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Themes

(Novels for Students)

Human Rights
Slavery took many rights away from the enslaved. The loss of the basic right to have an intact family was perhaps its cruelest effect. Stowe targeted her white female audience in addressing this denial of human rights, knowing she would find empathy in this group that was devoted to family and home. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, she emphasizes the slaves' right to family by focusing on the destructive effect slavery has on several slave families. Speaking for Stowe, Mrs. Shelby asks her husband not to sell Harry and Uncle Tom because she believes slave families should be allowed to stay together. On her deathbed, little Eva tells her father that the slaves love their children as much as he loves her. Through Eliza's courageous escape with Harry across the frozen Ohio River, the tearful separation of Uncle Tom from his wife and children, and Cassy's devastating story about her children being sold away from her, Stowe powerfully demonstrates that slaves are human beings who need, desire, and deserve family attachments. By pairing white mothers like Mrs. Bird, Rachel Halliday, and Ruth Stedman with Eliza, Stowe contrasts the white mother's right to love and enjoy her children with the black mother's powerlessness to do the same.

God and Religion
Religion and faith play a central role in Uncle Tom's Cabin. A character's relation to Christianity—believer, lapsed believer, nonbeliever—is part of how that character is defined. Eliza, Tom, Mrs. Shelby, Eva, and Ophelia are all described as dedicated Christians, and they are mostly good. George, Augustine St. Clare, and Cassy are basically good in spite of their inability to believe in Christianity (they are presented as having justifiable excuses not to believe). Simon Legree's complete lack of religious faith is connected to his depravity. Christianity is linked in the novel to morality, humaneness, and generosity. The Christian faith of slaves gives them courage and the strength to go on. Tom's and Eva's religious convictions transform them into Christ-like figures, and their deaths, like Christ's, are meant to be redemptive. Although she dies of tuberculosis, Eva appears almost to give her life for the antislavery cause, as slavery pains her so profoundly. Tom converts Sambo and Quimbo to Christianity as he dies at their hands. In using religion to define her characters and her cause, Stowe speaks directly to her nineteenth-century audience. Slaves portrayed as pious and even saintly, are viewed more positively than their irreverent owners.

Love
Uncle Tom's Cabin explores the power of love, specifically love of God and love of family. A mother's love for her children is built up in the novel as the most powerful kind of love. This portrayal of love helps Stowe convey the inhumanity of slavery by depicting the anguish of slave mothers who are torn from their children. A mother's love can be transformative: witness Eliza summoning the courage and strength to cross the river on the floating ice cakes. Her love for her child makes her almost superhuman. Love of God is also portrayed as being transformative. Although they are but a lowly slave and an innocent child, Tom's and Eva's powerful love of God raises them to the stature of Christ in their capacity for love, forgiveness, and moral valor. They die like saints, with Eva giving out locks of her hair like religious icons to her loved ones and Tom being tortured and killed by those who are galled by his faith. Love and prayer are the two most potent forces in the world of the novel.

Morals and Morality
Discussions of moral principles in Uncle Tom's Cabin converge in the central issue of slavery. Basically, the novel asks, is human slavery right or wrong? It is not difficult to see that the novel portrays the practice of slavery as immoral. Slavery breaks apart loving families, degrades slaves and their owners, and robs human beings of their freedom. While the novel presents not only an obviously evil, immoral master in Simon Legree, it...

(The entire section is 1,853 words.)