Summary of the Novel
Several stories intertwine throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but they all center on two main plots. One plot focuses on the Harris family, the other on Uncle Tom.
Mr. Shelby is a considerate master, but he must sell Tom to Haley, the slave trader, to pay off some debts. Eliza, Mrs. Shelby’s servant, rightly fears that her son Harry will also be sold to Haley. She escapes to Ohio, taking Harry with her. Along the way, Eliza is assisted by Senator and Mrs. Bird, as well as a Quaker community. George Harris, Eliza’s husband, runs away too after learning that his master refuses to lend him any longer to Mr. Wilson, a generous factory owner. The Harris family eventually reaches the safety of Canada, after being pursued unsuccessfully by slave catchers.
Meanwhile, St. Clare purchases Tom from Haley after Little Eva befriends the pious slave. Miss Ophelia, St. Clare’s cousin from New England, visits and manages the St. Clare household in New Orleans. She also takes in Topsy as her ward. Eva dies after a prolonged illness, and a mournful St. Clare decides to free Tom. St. Clare is murdered, however, before he can draw up the papers. Tom is sold to Simon Legree, who runs a plantation in Louisiana. Legree beats Tom to death when the slave refuses to confess the whereabouts of Cassy and Emmeline, two of Legree’s slaves who have run away. Cassy joins the Harrises in Canada, and they relocate to Africa.
Estimated Reading Time
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is 451 pages long, and should take approximately 15-18 hours to read. The book consists of 45 chapters, and reading breaks can be taken after every two or three chapters.
The Life and Work of Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born on June 14, 1811, in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was raised in a family of ministers, two of them quite famous in their time: her father, Lyman Beecher, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher. In fact, six of her seven brothers were ministers and she even married a clergyman, Calvin Stowe. Two of her sisters, Catharine and Isabella, became actively involved in reform movements, including education and women’s rights.
Stowe herself became known as the celebrated author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Written in 1852, nine years prior to the Civil War, the book stirred up much controversy among both Southerners and Northerners for its attack on slavery. Even then, the book quickly became a best-seller, with one million copies sold within the first year of its publication. Afterwards, upon meeting Stowe at the White House in 1862, Abraham Lincoln supposedly quipped: “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that made this great war.”
Prior to this renown, Stowe aided her sister Catharine at the Hartford Female Seminary from 1824 to 1832. The family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832 when Lyman Beecher became the director of the Lane Theological Seminary. Here, Stowe came into contact with such abolitionists, or anti-slavery people, as Theodore Weld and Salmon Chase. She also met her husband Calvin, who was a professor of religion at the school. They married in 1836.
Stowe developed an early interest in writing and began to publish her work in 1833. Ten years later, a collection of her short stories entitled The Mayflower appeared. The task of writing, however, was never easy for her. She constantly had to find a balance between her life as an author and as a wife and a mother to seven children. As she put it: “I mean to have money enough to have my house kept in the best manner and yet to have time for reflection and that preparation for the education of my children which every mother needs.”
The Stowes moved and traveled a great deal. In 1850, they returned from the Midwest to New England, where Calvin taught at Bowdoin College in Maine. The family relocated to Andover, Massachusetts in 1852, and then to Hartford, Connecticut in 1864. They also maintained a summer residence in Florida from 1868 to 1884. At three intervals during the 1850s, Stowe journeyed to Europe.
Much of these experiences contributed to Stowe’s prolific writing. She published four novels about the New England region: The Minister’s Wooing (1859), The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), and Poganuc People (1878). Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands (1854) was gleaned from her European travels, and Palmetto-Leaves (1873) from her insights on Florida. Stowe also wrote for several magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly, as well as other volumes of essays, novels, and histories. None of these projects, however, received the widespread notice that made Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most popular novels in the nineteenth century. Harriet Beecher Stowe died on July 1, 1896.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Stowe’s first novel. Initially printed by installments in the National Era, an antislavery weekly published in Washington, D.C., 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 1850’s.
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, D.C., organized the New Mexico and Utah territories without prohibiting slavery, and enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which forced Northerners to assist in returning fugitive slaves 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 slave 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 his slaves, 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 slaves, 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.