Uncle Tom's Cabin | Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin | Themes

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In pleading for an end to slavery, Harriet Beecher Stowe focuses on both the problem and its solution. Her story is built around equally intense scenes of horror and redemption designed to rouse readers' feelings and lead them to think about and act against slavery. Stowe's belief that every single person can and should affect positive moral changes is reflected in the emotion-based themes of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Evil of Slavery

Showing a wide range of slave owners, from Mr. Arthur Shelby to Augustine St. Clare to Simon Legree, Stowe exposes the evil that always arises from the institution, even when owners are relatively kind. Shelby does not inflict physical pain on his enslaved people, but they are emotionally scarred because of his disregard for keeping families together. Augustine St. Clare treats enslaved people almost like friends, but his weak character and cruel wife prevent him from doing what he knows is right, and he doesn't have enough moral gumption to change his selfish, careless way of life. He cannot step out of his comfort zone, and so he propagates slavery. Simon Legree is so sadistic and cruel that he cannot be viewed as anything but evil incarnate—the devil. Descriptions of his property reveal a place that is very much like hell on earth.

In addition, those who profit from slavery—traders like Haley and fugitive chasers like Tom Loker and Marks—are some of the most evil characters in the book. They are physically repulsive, coldhearted, and money oriented. Stowe clearly feels repugnance at the idea that one human can become wealthy by trading another as if he or she were nothing more than a possession.

Christianity

As dark as the depictions of slavery are in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Christian beliefs and actions of some key characters are true beacons of light. The kindest characters are deeply Christian, and they have certitude around the issue of slavery: such an institution is simply incompatible with their faith.

Uncle Tom and little Eva are perhaps the purest Christians in the novel. Uncle Tom's strength comes from his faith, whereas Eva's angelic spirit seems to make her too good to dwell on Earth. The Quakers in the story, who put their faith into action daily, are excellent models for how individual Christians can make a difference in helping people escape slavery and become wonderfully productive members of society. Christians living out their faith, then, are a solution to slavery.

Power of Mothers

Throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin the characters with the most compunction around the issue of slavery are mothers. Free or enslaved, mothers know that slavery is wrong, especially when it leads to the separation of families. Mothers know they must remain with their children to raise them properly. Mothers know that it is their duty to point out the evils of slavery, whether it is to their famous senator husband or to the sons they are trying to raise to have compassion.

Stowe calls on Northern women especially to use their influence in bringing about change. She urges women to find a voice. Even though they cannot vote or hold prestigious jobs, they can influence what happens if they just have the strength to stand up and speak out.

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