.. ill a young boy, his father sold Uncle Tom to the slave trader Mr. Haley. Growing up on a southern plantation, George naturally inherited the slave-owning tradition of his culture. When he found the beaten and dying Uncle Tom, however, his perception immediately changed and he vowed to “do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from my land! (p.455)” It was George who buried Uncle Tom, and he then returned home to free all of his own slaves.
George was an admirable character because he demonstrated growth and integrity and illustrated that the inveterate rationalization of slave-owning was one that was not immutable. I also feel that the character of Mr. Wilson is one that contains a degree of inherent goodness, despite the fact that he too is what we would refer to today as “racist.” Like George Shelby, Mr. Wilson is a product of his environment, and therefore it is not entirely unusual that, with the exception of George Harris, he considers the slaves to be inferior. Stowe redeems Mr.
Wilson, however, by illustrating his honest and objective nature. The bright slave George Harris had been hired out by his master to Mr. Wilson’s bagging factory, and “his adroitness and ingenuity caused him to be considered the first hand in the place. (p.16)” While employed at the factory, George also invents “a machine for the cleaning of the hemp, (p.16)” much to the delight and amazement of his employer. George’s owner, upon hearing of this unique invention, felt inferior to his slave’s accomplishments and resolved to remove him from the factory.
Mr. Wilson attempts to intervene on George’s behalf and unfortunately is unsuccessful. He parts with George rather unwillingly, and “the kindly manufacturer touched (George) on the arm, and said, in a low tone, ‘Give way, George; go with him for the present. We’ll try to help you, yet. (p.17)'” Thus, although Mr. Wilson condones slavery, he immediately seems to recognize its injustice when it directly affects someone for whom he cares. Another favorite character of mine was Cassy, a middle-aged slave owned by Simon Legree.
After Uncle Tom was reprimanded for helping another slave, it is Cassy who cares for his wounds. Although she herself had been calloused by abuse spanning over her entire lifetime, Cassy nonetheless maintains an air of dignity and compassion for her fellow slaves. I also like Cassy because she was quite clever, and she fooled Simon Legree into believing that she had supernatural powers. Her trickery was in addition a catalyst for several humorous scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as she frequently engaged in “haunting” the home of her degenerate master. It was obvious that the astute characters of Cassy and Uncle Tom were intended to contrast the intellectual inadequacy of their masters.
Although Cassy was yet another example of Stowe’s exaggeration of the slaves’ virtuous qualities, regardless I feel that her strength and courage was a reflection of actual plantation slaves, and therefore a more realistic representation. My least favorite characters, however, were the clear villains of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Of course, I strongly disliked Mr. Haley and Simon Legree because of their obvious ignorance toward the African population, but I also disliked the characters of Henrique and Mrs. St.
Clare. Very early in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I think it becomes evident to the reader which characters will manifest into the novel’s antagonists. On the very first page of the novel Mr. Haley was introduced, and he was described as less than a gentleman, “gaudy,” and “profane.” Clearly Mr. Haley was not going to be a friendly character.
When Simon Legree appears, the contrast between he and Uncle Tom’s previous owners is intensified because Legree’s cruel practices are unlike those ever experienced by Uncle Tom. I also disliked the character of Henrique, the son of Alfred St. Clare. In literature, the characters of children are usually portrayed as models of innocence, but Stowe uses Henrique to demonstrate that even children can be corrupted by the institution of slavery. The pampered child behaves as a prince, and his beating of “Dodo” is clearly a display of dominance, rather than an actual reprimand. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a tremendous impact on those who recognized Stowe’s controversial message.
The readers who had been formerly impartial to the abolitionist campaign now had convincing evidence of its validity. The novel also helped to transform the slavery debate from the more political issue of states’ rights into a humanitarian cause to free the oppressed. In addition, Stowe’s approach to the subject was far more adapted to the nation’s views of slavery than was abolitionist literature. Abolitionists had received a negative connotation because of their radical dispositions, but Stowe’s novel was entertaining, yet solemn, and did not seek to achieve racial equality. It simply emphasized the injustice of enslavement, and therefore gained a much more attentive audience.
Of course, the southern states were outraged at the novel’s depiction of plantation life, and perhaps rightly so. To southerners, Stowe’s characters were clearly erroneous portrayals, and represented only extreme and unusual circumstances. The northerners, however, having nothing with which to judge the accuracy of such representations, perhaps viewed the southern reaction as a simply defensive measure. Classic literary works often share certain qualities that elevate them above the average text; one such quality is transcendentalism. Usually, if a novel’s message has significance many years after it was written, it is considered to have transcendental value.
In the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, its value appears limited to the context in which it was created. It would be difficult to comprehend the gravity of the conflict without first understanding the pre-existing friction between the northern and southern states. I do think, however, that current racial issues are indeed reflected in the novel, being that present racial tension is thoroughly rooted in the enslavement of an entire population. Stowe’s purpose in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “(to develop) the great principles of Christian brotherhood,(p.3)” was one that clearly aimed to answer contemporary moral questions. I believe that at the time the novel was written it did have moral significance, not only for “Christians,” but for members of all faiths as well.
I also believe, however, that because of considerable humanitarian efforts over the past century, the moral issues presented in the novel no longer have any vital consequence. The morality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin addresses a particular and precarious era, and although slavery does still exist today in equally severe forms, it is under entirely different circumstances, with entirely different characteristics. The novel does, however, have tremendous historical value, if not factual, then at least psychological. Representing the emotional sentiments of northern Americans of the period, Uncle Tom’s Cabin can relate far more about the state of the union than can an accurate historical document. History is created not only by what happened, but also why it happened, and the novel therefore achieves significant historical value in determining the condition of the United States prior to the civil war. I do not feel necessarily that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has any significant practical value in my own life.
Perhaps I now am more aware of landmarks such as the Civil Rights Movement and the development of programs like Affirmative Action. Being more aware, I feel that I can form more educated opinions on racial issues, and consequently counteract, at least personally, any injurious stereotypes. Oddly enough, I think that my reaction is exactly what Stowe intended, so maybe the novel does possess notable transcendental value after all. Although it was written over 140 years ago, apparently Uncle Tom’s Cabin still is able to invoke a personal reflection on the state of fellow men (and women!). Generally, I would say that reading the novel was a valuable (though time-consuming) experience.
I had read it once before, but never really understanding the importance of the context in which it was written. The surrounding events of the period bore heavy consequences on both the creation and reaction to the novel, and I now can appreciate the value of such a “document” in the scheme of American history. The “little lady who made the big war,” then, surely did not realize that her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would heavily reverberate into the dawn of the 21st century. History.