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    Thoughts on Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Entry 1)

    July 5, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I don’t know how many times I’ll actually post on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it certainly is thought-provoking, so I’m preparing ahead of time by titling this “Entry 1.” For today, I want to explore the idea of using the name “Uncle Tom” as a derogatory term.

    {NOTE: this entry will contain spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens in the book, please don’t read it! I actually hadn’t read to the end, and spoiled it for myself by researching this issue a little. Drat.}

    Wikipedia tells us:

    Uncle Tom is a derogatory term for a person of a low status group who is overly sub-serviant {sic} with authority, or a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people.

    I heard the term used this way on a talk radio show last week {I listen while I cook, what can I say?}, and I have to admit I was baffled as to why exactly Tom would be considered a negative. He is, after all, the hero of the story.

    When I read the entire Wikipedia article, I discovered that it is {supposedly–we’re talking Wikipedia, after all} the perceived femininity of Uncle Tom that seems to be at the root of the negative connotations. Readers, I suppose, wanted a strong man who fought back, rather than a martyr.

    Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin
    {assigned for AO Year 10}

    In reading the book as a whole, though, I think that Tom’s character falls in line with the greater theme. Many, if not most, of the characters, in this book are working out their salvation in the context of a slave-owning society. It is easy for us to look back and offer the blanket statement that American slavery was wrong.

    Well, of course it was wrong. But if that was the culture I was born into, what would it look like for me to improve upon my baptism in that environment?

    The book features many Christians, each seeking Christ’s will in the context of their own lives. So we see Uncle Tom refusing to run away because he is a Christian, and we also see Eliza running away because she is a Christian. Interestingly enough, both of them are taking these actions initially because they believe others will benefit. In the case of Tom, he allows himself to be sold {he was given warning, and could have run if he wished} because he knows his master is in debt, and he believes that allowing himself to be sold will offer protection to his wife and beloved children, along with his other friends and loved ones on the plantation {because they have a good and kind master, and because they might be sold to a master who is otherwise if the master doesn’t get his financial house in order}. Tom offers himself as a living sacrifice for others.

    In the case of Eliza, her only living son has been sold. She fears that if he is sent down the river, he will lose not only his life, but his soul, for the plantations in the deep South were not known for educating their slaves in Christianity like those in Kentucky. Naturally, she also does not want to be parted from her son.

    What I found fascinating was that I couldn’t get away from the idea that both characters were making the right choice, even though those choices, viewed two-dimensionally, seem to be opposite choices. It is this sort of thing that makes Uncle Tom’s Cabin such a challenging read.

    What has struck me is that this book, unlike many classic novels, is so thoroughly Christian in its perspective, that it is likely impossible for someone outside of Christianity to understand its heart. The characteristics which people seem to despise in Uncle Tom are quite Christlike. Now, I think that Stowe has, in a way, divided Christ up and given a measure of Him to each character. So Tom isn’t perfectly Christlike–Tom expresses the meekness of Christ when He went to the Cross. {Just like Tom, Christ knew what was coming, and His response was “not my will, Father, but Yours be done.”} The world will never understand martyrdom until they understand Christ.

    The fact that Tom has become a byword over time is, I think, symptomatic of our culture. We do not readily sacrifice ourselves–even on the smallest level–for others. We are a very selfish culture {I know, because I am naturally very selfish, and I don’t think I’m unique in that}. Tom is an affront to our sensibilities because we consider self-sacrifice to be demeaning.

    We forget that Tom is living in light of eternity and final judgment. Stowe makes this very clear. He is not sacrificing himself because he is weak or foolish; he is sacrificing himself because he believes the gospel. He believes that obedience has value, that the last shall be first, that the foolish things of this world would shame the wise, and so on.

    Stowe’s book gets shrugged off as silly because of these associations with Tom, and yet I find the questions it raises intriguing, to say the least. I put myself in the shoes of Miss Ophelia, for example, who is from the free North. If a slave-owning cousin asked me to come run his household, would I even go? And yet it was in going to the South that Miss Ophelia saw her own heart–saw that she loved the idea of giving blacks freedom, but that she was still stained with prejudice. It is in the South that she learns not to love the idea of blacks, but love little Topsy, who is given to her by her cousin, and whom she intends {at the point where I am in the story thus far} to take home with her, and set free. In is in Miss Ophelia’s blossoming relationship with Topsy that we see the power and triumph of real love, and the necessity of repentance when we see that love is lacking in our own hearts.

    I am sure a month of discussions could be had thanks to this book; that is what makes it a worthy read.

    So…have you read it? What do you think? Is Tom a shame to his race? Or is he simply so Christlike that he, too, becomes a stumbling block?

