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Uncle Tom's Cabin | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How is Van Trompe a foil for Tom Loker in Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Since the purpose of a foil in literature is to make another character's traits obvious, the two characters must be opposites. In Uncle Tom's Cabin the physical similarity between Van Trompe and Tom Loker—both huge, rough men who are comfortable in the outdoors—sets the stage for readers to make the comparison. Having met Loker first, readers already know he is a cold, violent man. Loker's monstrous traits are magnified when readers recognize Van Trompe is kind and protective, although he too is capable of using force. The difference is Van Trompe will become violent only when he needs to protect those he cares for. As he tells Eliza, "You needn't be a bit afeard, let who will come here. I'm up to all that sort o' thing ... wouldn't be healthy to try to get anybody out o' my house when I'm agin it." In contrast Tom Loker wields violence as a means of maintaining power and control over those he would never protect.

Why does Stowe use epigraphs in some chapters of Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Epigraphs are quotes used to introduce a chapter. Stowe uses them in 12 of the 45 chapters in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Seven of the epigraphs come from the Bible, which fits with Stowe's justification of abolition through an appeal to Christianity. All but one of those biblical passages comes from the Old Testament, with the one outlier, from Matthew in the New Testament, also referring back to a prophetic book in the Old Testament. This choice was most likely deliberate, since Southern preachers referred to passages from the Old Testament in justifying slavery. By selecting Old Testament references, Stowe was beating them at their own game. The other five epigraphs are from poets and orators who would have been well known to her audience, at least those trained in a classical education: Lord Byron, Thomas Moore, Childe Harold, John Philpot Curran, William Cullen Bryant. The works she quotes all have a definite mood, and so she is setting the emotional context of these chapters for her readers.

What faith-based argument do Southern Christians in Uncle Tom's Cabin use to defend slavery?

The religious argument given most often in Uncle Tom's Cabin to support slavery is that of divine Providence. This doctrine is based on the idea God is in control of all things, and humans should not interfere with the way things always have been. In particular the novel's preachers believe the world has always had slavery, and it is accepted in the Bible. Indeed, throughout the era of slavery followers of divine Providence tried to approve the practice by quoting Bible passages; for example, they pointed out that Abraham had slaves, one of the Ten Commandments seems to refer to slaves, and there were slaves throughout the Roman world. The novel's Southern religious leaders claim God created some people to be enslaved, and this natural state of affairs should not be meddled with. Augustine St. Clare is quick to scoff at the notion "the Bible was on our side," as Marie says her church pastor declares. Augustine clearly sees the ridiculousness of using religion to defend the institution of slavery: "But when [any man] begins to put on a long face, and snuffle, and quote Scripture, I incline to think he isn't much better than he should be."

How does Stowe use verbal irony in Chapter 12 of Uncle Tom's Cabin when explaining how Uncle Tom feels about what happens to Lucy?

In her explanation of how Uncle Tom responds to Lucy's baby being sold, Stowe accurately portrays the horror and cruelty of the act and Tom's appropriate reaction of grief. However, in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek twist she says that Tom is a "poor, ignorant black soul" who should learn to "generalize, and to take enlarged views." She goes on to suggest that Christian ministers could teach him that slavery and all of the attendant actions such as splitting up families is lawful and no worse than "other relations in social and domestic life." That last quote is from Dr. Joel Parker, a well-known Philadelphia minister of the time. By including this quote Stowe strikes out at those who try to justify slavery with religion. She ends this angry paragraph by pointing out that under slavery, Uncle Tom and Lucy are nothing but things, objects to be bought and sold like the cargo on the ship.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin how can the idea that Uncle Tom is powerless be refuted by his effect on others?

In Uncle Tom's Cabin the titular character is indeed the hero of the story. Although some readers interpret the character of Uncle Tom as powerless and at the mercy of his masters, they are overlooking the fact that Tom influences more lives than any other character in the story. At the Shelby farm Uncle Tom is the well-respected leader among the enslaved people, and he teaches them to live honorable lives filled with hope and faith. Young George Shelby is hugely influenced by Uncle Tom and is, in turn, able to use his own influence to free all of the slaves on the farm. In the St. Clare household Uncle Tom has a profound impact on the faith of Augustine St. Clare and is very important to Eva until the moment she takes her last breath. Even when he enters the dark world of Simon Legree, Uncle Tom is able to bring the light to people who had given up. He gives Cassy the hope and courage she needs to escape with Emmeline, and Uncle Tom is even able to convert Sambo and Quimbo as he dies.

