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.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's main work Uncle Tom's Cabin has an incredible legacy. Focusing on the plight of African American slaves in antebellum USA, it was charged by Abraham Lincoln with the outbreak of the American Civil War and it is easy, even in this modern day, to see why: the amazing legacy is matched by the fantastic plot which follows the irresistibly loveable character Uncle Tom through his trials and torments under different slave owners and the intertwining lives of various other slaves. At once thrilling and devastating it is no surprise that the novel had such a profound effect on the people of the day.
One of the most pervading themes of the book is faith, most importantly its inability to be shaken. The inspirational character Tom's strong faith is demonstrated throughout the novel and the way that, despite all the hardships he suffers, his faith is unbreakable has had an acute impact on me as a reader. Full of poignant moments, the novel shows Tom's admirable and steadfast faith in God until the very end. Particularly profound is the way that the other characters prove contrasting in their ability to trust and hope; unlike Tom, they allow themselves to succumb to the hopelessness of their surroundings.
The tumultuous and twisting plot makes for a real page-turner of a novel and the journeys undertaken by the main characters of the novel are cleverly paralleled in terms of hope. When a sense of hope for a new life and new beginning for one character overtakes the devastating loss of hope for another, the effect is bittersweet and one can't help but wish that Beecher Stowe had composed a sequel.
Of course, the dominant theme of slavery woven throughout the novel makes for a deeply disturbing lesson in the History of not just the USA but also of the world. Through Beecher Stowe's eyes we learn about perhaps the most damaging effects of "peculiar institution" – not the physical punishment the slaves are served, nor the loss of the fundamental human right to liberty, but the separation of families and loved ones, a cruel reminder of the dehumanised way in which the slaves were treated.
I urge everyone and anyone to read this novel – despite the fact that it was abolished before our time, it gives a real insight into all aspects of slavery. If you want a heart-wrenching book that explores one of the greatest evils of humanity, whilst still retaining a small piece of hope for change, Uncle Tom's Cabin is for you.
• Buy this book at the Guardian Bookshop.
Want to tell the world about a book you've read? Join the site and send us your review!