge of conscience. And when Simon Legree asks them to join him for nights of drunken debauchery, they feel they are being rewarded and have the mistaken belief they are his peers.

Which characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin are most changed by experiences within the St. Clare household?

Only two characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin change to their core because of their experiences in the St. Clare household: Miss Ophelia and Topsy. Miss Ophelia comes to the household with marked prejudice against African Americans. Although she dislikes slavery she also finds it repulsive to interact in a real way with people of color. Through her interactions with the enslaved people in the household, her deep conversations with Eva and Augustine St. Clare, and her experiences in trying to "do right" by Topsy, she changes. She learns to love Topsy. She sees the need to expose Northerners to African Americans and talk to them about their prejudices. She desires to become more Christlike in her interactions with all people. And the change is outward as well as inward; she frees Topsy and takes her to New England. Topsy is a true wild child who has never had the benefit of love or a sense of family. During her time in the St. Clare household she feels the love of Eva, learns how to act as part of a community, and ultimately trusts and loves Miss Ophelia as well. Her change is so deep that she is able to become significant in her chosen profession and try to make a difference in the world.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin what is the significance of Evangeline St. Clare's name?

Every part of Eva's name matches her role in the story and her personality. Evangeline refers to her role as an evangelist in the story. She is always trying to bring people to her Christian way of life; it seems to be her main purpose on Earth. St., short for saint, matches all of the depictions of her as angelic, other worldly, and too good to be true as a mere mortal. Clare, which comes from the Latin clarus, refers to the brightness and clarity of something described. Eva is a beacon of light in the story, and she is completely clear and pure in her understanding of right versus wrong. Even her nickname, Eva, matches her purpose. This name, from the Hebrew, means "life," which is what she hopes to bring to those who accept her beliefs.

What literary device does Harriet Beecher Stowe use in the episodes featuring the Shelby slaves Sam and Andy in Uncle Tom's Cabin?

The episodes featuring Sam and Andy attempting—mostly successfully—to dupe Haley as he tries to give chase to Eliza and Harry are bound to make readers chuckle, if not laugh out loud. This is a classic example of the literary technique known as comic relief. The events surrounding these respites are very heavy emotionally, and to have the mood lifted by these humorous interludes is welcome. For a moment readers are able to stop worrying about the safety of Eliza and little Harry and the future of Uncle Tom. The delight in laughing is amplified because Haley has been established as such a cold, despicable man.

Which chapter of Uncle Tom's Cabin might critics reference when claiming Eva and Topsy both represent blatant stereotypes?

In Chapter 20 of Uncle Tom's Cabin Stowe contrasts Eva and Topsy, beginning with this sentence: "There stood the two children, representatives of the two extremes of society." Introducing the descriptions that follow in this way makes it highly likely the girls will be viewed as stereotypes. The descriptions then yield up the fact of Stowe's approach, when she states Eva is a symbol of the Anglo-Saxon race and Topsy stands for all of the African enslaved people. Whereas Eva is "spiritual, noble ... prince-like," Topsy is "black, keen, subtle, cringing." In this sense the characters are nearly allegorical, representing ideas rather than complex human beings. It will be up to readers to tease out the specific personality traits of each girl that make her a truly unique character, that lift her above such flat characterization.

In what ways does Uncle Tom's Cabin fit into the genre of melodrama, and how did these traits contribute to the novel's immediate success?

At the time Uncle Tom's Cabin was published, melodrama was a popular genre. This genre is characterized by critic Hollis Robbins as having "cruelty, suffering, religious devotion, broken homes, and improbable reunions." Readers of the day expected these elements, and the novel delivered them over and over. One reason the elements are repeated to a nearly unbelievable degree is the fact that the novel began in serial form, with several smaller stories intertwined. More importantly to the book's lasting success, however, is Stowe's masterful development of what have become iconic literary figures—Uncle Tom, Eliza, Topsy, Simon Legree. As Frederick Douglass wrote, "Nothing could have better suited the moral and humane requirements of the hour. Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal." However, if the genre itself had not been so popular the novel would not have achieved such immediate success.

How does Harriet Beecher Stowe use Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin as a mouthpiece for her own beliefs?

In Uncle Tom's Cabin Eva clearly expresses opinions about Christianity and slavery that are Stowe's own beliefs. However, Stowe uses the character to express those beliefs without resorting to the lecture style with which she interrupts the narrative on so many occasions, and also outside the philosophical conversations between adult characters that are frequently featured. The way Stowe accomplishes this is by having the child ask leading questions of the adults in the novel, such as, "What do you keep [slaves] for, mamma?" "Mamma ... why don't we teach our servants to read?" "O, but, papa, if anything should happen to you, what would become of [the slaves]?" Eva also asks questions of others to show what she dislikes—as in her query to Henrique, "How could you be so cruel and wicked to poor Dodo?"—or to shame people: "Don't the Bible say we must love everybody?" "But, mamma, isn't God [Topsy's] father, as much as ours? Isn't Jesus her Saviour?" "You are a Christian, are you not, papa?"

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