Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Individual Action v. Political Reform

Individual Action vs. Political Reform in Uncle Tom’s Cabin 

Within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe champions emotion and empathy over political action, resulting in the novel arguing for a shift in individual actions rather than substantial political reform. In doing so, the novel  reveals the limitations of sentimentalism rather than overcoming them. The cultural consequences of both Stowe’s sentimentalism and resulting racism offer unsatisfactory solutions founded on escapism, sympathy, and neighborly love, rather than fully imagining a racially diverse community. When reading against the grain, it becomes apparent that Stowe’s sentimental genre contributes to the racial literalism of antebellum culture by creating a white book about black people. 

With financially-stable white Americans serving as the ideal demographic for both her audience and many of her so-called relatable characters, Stowe limits the intended political effectiveness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by relying on specific emotional interpretations to guide her presentation. As a result, the intended impact of character’s often falls short or results in failure, changes in character’s perspective only actively exist within the comforts of home, and the influence of Christianity falls short to a society dependent on slavery and guided by prejuidice. 

Sympathetic characters such as Mr. and Mrs. Bird, Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, or Master George represent Stowe’s target audience. However, the idealization of their role in the novel is undermined when they continually fall short of their abolitionist-inspired expectations.  The Birds were created to display their empathetic interactions with characters of color while representing the optimistic intentions of the novel. However, the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Bird are solely moved by the physical presence of Eliza demonstrates one of the largest shortcomings of Stowe’s sentimentalism. Mr. Bird’s reaction to Eliza, moments after discussing his political stances and support of slavery, was described as such:

He laid down his paper…and started, quite amazed at the sight that presented itself: – A young and slender woman, with garments torn and frozen…There was the impress of the despised race on her face, yet none could help feeling its mournful and pathetic beauty (Stowe 115). 

Physically seeing Eliza’s beauty and helplessness is what prompts Mr. Bird to reconsider his course of action when helping a runaway slave but the reactions of readers are inhibited by the fact that they must rely solely on a written account of the interaction. Before Eliza arrived on their doorstep, Mr. Bird was supportive of the slavery agenda and Mrs. Bird didn’t trouble herself with anything that fell outside of her domestic sphere. If Stowe’s characters require dramatic interactions with people of color to change their way of thinking, her message isn’t strong enough to make a lasting impact on readers relying on a purely written account of the event. 

After the emotional introduction to Eliza, Mr. Bird admits that when returning to work in the Senate he will “feel rather cheap there, after all that’s been said and done; but, hang it, I can’t help it!” (Stowe 121). Even one of the sentimental peaks of Uncle Tom’s Cabin remained ineffective in the face of true political action. While Mr. Bird’s sympathy gave Eliza a warm bed for the night, it did not grant her any freedom. 

Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, although sympathetic to the struggles of their slaves, also never took action to prevent the sale of Eliza’s son or Uncle Tom. Although both Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird spoke of the importance of maintaining Christian values, the financial and political arguments coming from their husbands ultimately overruled their concerns. 

Master George, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, stands to be the only character to take significant action against the instituion of slavery. However, the results of his action continue to be a disappointment. After traveling to reunite with Uncle Tom and grant him his freedom, Master George is met with the death of his old friend. While Master George claims to be committed to doing everything in his power to fight slavery, his resulting inaction is stiffling. When the other enslaved people living on the plantation beg for their freedom, he responds by saying “I can’t!- I can’t!…It’s impossible!” (Stowe 453). However, moments later, he proclaims to God that he will “do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!” (Stowe 453). From his rejection to help the enslaved people standing next to him, it seems that one man cannot do anything. 

Instead of addressing the slavery crisis directly, Stowe instead champions the idea of traditional Republican motherhood when providing female characters with an active role. Many of the women she portrays hold a sense of moral superiority with the intention of creating a better world for their children rather than a community without slavery. The result is an emphasis on change existing solely within the home rather than succeeding in building a better future for every American, including people of color.

