During her life, Harriet Beecher Stowe had been personally disturbed by slavery but socially and publicly uncommitted to action until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The passage of this cruel, inhumane, un-Christian act caused her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe brought a moral passion to her indictment of slavery which was impossible for Americans to forget. Harriet Beecher Stowe had great dramatic instincts as a novelist. She saw everything in terms of polarities: slavery as sin versus Christian love; men active in the cruel social process of buying and selling slaves versus women as redeemers, by virtue of their feelings for family values. She depicts the glory of family life in Uncle Tom’s cabin—glory that is contrasted with Tom’s separation from his family and his unhappy end at the Legree plantation.
Undoubtedly, many events in the novel were taken from Stowe’s life. While her husband Calvin Stowe, a biblical scholar, was a teacher at Lane Theological Seminary, she had lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where slavery was a prominent issue because Cincinnati was a location where many slaves tried to escape North. She understood slavery as an economic system and had also heard many details and anecdotes about slavery from family members. Her brother Charles had worked in Louisiana, and her brother Edward had lived through riots over slavery in Illinois. Harriet Beecher Stowe knew Josiah Henson, an escaped slave, who was the model for Uncle Tom. Eliza Harris was drawn from life. She may have been a fugitive who was helped by Calvin Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher. The original of Eva was the dead daughter of Stowe herself. The original of Topsy was a slave named Celeste, who was known to the Stowe family in Cincinnati. The character Simon Legree, although sketched by Charles Stowe, owes much to writers of melodrama and gothic novelists as well as the imagination of Harriet Beecher Stowe herself.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first section takes place on the Shelby estate. It is an accurate description of the scene, since Stowe had been as far South as Kentucky. The second section, which introduces Topsy, Evangeline, and St. Clare, enriches the novel with wit and humor. This section, containing descriptions of the efforts of Miss Ophelia to discipline Topsy, points to the true moral of the tale—that love is above the law. After the efforts of Miss Ophelia are unsuccessful, it is the superhuman love of Little Eva that starts Topsy on the path toward decency and honesty. The third section, containing Simon Legree, introduces terror into the novel. In the wild flight of Eliza at the beginning of the novel, one sees a similar terror, which is a dramatic foreboding of the powerful conclusion of the novel. The secluded wilderness plantation of Legree, with its grotesque and cruel inhabitants, its pitiable victims, and the intervention of supernatural powers, could be material for a gothic novelist such as Ann Radcliffe.
The last few chapters of the novel, which are reflections on slavery, are anticlimactic. The true end of the story comes with the end of Tom in chapter 40, when “Legree, foaming with rage, smote his victim to the ground.” Tom nobly suffered martyrdom, lingering long enough to bid farewell to his young master from Kentucky, who had reached him too late to buy his freedom. George Harris was a new man once he regarded himself as “free,” but Uncle Tom had an outlook that was different from that of George Harris and his creator, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Tom was a true Christian among the heathen, and for him, slavery was only one added indignity. His reading of the New Testament, an “unfashionable old book,” separated him more completely from his fellows than did either his race or his status as a slave. Tom wanted his freedom as ardently as Stowe wanted it for him, but he preferred slavery and martyrdom to dishonorable flight. He was a black Christ who was shaming a Yankee Satan. The conviction of Stowe against slavery was so strong that she had “religious” visions, such as that of the killing of Uncle Tom—visions that she included as scenes in the novel.