“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a novel written by a schoolteacher named Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852. The novel was an immediate success and became the best-selling novel of the 19th century. It is widely credited with helping to encourage the abolitionist cause and starting the American Civil War, which began only 9 years later.
This notion is reinforced by the popular story that when Stowe met then President Lincoln he called her “The little lady that started this great war”. The novel has seen many adaptations, including plays, films, and comic books.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is the story of two slaves, Eliza, and Tom who both belong to the same master. At the beginning of the story, Eliza discovers that Tom and her own son, Harry are to be sold to another master, a cruel, callous man named Mr. Haley. Eliza informs Tom of this and after he insists on staying, she takes her son and runs from the farm in the night, narrowly escaping being captured by running across ice flows on the Ohio river.
Meanwhile, Tom is sold to Mr. Haley only to be sold again shortly after to a man named St. Clare and his sweet, angelic daughter Eva. Tom and Eva bond over their shared Christianity. However, soon Eva becomes sick and passes away. When her father also dies shortly after, Tom is sold once again to a cruel master named Legree who beats him regularly.
Years have passed, and Tom’s first master’s son, a young man named George has grown and fulfilled his promise to find Tom and rescue him. Unfortunately, he arrives only to see that Tom is dying from a beating by Legree. George is infuriated by his friend’s death and takes his body back home to Kentucky to bury. On the way home he meets with an escaped slave from Legree’s plantation named Cassy who he discovers is Eliza’s long lost mother.
At the same time the two meet another woman who turns out to be Eliza’s husband’s sister, who married her master, became rich and recently lost him. The group travels to meet Eliza and her husband, George in Canada where they live happily for a while before moving to a nation in Africa for free slaves, Liberia. Master George goes back to his home in Kentucky and frees all of his slaves, telling them to remember Uncle Tom and thank him for their freedom.
The story begins on a Kentucky farm during a chilly February afternoon. It is the middle of the nineteenth century and two white men sit drinking wine and discussing a business deal. Mr. Haley, a mean, coarse man is looking to buy some slaves from Arthur Shelby, a farmer who has fallen into debt. Mr. Shelby is desperate to make some money or else he will lose everything he owns. Shelby tells Haley of one slave that he owns, a man named Uncle Tom who is hardworking, good and honest as well as a devout Christian. But Haley asks for more. He wants to include a young boy in the trade and after some reluctance, Shelby agrees to trade a boy named Harry who is the son of Mrs. Shelby’s maid, Eliza.
While they are talking, Eliza approaches Mrs. Shelby in another room and worriedly asks her if Mr. Shelby is going to trade her son. Mrs. Shelby, unaware of her husband’s deal, assures Eliza that her son will be safe.
In the next chapter, we learn some back story about Eliza. She was a beautiful young woman and that she was married to a talented half-black man named George but had seen him little since he was hired to work at a factory nearby. While working at the factory, George invented the machine to speed up the process of cleaning hemp and earned the admiration of the man that ran the factory. But George’s master saw this as a ploy from George to work less and put him to work doing menial labor. Now Eliza sees her husband rarely. Eliza and George also lost two children which have made her very protective of her remaining son, Harry.
George comes to see Eliza in the next chapter and tells her that he is planning to escape. He says that he can no longer bear the drudgery of the work he has been doing and that his master has been trying to convince him to wed another woman as he and Eliza’s marriage, being between two slaves, is not considered legally binding. Eliza is shocked but asks him to trust in God and practice patience. George tells her that he intends to head to Canada in one week and that he will work to buy freedom for her and Harry after that.
Uncle Tom lives in a cabin on Mr. Shelby’s estate. In the next chapter we are taken to his cabin where his wife, Aunt Chloe is cooking dinner. Nearby, Shelby’s son, Master George is teaching Tom how to write his letters.
Back in the main house, Shelby agrees to sell Tom and Harry. Once he signs the papers, Haley relieves him of his mortgage. Shelby asks Haley to sell Tom only to the kindest master he can find and Haley agrees, unconvincingly. Mr. Shelby tells his wife about the sale and Mrs. Shelby, horrified reminds her husband that he had promised to set Tom free and she had promised Eliza that they wouldn’t sell Harry. Mr. Shelby argues that they either had to sell those two slaves or their entire property. Mrs. Shelby rails against slavery and shouts that it’s a sin and she wishes she could do something to end it. She offers to sell her watch to keep Harry but her husband sadly informs her that the papers are already signed.