The idea that the ideal woman is a mother before she’s a wife, neighbor, or activist is portrayed by creating female characters that only use a sense of hyper-spiritualism as a justification for stepping outside of their strictly domestic realms. As a result,

…Stowe’s notion of sentiment as part of a feminine, maternal, and domestic realm that is ostensibly opposed to the masculine realms of law and the marketplace…Stowe’s antislavery fiction is seen as offering sentiment as an antilegal or nonlegal alternative to the law of slavery…by emphatically diving sentiment and law, heart and head (Crane 3).

By dividing feminine and masculine perspectives as such, Stowe negates the ability of her female characters to spark political change by confining them to a strictly sentimental realm. 

By creating women that are limited by the expectations of Republican motherhood, their influence is restricted to parenting their sons alone. While the success of the model was seen in Master George, the argument that no colored people ever saw their freedom as a result remains true as Uncle Tom dies before living as a free man and Stowe’s political action continues to be confined within the home’s of her characters. Furthermore, the generational emphasis on morality is contained to good white boys with the hopes of making them good white men. The role of Eliza’s son is to serve as an object of pity, not as a beacon of hope for a generation of black men that are destined to contribute something great to the future of America. Stowe positions mothers of color in a perpetual state of frenzied protection and denies them the ability to demonstrate the passing of these same moral values onto their own children. While Stowe introduces the idea of education for colored children, it can never seem to originate from their own mothers. 

By emphasizing a cultural and economic investment in domestic refinement, Stowe’s writings exemplify an “influential bourgeois discourse of sentimental proprietorship” (Merish 3). This sense of ownership perpetuates a standard of class, ethnic, and gender identifications that conflict with her intentions of equality and the unconditional love she preaches. As a result, the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin tends to shift in focus from the slavery crisis to white family tragedies. Stowe presents a sense of sentimental ownership that perpetuates her ideal of domestic consumption that expresses certain standards for class and national identifications while oppressing the possibility for a culture that is diverse in the subject of both race and class. “This discourse of regenerative proprietary practices highlights the significance of objects in the emotional culture of persons” (Merish 3). By naturalizing middle-class patterns of ownership, Stowe continuously objectifies people of color and capitalizes on their property status while enslaved. Stowe’s synthetic formula of beloved animated objects attempts to create a reconstruction of “‘humanized’ African Americans while notoriously falling short of representing them as full civil subjects” (Merish 4). 

Stowe considered sentiment to be the medium of human conscience, relying on American citizens to have a deep, emotional response to the conflict between the law of slavery and the higher laws of the natural rights tradition. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mr. Wilson, after voicing his compliance to the Fugitive Slave Act, aids George’s escape after his describing the sale of his mother, the whipping of his sister, and the obstruction of his marriage. 

Stowe’s sentiments are divided between a sympathetic feeling that calls for a form of self sacrifice and a revolutionary anger that mandates a level of active resistance which results in a “tension in Stowe’s notion of natural rights sentiment between moral emotion as a spiritual form of power and moral emotion as a license for the seizure, possession, and exercise of material power that is not resolved in her antislavery novels (Crane 3).  As a result, Stowe tries, but fails, to imagine a sentimental revolution that rights the wrongs of slavery. 

The insistence of a profound textual effect on a, presumably white, reader’s emotional response relies on a particular emotional history. By repeatedly directly addressing the reader, Stowe reveals her novel’s dependability on an emotional response. Sentimental fiction notoriously serves as the “literature of love” (Pelletier 1) and Stowe’s sentimentality has the intention to result in an “affective bond formed across lines of difference” (Pelletier 1). While compassion can serve as a solution, during the slavery crisis, divides and prejuidices were too pronounced to be politically solved by Stowe’s vision alone. It’s unsuccessful in promoting political action because it relies too heavily on a highly specific emotional response. Because of this, “the separation of the cultural and aesthetic functions of Stowe’s sentimentalism” (Fluck 1) is necessary to form a deeper understanding of the literary strategy. But unfortunately, it seems that the intention of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to promote cultural change via emotional response and Christian aestheticism. 