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    5 Comments

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts July 7, 2011 at 5:18 am

    We’ve been sick for the last 24 hours…and what a nice surprise to jump on here and see such wonderful comments! I love thinking through all of your ideas here!

    Amy: I think Wikipedia said something similar to what you are saying here, as far as the root of “Uncle Tom” becoming an epithet of sorts. I mentioned also that, in Stowe’s time, copyright was not what it is now, which gave her no power to control those who would use her creations in favor of slavery. How discouraging for her!

    I must say…how much fun to have taught this book! It really is fodder for a lot of discussion. Every chapter is brimming with controversial ideas. I agree with Baldwin, that she does slip into a “pamphleteer” mode now and then–scolding or directly teaching her readers in the way no true novelist would dare, but I took that with a grain of salt because my introduction told me that it was originally a series. I understood that she was not a novelist in the proper sense. She still managed to write an admirable work, in my opinion.

    Phyllis and Slivia: One of the reasons I started keeping a reading journal {or blogging about it online} was because it seemed all of my reading went in and flowed right back out. Nothing stuck! Even with the journalling, I find that after a few years, I can reread a book and have it seem very fresh. Of course, I have heard Andrew Kern suggest that a good book is worth reading a minimum of three times, and I wonder if there is something to that. It will be fun to go back through it with my children when they read it for AO.

    Willa: I wondered the same thing! “Have they even read it?” I agree that the tone is as Baldwin claimed–very sentimental. I was thinking something similar, that this seems to be the tone of her age, for the most part. I didn’t find it to be so overdone that I couldn’t stand it, which is the case with some books from that era.

    In all, I think what I appreciate about the book thus far is its poetic nature. I can envision the power this book had {and some do say it started a war!}. It attacks both North and South in its own way, and it defeats slavery at its very core: it not only humanizes slaves, it Christianizes them. I can only imagine what would happen in the North, where even there they viewed blacks as inferior {for the most part} and then their eyes were opened and they realized that these people were their Christian brothers and sisters–what a powerful experience.

    Having read Poetic Knowledge recently, I am intrigued by the power of story in general to not only teach a “fact” such as “slavery = wrong” but to convict the heart through the use of emotion and imagery. Very interesting…

  • Reply Willa July 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin several years ago. Uncle Tom reminded me very much of Christ, especially at the end. I never understood our society’s reaction to him (perhaps they haven’t actually read the book). He is one of my fictional heroes, actually!

    I can sort of understand Baldwin’s reaction to the tone of the book; but I think he is too one-sided. That emotional tone is fairly common in novels of the 19th century; you find it in George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell as well as Louisa May Alcott. Well, in Dickens, too, for that matter.

  • Reply Silvia July 6, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    I had the same experience as Phyllis. I missed all the cultural criticism and points you bring. I just read it without any bias and I cried and loved the story. I was a young girl, in my twenties.
    I’d love to read it now, I will.
    I’d like to see this in the light of Life is So Good. George Dawson is a black man too, and he could have lived free in Mexico, but he preferred to be home in Texas despite the segregation and hardships they endured at those times.
    From us outside of the black community, it is hard to understand that they may want to ‘submit’ to their ‘fate’, and not live under the parameters of slavery or free as concepts, but just deal with it in personal and human terms, with dignity and honor. It is hard because we have no familiar referents unless our ancestors or family lived in a sort of environment like some people I know who lived under dictatorships or other forms of social injustice.
    Amy, that sounds a good description of sentimentality, the point is, would Uncle Tom or Little Women be sentimental books or genuine? I’ll read again and decide that.

  • Reply Phyllis July 6, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    I read it a few years ago, but I need to read it again, because as I read what you’ve written here, I find that I don’t remember much. I did enjoy it much more than I thought I would. I had heard so much of the criticism, and I’m a pretty critical reader myself, so I guess I didn’t expect to like it. However, I found it to be a very beautiful and touching book. Beyond that, I don’t remember. 🙂

  • Reply Amy July 5, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    I found much of the early criticism that closed the door on this book was based more the popular culture’s portrayal of this book. The early silent films and the merchandise that turned Tom into a cultural commodity, portrayed a Tom that seemed sentimental and foolish. See examples here: http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/tomituds/tohp.html
    But this isn’t a fair representation of the novel and your points are still valid but I think it helps explain the backlash. The popular plays of the day also went further than the films as portraying him as a Christ-figure, having him take the pose of Christ on the cross in his death scene which I think showed more of a sentimentality than a true sacrifice.
    But it was the criticism of Baldwin that most of my students have found the most persuasive, when he wrote, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.
    …she was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer; her book was not intended to do anything more than prove that slavery was wrong…This makes material for a pamphlet but it is hardly enough for a novel.”

    It was one of my favorite books to teach since there was so much to discuss!

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