The couple is unaware that Eliza is listening in on the conversation. Acting quickly, she brings her son to Uncle Tom’s cabin and tells the old man what she has heard. Tom says that he does not intend to escape but that Eliza must. Eliza says that she will leave for Canada and asks Tom and Chloe to tell her husband. Taking her child, she leaves that night.
The next morning when Mrs. Shelby realizes that Eliza has escaped she is joyful, thanking God that Eliza and Harry have evaded being separated. Mr. Shelby, however, is worried that Mr. Haley will think that he is trying to get out of their deal. Sure enough, when Haley shows up that morning to collect his property he is furious to hear that Harry is no longer there. He intends to ride out in pursuit of Eliza and Shelby asks his slaves to ready a horse for Haley.
The slaves take as long as possible doing so and hide a beechnut under the horses saddle so that it will irritate the horse and make it move slower. Mrs. Shelby tells Sam, another of the slaves, to ride out with Haley. She advises the pair not to ride fast as it will be hard for the horses, one of whom was recently lame. When Haley gets onto his horse, the animal is so aggravated by the beechnut that it bucks him, throwing him off. This causes great chaos and delays the pursuit of Eliza even longer. By the time the horses are prepared again is is lunchtime and Mrs. Shelby insists that Mr. Haley dines with them before heading out.
In the next chapter, we are taken back to the night before when Eliza initially escaped from the farm. She feels lonely and terrified but is emboldened by a need to protect her son. The two travel through the night, reaching the Ohio river which is covered over by a thin coat of Spring ice. Because of the ice, the ferry is not running. Eliza learns that there may be one running later that evening and takes a room at the inn so that Harry can sleep. She does not sleep herself, however, and merely gazes out at the river, willing the ice to melt.
The next day at lunchtime, Aunt Chloe prepares the meal as slowly as possible to delay the pursuit. The search party does not end up leaving the farm until two o’clock with Sam and a younger slave named Andy as Haley’s escorts. The men trick Haley into following a path that they know Eliza would have avoided. Eventually, the group makes it to the Ohio river and Sam sees Eliza in a window of the inn. Pretending that his hat has been blown off, he yelps, alerting Eliza to their presence.
Panicking, Eliza grabs Harry and decides to cross the river herself. She jumps from one chunk of ice to the next until she reaches the other side. Once she gets to the other side a man helps her up. Eliza recognizes him as Mr. Symmes, a farm owner who lives not far from Mr. Shelby. Mr. Symmes does not want to offer Eliza shelter himself but tells her of a house that will.
At the inn, Haley sees Eliza cross the river but can not follow her treacherous trail along the ice. He is forced to go back to the tavern where he meets up with a professional slave hunter named Tom Loker. Haley hires Loker and Marks, his partner to capture Eliza and Harry. Loker proposes that if they catch Eliza they may keep her as long as they bring Harry back to Haley. Haley agrees. Sam and Andy, unaware of this agreement, return to the Shelby farm.
Just across the river in Ohio, a Senator named Bird now sits by the fire in his house with his wife. He tells her that the Ohio senate has passed a bill punishing anyone who assists a runaway slave and that he voted in its favor. His wife admonishes him, saying that the law is reprehensible and asking her husband if he would refuse to help a helpless runaway slave that showed up at his door. Just at that moment Eliza and Harry do show up at the Bird’s house. Senator Bird and his wife let them into the house but the Senator knows that he cannot harbor them there. He drives them to a safe house owned by a former slave owner named John Van Trompe who freed all of his slaves and moved into a house in the woods. The Senator gives John a ten dollar bill to give to Eliza.
Haley goes back to the farm to fetch Tom. Aunt Chloe, saddened that her husband is leaving, cooks Tom one last meal and laments at what has happened. Tom tells her to trust in God and that their master is a good man. Haley then takes Tom away. On the way to his farm, they bump into young Master George who is shocked and afraid to find out that Tom has been sold. When Haley’s back is turned, Master George tells Tom that when he grows up he will come and rescue him. Master George can only give Tom a dollar before wishing him a tearful goodbye.
Meanwhile, Eliza’s husband, George manages to escape his own master and uses his light skin to pass for a Spanish man as he flees to Canada. Haley buys several more slaves at an auction and puts them all on a ship headed for a plantation in Mississippi. While on the ship a slave woman who had her son taken from her jumps overboard and Tom hears a splash. Eliza and Harry are taken to a Quaker settlement where they are to stay with a woman named Rachel Halliday. George is also on his way to the settlement and that night the couple reunites.