Stowe’s intentions are for the development of  a country that is founded on and actively follows Christian values such as acceptance, charity, and equality. When reading against the grain, it’s discovered that the connections that Stowe draws between sentimentalism and Christianity suggest the limitations of religious authority in the face of racial prejudice rather than serving as a societal solution. As a result, her fascination with Christianity simply provides an escape from rather than a challenge to the system of slavery within the United States. Stowe’s sentimental fiction is seen simply as escapist, overly optimistic, blindly materialistic, and apologetic for the worst aspects of American culture. (Cut out mention of artistic merit)

Stowe’s sentimental peddling of Christianity is best illustrated by Eva’s death. Serving as the peak of sentimentality within the novel, Eva’s devotion to spreading messages of unconditional love and faith inspire those around her. However, it’s important to note that her death doesn’t actually result in freedom for any enslaved people. It simply stands to represent the possibilities for her audience without actually influencing their aspirations and “presents one version of the ethic of sacrifice on which the entire novel is based and contains in some form all of the motifs that, by their frequent recurrence, constitute the novel’s ideological framework” (Tompkins 128). 

In theory, even a child can be the instrument of redemption in others. But the limitations of Stowe’s vision for Eva are demonstrated in the novel’s introduction, because “what Eva sees when she stands ‘looking at Topsy’ is never specified. In this way, the novel registers the possibility of another perspective, a specifically Christian perspective, that might not see in terms of race at all (Claybaugh 30).  While the possibility for another perspective may exist, Stowe’s inability to fully imagine what Eva was able to see in Topsy reveals the limitations of her vision for unconditional love and resulting change in America. If Stowe herself is unable to describe what guides Eva’s faith, how is that faith going to influence antebellum America to reconsider their prejudices? Characters struggle to understand Eva’s patience with Topsy, as the little girl is depicted in scenes of sin and mischief time and time again. The only white characters to be profoundly affected by Eva’s death were St. Clare and Ophelia. St. Clare’s death resulted in his wife’s denial for their slave’s freedom and Ophelia, while eventually learning to tolerate Topsy, took her as her own slave to the North rather than granting her freedom. Ophelia’s final decision on what to do with Topsy signifies that Eva’s Christian influence served to promote a sense of moral acceptance among white characters instead of resulting in freedom for their colored slaves. 

Ophelia’s conflicting emotions towards slavery illustrate the feelings of Stowe and many antebellum Americans towards the institution of slavery and passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. The act raised questions regarding whether American law was based on moral principle or the self-interest of those with political and economic influence. Uncle Tom’s Cabin serves as a response to facing incongruity between morality and law. However, Stowe’s failure to realize the political reality of America is glaringly obvious in the sentimental solutions she presents:

The promise of the natural rights vision presented in Uncle Tom’s Cabin… lies in Stowe’s attempt to describe convincingly a moral authority for American law so deeply embedded in the national conscience that it is immune to the pull of factional self-interest and so emotionally galvanic that it can check the will of the powerful by moving Americans of good will to erradicate such tyrannies as slavery (Crane 2). 

Stowe’s sentimentalism promotes limited, interior consequences by perpetuating a form of trauma porn. Her failure to humanize enslaved people positions them as objects of sympathy rather than humans in their own right. The emotional implications and consequences of a white book about black people results in strictly promoting feelings of sympathy rather than encouraging the reality of diversity. Stowe’s promise of a Christian society is contained by her inability to fully imagine natural rights at the moral consensus and the fundamental entitlement of a racially diverse community. The unresolved tension in the United States regarding natural rights is undermined by her attempts to create sympathy in the face of revolutionary anger. Stowe “seems to be engaged in a serious intellectual defense of the sentimental ideal; she is trying to explain how naturally good human beings can lose their sensitivities to goodness” (Camfield 9). Explaining away the existence of evil in the best of circumstances results in an argument that doesn’t withstand the consequences of the severe political tension that existed within antebellum America.  

