Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Mr. Shelby: benevolent owner of a Kentucky plantation

Mrs. Shelby: Mr. Shelby’s religious wife

Haley: a slave trader

Eliza: Mrs. Shelby’s servant, Harry’s mother

Harry: four- or five-year-old son of Eliza

The book opens with a scene in which Mr. Shelby and Haley the slave trader are discussing business matters on Shelby’s plantation in Kentucky. Mr. Shelby, a gentleman planter described as “a fair average kind of man, good-natured and kindly,” has fallen into debt and must sell Uncle Tom, a trustworthy servant. Mr. Shelby vouches for Tom’s good working habits and Christian character. Haley, however, desires that more slaves be added to the deal to cover the debt. Little Harry, a boy slave, playfully interrupts the meeting and entertains the men with singing and dancing. Eliza, Harry’s mother and Mrs. Shelby’s personal servant, comes to retrieve her son. After they leave, Haley tries to convince Mr. Shelby to sell Eliza and Harry. Mr. Shelby refuses to sell Eliza out of respect for his wife, but he reluctantly considers parting with Harry.

Eliza overhears some of the two men’s conversation when she takes away Harry and proceeds to tell Mrs. Shelby her worries. Mrs. Shelby is unaware of her husband’s troubled financial status, and naively reassures Eliza that nothing will happen to her or her child. Mrs. Shelby is portrayed as “a woman of high class, both intellectually and morally.”

The reader is introduced to the conscience-stricken Mr. Shelby, who has fallen on hard times, and the greedy slave trader, Haley. Despite being a refined gentleman and humane slave owner, Mr. Shelby becomes caught in the morally distressing situation of dealing in human property. He treats his slaves kindly, almost as if they are a larger part of the family. Because the slaves are considered as humans and as property, their status only makes Mr. Shelby’s decision to sell some of them more painful. Mr. Shelby chooses to sell Uncle Tom to cover some debts he owes to Haley. Tom at this point does not appear in the chapter, but the reader learns about him from Mr. Shelby’s description. He emphasizes that Tom had been converted to Christianity four years ago, and can be trusted with various chores around the plantation. Since Tom is a valuable servant, Mr. Shelby hopes that the sale will be enough to end his debt.

Haley, on the other hand, is the opposite in character to Mr. Shelby. The slave trader is portrayed as “a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features,…a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world.” Being shrewd and greedy, Haley is aware of Mr. Shelby’s financial situation and takes advantage of it, asking for another slave in addition to Tom to settle the debt. When little Harry and Eliza enter the room, Haley offers to take them both. Mr. Shelby initially balks at Haley’s bartering methods. As he states to the slave trader: “I’m a humane man, and I hate to take the boy from his mother, sir.” Mr. Shelby’s humanity is flawed, however, by his own financial...

(The entire section is 793 words.)