On the way to Mississippi, Tom acts obedient and meek in order to win favor with his master. On day while he is reading his bible he meets a little white girl named Eva St. Clare. A very sweet, angel of a girl, she quickly befriends Tom and tells him that she will ask her father, Augustine if he will buy Tom.
One day Eva accidentally trips over the side of the boat. Tom, acting quickly, manages to save her. Augustine is so grateful to Tom that he does agree to buy him and signs the bill of sale straight away. Tom is brought into the St. Clare household to be a driver. Eva is overjoyed and he finds that she is just as sweet and easily loved by everyone at the house. However, Tom is dismayed to learn that Augustine has a mean and snooty wife named Marie who hates the slaves and goes out of her way to cause them harm.
At the Quaker camp, Eliza and George learn that Tom Loker and his gang are nearby and planning on coming for them that night. They escape to the woods and set up camp in a safe place that is easily guarded. Tom Loker and his men do come for them and shoot at George when he tries to address them calmly. George narrowly avoids getting shot by Loker and threatens to shoot any of his men who try to take them. True to his word, George shoots Loker and the other slave hunters retreat, leaving him behind. Eliza feels bad for Loker and the Quakers agree to take him in so that he can heal.
In the St. Clare house, Tom begins to take on more and more responsibilities. He eventually takes over the finances of the household. His Christian temperament leads him to try to reform the household and his hard partying, alcoholic master. Augustine agrees to try and reform. We also learn that while Augustine does not necessarily support slavery, he does no oppose it as he does not see the point. Tom attempts to write a letter to his wife and children but his illiteracy prevents him. Eva agrees to help and the two write a letter together.
In Kentucky, Aunt Chloe receives her husband’s letter with joy. Mr. Shelby’s business is still in trouble and because Mrs. Shelby is still attempting to find a way to get Tom back, the two being to quarrel regularly. Chloe suggests to Mrs. Shelby privately that she might be hired out to make cakes and pies as a side business. Mrs. Shelby agrees.
Two years pass by while Tom serves the St. Clares. Master George writes him and tells him about his studies. Tom and Eva become close friends, bonding over their Christian faith. However, Eva becomes sick and Tom begins to worry about her. Marie, who has never appeared to have any interest in her child before, begins to wail in motherly despair certain that her child is dying. Eva takes to bed, her health failing and begs her father to promise to try and free all of the slaves like she would have done if she’d had the chance. Augustine promises to do what he can and to free Tom if she dies. Eva then asks that some of the curls from her hair be cut off and given to the slaves to remember her by. She asks to see all of them and tells them all to be good Christians after she is gone. Soon, Eva dies and the house enters into mourning.
Marie becomes more difficult than ever and Augustine doesn’t speak to her as he is too deeply in mourning. He tells Tom that he longs to believe in God but never has. He says that he doesn’t feel that anyone is listening when he prays. Tom agrees to pray for him and while he is listening to Augustine begins to feel an awakening of his faith.
Shortly afterward, Augustine is accidentally stabbed in a fight between two drunken men. Fatally wounded, he is brought home and Tom prays for him as he dies. Although Augustine promised his daughter that he would free Tom after she died, his own death came so quickly that he didn’t have time to enact that promise. Thus, all of his slaves become the property of Marie. The cruel woman decides to sell all of the slaves instead of freeing them. Tom finds himself up for auction in a slave warehouse and is bought by a crude, callous man named Simon Legree. Along with a slave girl named Emmeline, Tom has put on a boat headed for Legree’s cotton plantation.
Legree tells Tom that there is no religion on his plantation and takes his hymn book away from him, although he does not find the bible hidden in Tom’s shirt. Legree lives alone on his plantation with only his slaves. He has bought Emmeline to replace Cassy, a slave woman who lives with him in his quarters.
The plantation ends up being a monstrous place where even the slaves are cruel to each other. Tom begins to feel that his beliefs are faltering but then sees a vision of Eva which he feels renews his faith and keeps him going. He begins trying to help the other slaves when he can.
One day, Tom helps Cassy as she works in the fields. Legree hears of this cooperation and orders Tom to whip Cassy. He refuses and Legree’s two overseers drag Tom outside where they beat him badly. After he is beaten, Cassy comes to Tom and tries to help him heal. Cassy tells Tom that she has given up hope of anything ever getting better for them and that she does not believe in God. He urges her to not let the wicked acts of others deny her faith. Cassy tells him her story – that she is half white and grew up rich as the daughter of a wealthy white man.