How does Uncle Tom's Cabin reinforce the idea that illiteracy among enslaved people helps keep them "in line"?

Stowe, an advocate for universal education, points to education as one of key ingredients for helping people heal from the evils of slavery. The topic comes up often in philosophical discussions in the St. Clare household. Eva is particularly insistent that all people should be taught to read and write, and yet she realizes with great sorrow that the St. Clare slaves are illiterate. She takes it upon herself to teach Mammy to read and to help Uncle Tom write to his family. Even Augustine St. Clare reads the Bible aloud to Uncle Tom, recognizing how much Tom loves the stories but must struggle to read them himself. Miss Ophelia does her best to teach Topsy to read and write, knowing those skills are crucial in lifting people out of terrible conditions. Throughout the novel the kindest owners make sure their favorite slaves learn how to read and write. Mrs. Shelby, for example, is proud of Eliza's literacy. And the enslaved people who manage to escape—George and Eliza, Cassy and Emmeline—are all aided by their ability to read and pass themselves off as educated members of society. In contrast the cruel owners forbid their slaves from reading and writing. They are well aware that literacy opens the door to a bigger, brighter world. If slaves can read about freedom in other places, they want to escape. If slaves can read and write letters to the loved ones who have been taken from them, they are more likely to chafe under the bonds of slavery. Finally, as Stowe points out in her concluding remarks, "The first desire of the emancipated slave, generally, is for education." She builds this notion into her novel by having George's first wish, given the opportunity to do whatever he wants as a free man, to be to go to France for an education.

When Eva is introduced in Chapter 14 of Uncle Tom's Cabin what image of her is reinforced by mention of the ship's fireman?

Stowe describes Eva as "the perfection of childish beauty." Her outer beauty is matched by her inner goodness, making her thoroughly angelic. She seems to move "in a happy dream," always dressed in white, "without contracting spot or stain." Wherever she goes on the ship, people notice her "visionary golden head." This image of Eva as a creature straight from heaven is played up by the description of her encounter with the ship's fireman. His environment, "the raging depths of the furnace," brings hell to mind. Eva gazes "fearfully and pityingly" at the fireman, "as if she thought him in some dreadful danger." This fits with the person Eva is, a Christian who continually warns people of the need to come to faith.

In Chapter 15 of Uncle Tom's Cabin why is Stowe's statement about the difference between novels and real life so significant?

A significant statement about fiction versus real life comes after the story of how Augustine St. Clare lost his one true love: "Of course, in a novel, people's hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us." In making this statement Stowe intends for readers to remember that the heartbreaking stories she tells about enslaved people's broken lives are based on real occurrences. She is saying here that the horrors of slavery are not contained in the pages of this book; they will continue to perpetuate over and over and over until there is an end to slavery. Augustine St. Clare's fictional, broken romance is nothing compared to the losses endured by enslaved people.

In Uncle Tom's Cabin how and why does Stowe portray Miss Ophelia as both admirable and flawed?

The picture Stowe paints of Miss Ophelia in Uncle Tom's Cabin is a well-rounded one. Her positive traits of industry, conscientiousness, honesty, and intelligence are easy to see. Equally noticeable, however, are some less admirable traits, including prejudice, stubbornness, and lack of patience. Miss Ophelia is more bound by duty than by a true desire to do good. She is unrelenting in her quest for perfection, but the standards she sets may or may not be right for those around her. This means she can be difficult to get along with. Nevertheless, Miss Ophelia is capable of change, and Stowe lets readers see an even more well-rounded person emerge by the end of the novel. She seems to be encouraging Northern women to evolve into higher beings whose individual efforts can help to bring about the end of slavery.

How do Marie St. Clare's comments about Mammy in Chapter 16 of Uncle Tom's Cabin represent her absolute inability to view slaves as humans?

When Marie St. Clare talks about Mammy in Chapter 16 of Uncle Tom's Cabin, her usual selfishness is apparent. She is upset because Mammy doesn't wake up easily all through the night when she needs her. But her comments go far beyond selfishness when she suggests that Mammy has no right to be upset at being taken away from her husband and children. Marie seems to think enslaved people are incapable of feelings. She further objectifies slaves when she refers to Mammy's children as "dirty little things." Furthermore, she claims that Mammy and all enslaved people are incapable of experiencing physical pain or having ailments. This is especially ludicrous given the fact that Marie St. Clare is forever complaining of aches and ill health, but it also highlights her disbelief that white and African people share a common bond of humanity.

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