Of the two modern critical objections to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – sentimentality and intrusive narrator – the first one is accurate while the latter objection is disingenuous; however, both criticisms belie the overtly political nature of the book. In cultural and literary history, tastes change and critical standards change. Shakespeare was sharply criticized and dismissed in the neo-classicists and embraced by the Romantics. Zora Neale Hurston’s literary reputation was revived by Alice Walker after decades as an obscure apolitical Harlem Renaissance writer. Consequently, everything in this essay will be from a 2013 perspective which is will contain the cultural biases of the 21st century. These biases have been informed by modern literature, particularly the works of Hemingway and Raymond Carver that have emphasized control and economy over sentimentality and intrusive narration.
Of the two major “sins” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the easiest one to defend is the intrusive narrator. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s narrative style involves a narration that is omniscient but also intrusive since it makes judgments about characters, sees things from individual character perspectives and ensures that the reader fully appreciates the episodes. This may seem intrusive from a modern perspective, since many contemporary writers use either first person narratives or limited perspectives where everything is from one character’s perspective. Even in books that tell stories on large canvases like George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire use limited perspectives, changing the perspective to suit the story.
For various reasons, the shift away from universal narrative to limited perspective (or first person) is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. First, writers did not throw out the universal narrative so much as stop using it in books. Film and theatrical productions are usually omniscient and the voiceover represents an intrusive narrator. Second, every book has a degree of intrusive narration. In the modern era, that intrusive narration is less overt, but it’s unavoidable. Every choice that the author makes is an example of intrusive narration. In modern literature, the author is less inclined to tell the reader everything; however, there is almost always an agenda. In Samuel Delaney’s Triton the galactic war between the Earth and the outer moons is ostensibly the plot; yet Delaney keeps it firmly in the background until a character tells the protagonist what happened in a 2-page monologue. This is purposefully drawing the reader’s attention away from the war and towards the psycho-social world of group marriages, easy transgender operations and anarchic art. Other authors continue to use the intrusive narration, mostly notably Milan Kundera who stops the story every few pages to speculate on what everything means.
In this context, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s use of the omniscient intrusive narrator may seem off-putting to a modern reader; however, it is still a valid way of telling a story. Furthermore, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has an agenda and as modern readers, we understand that the agenda is going to be served by the narration where the author tells us what to think.
However, sentimentality is an issue that is less defensible in a modern perspective. Even though 19th century literature has a great deal of sentimentality, the convention of using sentimentality has gone out of favor to the point that it feels manipulative to use sentimentality. Many writing guides will tell amateur writers that sentimentality is the worst crime a modern writer can commit, defining sentimentality as the attempt of a writer to force an emotional reaction from the reader that isn’t organically coming from the characters themselves.
The characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are mostly symbolic and they aren’t fully realized people with passions and faults. They are either villains or heroes and if they are heroes, they are completely decent. The death of Eva is very reminiscent of the death of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop since it is written to make the reader cry. Eva is the innocent angel, the Christ figure, who dies with the most bathetic scene telling everyone that she loves them and having sudden bursts of feeling. With all of the talk of heavenly love and redemptive power of belief, it is still hard to forget that this scene is in the service of a plot twist that will see Uncle Tom being sold to Simon Lagree. Eva is merely the catalyst for the tragic last third of the novel where Uncle Tom’s completely saintly demeanor is tested and he is beaten to death.
The problem with sentimentality as Stowe uses it is the fact that the feeling of death is never explored. The death scenes are symbolic and full of statements about forgiveness and love, yet they are not emotional in a way that the reader can relate to them. Eva is a dying child and while dead children are sad, the very fact that she is a dying child is manipulation. The characters never have the kind of agency that modern readers want out of their characters. Uncle Tom and Eva might as well be holding up signs that say “Feel sad. I’m going to die!” They are too perfect to function as human beings and their perfection undercuts their characters.
In essence, literary critics are judging books from a 21st century perspective and some criticisms may have more to do with the current biases than any objective standards. However, books are classics because they can leave an impression that goes beyond their time periods, not so much because they are universal, but because the cultural signifiers are not as important as the overall impact. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the historical impact outweighs literary merit. Even though an intrusive narrator is merely un-stylish, the element of sentimentality is an element that drags the book into a place where telling the reader what to feel trumps allowing these feelings to come organically from characters that the writer makes the reader care about. As a historical document, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a triumph. However, the sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin keeps it from being a literary classic.