The lessons of Stowe’s writings have a continued effect on literature today: 

Sentimental novels written by women in the nineteenth century were responsible for a series of cultural events whose effects still plague us: the degeneration of American religion from theological rigor to anti-intellectual consumerism, the rationalization of unjust economic order, the propagation of the debased images of modern mass culture, and the encouragement of self-indulgence and narcissism in literature’s most avid readers- women (Tompkins 124). 

 Stowe’s story apologizes for an oppressive social order in hopes of softening the prejudices of her primarily ill-educated, unemployed female readership. The chief characteristics of a sentimental novel is that “it is written by, for, and about women” (Tompkins 125). Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a “story of salvation through motherly love” (Tompkins 125) that perpetuates a myth where women have any political power or central authority. In writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe fails to change multiple problematic dynamics and attempts only to represent them by making “continual and obvious appeals to the reader’s emotions and use technical devices that are distinguished by their utter conventionality, epitomize the opposite of everything that good literature is supposed to be” (Tompkins 125). 

Stowe’s Sunday-school fiction operates on principles that defy those that have been responsible for determining many American classics. Functioning “halfway between sermon and social theory” (Tompkins 126), Stowe attempts to mold the values of her time through her emphasis on family, power, social structure, and their relationship to human feeling. The notion that societal change only takes place through religious conversion is dramatized by Stowe’s insistence that all human events are made meaningful by the existence of a spiritual reality. 

The interior-focused results of Stowe’s characters reveals the consequences of her intentions. Her failure to imagine a diverse community ships characters of color back to Africa instead of integrating them into American society. By viewing African American characters as strictly African and refusing to recognize and legitimize their cultural contributions to America, Stowe severs the emotional ties her novel fought so desperately to create. 

The enormous popularity of the novel is the reason to pay close attention. As the first American novel to sell over a million copies, the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is incalculable. The novel functions as a culture’s favorite story about itself and perpetuates a narrow religion of domesticity. The role of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the modern classroom is a conflicting one. Analyzing the political implications of the novel in both nineteenth century and twenty-first century America reveals widespread interpretations of the effectiveness of it’s message. 

It’s impossible to discuss the initial popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin without acknowledging it’s diminishing presence in the modern classroom. Stowe created a story that was widely perceived as impactful, sensitive, and forth-coming in it’s time. However, the novel’s controversial status in communities of color has been the reception that stands the test of time. While Stowe creates an excellent example for the sentimental genre, it continues to be important to view the novel beyond the lense of a white, middle class America. The opportunity to find an argument for execution over intention survives in Stowe’s vision for the colored people of America. By white-washing and highlighting the beauty, strength, or honestly of her colored characters, Stowe prompts her readers to develop an emotional attachment to her introduction of a very specific brand of African American. This strictly emotional bond is damaging for all parties involved. A modern reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin should not seek to condemn the novel for it’s faults but to challenge readers to identify the narrow lense it creates.

Works Cited

Camfield, Gregg. “The Moral Aesthetics of Sentimentality: A Missing Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 43, no. 3, 1988, pp. 319–345. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3044896. Accessed 02 March 2020.

Crane, Gregg D. “Dangerous Sentiments: Sympathy, Rights, and Revolution in Stowe’s Antislavery Novels.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol. 51, no. 2, 1996, pp. 176–204. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2933960. Accessed 04 March 2020.

Fluck, Winfried. “The Power and Failure of Representation in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” New Literary History, vol. 23, no. 2, 1992, pp. 319–338. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/469239. Accessed 19 February 2020.

Merish, Lori. “Sentimental Consumption: Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Aesthetics of Middle-Class Ownership.” American Literary History, vol. 8, no. 1, 1996, pp. 1–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/490230. Accessed 08 March 2020.

Pelletier, Kevin. “David Walker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the Logic of Sentimental Terror.” African American Review, vol. 46, no. 2/3, 2013, pp. 255–269. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23784057. Accessed 19 February 2020.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher and Amanda Claybaugh. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. E-Book, Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003.  

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. E-Book, Academia, 2013. 

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