She eventually ended up being the mistress of a lawyer with whom she had several children. But then the lawyer fell in love with someone else and he sold her and her children. The master who bought her sold her children to someone else and her to another man with whom she had another child. She tells Tom that she poisoned this child when it was an infant to prevent herself from having to give it up. After this, she was sold from man to man until she got to Legree.
The next day Legree seeks Tom out to order him to beg for forgiveness. Tom refuses, insisting that Legree cannot harm him as he only has a vision of eternity to look forward to. George and Eliza successfully arrive at another Quaker settlement, leaving Loker with the first group to be nursed back to health. After recovering, Tom decides to stay with the Quakers to live a changed life as a good man. George and Eliza eventually reach Canada. Cassy and Emmeline manage to escape Legree by first convincing him and others on the estate that a ghost is trapped in the attic. Then they slip away and climb into the attic when no one is looking. The two women know that they can remain in the attic for a while as anyone who hears noises will assume it is the ghost and be too frightened to investigate. Legree takes out his wrath over their escape on Tom, beating him once again. He orders his two overseers to beat Tom after a while. Tom remains pious and prays that the overseers hearts can be saved.
A few days later, young master George, now grown, shows up at the Legree plantation to find Tom. He has searched for Tom for years after his father, Mr. Shelby died. George finds Tom badly beaten and dying but Tom is still delighted to see him. He dies shortly after, content. George takes Tom’s body and plans to have Legree arrested for murder. Legree points out that no whites saw the beating and therefore there are no witnesses. This angers George and he strikes Legree and knocks him down. As he leaves, other slaves plead with him to buy them but he cannot. He plans to do all he can to abolish slavery.
Cassy disguises herself as a Spanish woman and she and Emmeline leave the plantation, ending up on the same boat as George. She tells him everything, fearing that he sees through her disguise after he notices her. George vows to protect her as best he can.
On the boat, they meet a French woman named Madame de Thoux who asks George about his home. She quickly realizes that George Harris, Eliza’s husband is her brother. She tells George Shelby that she was born into slavery like her brother but was sold to a nice man who later married her and took her to the West Indies. He died recently leaving her a fortune. After hearing about George Shelby’s home, Cassy realizes that Eliza may be her long lost daughter. Cassy and Emmeline travel to Montreal where George and Eliza now live. George works as a machinist and Eliza has had a second child. The family tearfully reunite and Madame de Thoux offers to share her fortune with them. They sail to France from Canada where they live for a few years before eventually returning to the US.
George continues to advocate the abolition of slavery and the immigration of blacks to a West African nation called Liberia that was founded by the US government to house freed slaves. George, Eliza, and their family eventually move to Liberia. George Harris returns home and tells Chloe about her husband’s death. He then frees all of his slaves. They ask not to be sent away and he tells them that he will begin paying them wages and that when he dies they will be freed. He tells them about Uncle Tom’s death and asks them to remember their freedom whenever they see Tom’s cabin.
In the epilog, the author makes an impassioned plea to the North and South to end slavery in the name of Christianity.
Uncle Tom – the title character of the story. An older man who is a slave in the 1850’s and spends the novel getting passed from master to master, never knowing if they will be kind or cruel. Tom is presented as a noble, honest man who is trusted by his kinder masters to handle finances and other sensitive things. Because of these character attributes, at the time of the book’s publishing Tom was considered heroic. However, in the nearly 200 years since it’s release views on Tom’s character have changed somewhat.Since the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, Tom’s passivity and acceptance of his situation has become incomprehensible to
Since the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, Tom’s passivity and acceptance of his situation has become incomprehensible to twentieth-century readers. The novel now seems old fashioned and Tom’s character a testament to past standards. In fact, the term “Uncle Tom” has entered the American lexicon as an insult, meant to imply an image of an old black man who is only eager to please his masters and happy to accept his position as a subordinate.
However, this generalization, while sometimes valid does not take into account the reason for Tom’s passivity: his deep sense of religion.
Some Christianity is the main driving force behind his character and it is that force that compels him to accept his situation and endure his punishments and trials with stoicism and grace.
At every place that Tom stops in the novel, he brings with him a message of peace and unity with God and manages to affect people in a positive way. In this way he can almost be seen as more of a Christ-like figure, selflessly accepting his pain and spreading a message of Christianity as far as he can.
Additionally, though Tom may not actively seek to defy his masters his does resist them when it comes to orders that he feels are against his personal values or sense of justice, such as when he refuses to whip the slave girl after Legree orders him to.
Stowe attempts to show the reader that Tom’s cruel masters would benefit from his selfless Christian love and that if they were to embrace it, perhaps slavery would be over. In this way, she shows, Tom as a heroic model for all people and not just African Americans.
