“What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear.”
– page 475
The first thing that you might not know about this book is that it is interesting. It’s a page turner. And it’s a classic! It’s not that I don’t love most of the classics I’ve read, it’s just that none of them have been quite so engrossing as this. It was really something and I highly recommend it.
Uncle Tom and Eliza are slaves to the Shelbys, the supposedly kind masters who eventually run into money problems. When Mr. Shelby tries to sell Eliza’s son Henry, Eliza decides to risk death by running away to Canada to save herself and her son. Eliza’s husband George, a slave to an incredibly cruel master a few plantations over, also decides to run away after he has had enough of the mistreatment at the hands of his master. The story is then an epic journey across the American continent where the main characters encounter all kinds of people. While Eliza and George journey northward, Uncle Tom is sent south to New Orleans.
The cruelty portrayed in this book was intense. You can be taught about slavery in school, but reading about it in novel form made me angrier and angrier that something like this could have ever happened.
Since the positives and negatives of this novel have already been addressed elsewhere, there are two specific things that I want to talk about here. First: the inherent racism and condescending tone of the novel. Second: Harriet Beecher Stowe as a woman and how it affected the novel.
A lot of critics in recent years have allowed the somewhat racist and condescending nature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including the stereotypes it both created and perpetuated, to overshadow its overall intention and accomplishments. Stowe does make some sweeping generalizations about races, which gets frustrating. Tom’s character was also pretty one dimensional, the most upsetting fact about the book, I think. It’s good for opening a discussion: at what point do we say someone is a product of their environment and at what point are they being cruel? Should that determine whether or not we read a book? I think we should still read these books (like Heart of Darkness and Uncle Tom’s Cabin) even if we are sometimes appalled at things the author thinks are okay because these books are important. And while Stowe frequently made me angry with her character development, her over-sentimentalist style and her sweeping generalizations, her book was intended to stop slavery, stop the cruelty, stop seeing other people as objects to be sold, but rather as human beings. And some say that it was one of the reasons for the Civil War which ultimately brought an end to slavery. Stowe is very critical of all types of people, especially those who are opposed to slavery but do nothing.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was also criticized for her use of sentimentalism, which some critics claimed made the book less powerful. Essentially, it’s chick lit for the 1800s. But there were only a couple times when I really felt like the book crossed the line into too sentimental. The biggest example was with little Eva. Eva, the incredibly pious, sickly girl who convinces her father to buy Tom to be her companion, was way too much. Other than that, I think Stowe’s sentimental style helped the book, tugging at our heartstrings. It was a book that was intended for the masses and a book that succeeds, still being incredible readable 160 years later.
Overall, I was expecting a completely different experience. I really enjoyed Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It frequently had me in tears and was a fascinating read. There were times when this book made me literally sick to my stomach over the cruelty. I can’t believe that these things really happened. Stowe says that most of the anecdotes are real, that she overheard them from friends or she witnessed them directly.
89% – Put this on your TBR!
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