Uncle Tom's Cabin Summary
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an 1852 novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe about an enslaved man called Uncle Tom.
- Despite the fact that Tom is meek and obedient, his enslaver sells him.
- Tom meets a young girl named Eva St. Clare, whose father buys Tom. Eva makes her father agree to free all the people he has enslaved when he dies.
- St. Clare dies before he can free Tom and the other enslaved people. Tom is then sold to a Southern plantation owner who beats Tom to death when Tom refuses to reveal the whereabouts of two other enslaved people who have escaped.
Last Updated June 10, 2023.
Summary of Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin revolves around two central storylines. One story involves the Harris family, and the other story is centered around the character of Uncle Tom.
Despite being known as a considerate master, Mr. Shelby is forced to sell Uncle Tom to a slave trader named Haley to settle his debts. Eliza, one of Mrs. Shelby's servants, becomes worried that her son Harry will also be sold. To protect Harry, Mrs. Shelby and her son flee to Ohio. Along the way, they receive help from Senator and Mrs. Bird and a Quaker community. Meanwhile, George Harris, Eliza's husband, also decides to escape after realizing his master will not continue to lend him to the kind factory owner, Mr. Wilson. Eventually, the Harris family successfully reaches Canada, despite being chased by slave catchers.
St. Clare buys Tom from Haley after Little Eva becomes friends with him. Miss Ophelia, St. Clare's cousin from New England, visits and takes over managing the household. She also takes in Topsy as her responsibility. After Eva passes away from illness, St. Clare decides to free Tom but is killed before he can complete the process. Tom is then sold to Simon Legree in Louisiana, where he is beaten to death for not revealing the location of two runaway slaves named Cassy and Emmeline. Cassy eventually joins the Harris family in Canada before they move to Africa.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Stowe’s first novel. Initially printed by installments in the National Era, an antislavery weekly published in Washington, DC, from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852, it was a best-selling book of previously unheard of proportions. It was an instant success and soon acquired fame in many parts of the world.
It is not easy, however, to make a clear judgment of the merits of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Those who exclude works that cater to the taste of the masses from the realm of high culture have difficulty describing its artistry in positive terms. Moreover, Stowe has been criticized for her depiction and characterization of Black people, which led to numerous stereotypical and trivial imitations on the stage, in almanacs, in songs and poems, and even in paintings.
Stowe’s depiction of women has often been objectionable to modern sensibilities, because her women seem to be restricted to moral issues as they play themselves out in the domestic sphere. Underlying her portrayal of Black people and women is an acceptance of the power of Christianity that is alien to modern readers. These three interwoven issues, the place of women and Black people and the role of Christianity, are at the core of the novel and make it a central literary and political document of the American experience in the 1850s.
If one accepts the standards set by male writers of the American tradition, which depicted masculine confrontation with nature, as exemplified in the frontier myth of the American male, Stowe’s novel seems naïvely visionary, lacking in complex philosophical content, overly melodramatic, and awkwardly plotted. It was earmarked as a book for women and children. It was not until critics such as Jane Tompkins reexamined the novel that Stowe’s efforts to reorganize society from a woman’s point of view came to be recognized.
The book appeared amid a growing controversy over race and religion. The author wrote in reaction to the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a free state; abolished the slave trade in Washington, DC; organized the New Mexico and Utah territories without prohibiting slavery; and enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which forced Northerners to assist...
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in returning fugitive enslaved people to their owners. Although Stowe was hardly the first to point to slavery’s destruction of both Black and white families, her novel presented a very effective fusion of the sentimental novel with the rhetoric of an antislavery polemic.
Tom, a broad-chested, strong enslaved man who lives with his wife and children in a small hut near the house of his master in Kentucky, is sold by his master (against the will of the master’s wife) in order to pay off debts. Tom is sold “down the river” and expects the worst: to work on a Southern plantation. On the boat, he meets Evangelina (Eva), a perfect, angelic child. In her character, the tradition of children in sentimental literature and the ministerial leader of evangelical social reform are combined into a childlike female Christ figure. She persuades her father, Augustine St. Clare, to buy Tom, who is bought as Evangelina’s playmate and keeper. Evangelina dies and makes her father promise to free those he has enslaved, but before he signs the papers, St. Clare dies and thus inadvertently sets in motion Tom’s demise.
Tom is sold to Simon Legree, who tortures and finally kills Tom because he is unwilling to betray two fellow enslaved people, Cassey and Emmelina, who fled from their brutal, sexually abusive master. Tom’s death is a direct result of his aggressive nonviolence and makes him a Black Christ figure. Numerous subplots and their respective characters depict various aspects and views of slavery and miscegenation.