Eliza Harris – a young mother who escapes Mr. Shelby’s farm when she hears that he is going to sell her son, Harry to another master. Eliza’s character was inspired by a story told to Stowe’s husband, Calvin about a slave woman who escaped across the icy Ohio river with her child in her arms. This later became the novel’s most famous scene.
Eliza is another example of a heroic, brave character in the novel and a staunchly religious one. She is a mother who cares so much for her child that she risks her life to rescue him from being sold to a cruel master.
Another part of Stowe’s inspiration for Eliza’s character was the loss of one of her own children in early childhood. This loss made Stowe realize how difficult it would be for a slave mother to lose her child through human intervention. By creating an image of a protective mother that transcends race, Stowe hoped to inspire white mothers to join the abolitionist movement.
George Shelby – the son of Mr. Shelby, Eliza and Tom’s master. At the beginning of the novel, George is a young boy who loves Tom and regularly spends time in his cabin listening to the older man’s stories and teaching him to read and write. George is greatly saddened when his father sells Tom and promises to “save” him when he grows into a man. George spends the bulk of the novel away from the main action, only reappearing as a grown man to show us how much time has passed over the course of the story and to make good on his promise to save Tom.
He is a diligent, intelligent man who manages to track Tom down across the country after many years and many sales of the man. George (perhaps because of Tom’s influence) grows into a noble young man who is concerned with getting justice for the slaves he inherited after his father’s passing. This concern is brought to life at the end when he frees all of his slaves after Tom’s death. However, the slaves insist on staying at the Shelby farm because of the kind treatment they have received and their love for George. George agrees to this on the condition that he will start paying them and keep them on as staff instead of slaves.
Simon Legree – the slave owner who eventually kills Tom at the end of the book. Legree is an evil, cruel man who encourages his slaves to be cruel to each other and keeps two slave woman as his unwilling mistresses. Legree is probably the most obvious villain of the story and presented mainly as a foil to Tom’s good nature. Legree is even presented near fire and flames often throughout the book, further cementing his devilish presentation.
Legree does not receive much character growth or in-depth analysis behind his actions.
It is revealed that he had a very close relationship with his mother whom he considered angelic. Legree’s character is effectively shown as the representation of the worst of the worst of slavery. He endeavors to break Tom’s religious faith and, although he beats Tom to death in the end, still ‘loses’ in the realest sense as Tom dies a Christian man and forgiving the men who killed him.
Eva St. Clare – the daughter of Tom’s second master in the book. Eva and Tom meet on a ship traveling down the Mississippi river and immediately bond over their shared faith and Christianity. Eva announces to Tom that she will ask her father to buy him so that he can escape an uncertain fate with Mr. Haley and then fulfills her own prophecy after accidentally falling off of the ship. True to her word, after Tom saves her Eva asks her father to buy Tom and her father agrees.
Eva is presented as sweet, kind and is often referred to as “angelic”. She is kind to not only the slaves in her father’s estate but all people she comes into contact with. Eva’s death happens quickly. On her deathbed she continues to fight for the cause of abolition as best she can and insists that her father frees his slaves after her death. Even though she is a child, she is not afraid of her death and seems to be happy to be joining her God in heaven.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Biography
Harriet Beecher Stowe was an American writer and abolitionist who wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, one of the most powerful novels of it’s kind in American literature. She was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of a liberal clergyman named Lyman Beecher and a mother, Roxana who died when she was a small child. The seventh of thirteen children, Harriet attended Hartford Female Seminary, receiving an education usually reserved for males of her era.
When Harriet was just 21, she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to attend the Lane Theological Seminary, of which her father had recently become president.
While in Ohio, Harriet joined a literary salon whose members included, Emily Blackwell, the third woman to earn a medical degree in the United States.
Another member of the club was Rev. Calvin Ellis Stowe, an ardent opponent of slavery whom Harriet later married in 1836. Her first book, “The Mayflower” or “Sketches of Scene and Characters Among the Descendants of the Pilgrims”, appeared in 1843. While living in Brunswick, Maine she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a forceful indictment of slavery. It was serialized in an abolitionist paper, the National Era and issued as a book in 1852.
The book was an instant success and the next year Harriet published “A Key To Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, an impressive collection of documentary evidence in support of her attack on slavery. After the American Civil War, Harriet moved to Florida and became one of the first editors of “Hearth and Home” magazine, one of the first magazines to be targeted exclusively toward women.
Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896 at the age of 85. She was buried in Andover, Massachusetts in a historic cemetery.