Denial of Womanhood in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

July 31, 2019 by Essay Writer

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written during the period of boiling tumult that was to erupt into the Civil War, has struck it’s readers in more ways than one. Wildly popular, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was made into theatrical pieces and children’s books. Advertisers, using Uncle Tom sentiment for their own devises, employed Stowe’s unforgettable characters to sell their products. The nation was inundated with Uncle Tom. Although widely criticized by the southern press for a so-called lack of facts and over-reliance on sentiment, Stowe’s novel succeeded not only in moving people to sympathy for the enslaved but also fostered political action. The influence of her novel is great because it draws forth powerful sentiments and convinces the reader that these sentiments transcend racial differences. Stowe deftly draws from many sources of growing sentiment to do this. However, her portrayal of motherhood and her direct addresses to female readers on this topic was very powerful to 19th century mothers. Motherhood in Stowe’s time, with it’s newly evolved emotions and duties is presented by Stowe as something that can and does transcend race. No doubt envisioning her mother readers, Stowe appeals to the sentiments evoked by motherhood to present slavery as, among other things, a violation of a woman’s “divine and inherent duty” to herself, her children and her nation. This violation, as Stowe shows, in accordance with popular views of motherhood, can only lead to a population that is brutal, selfish, disobedient and unsympathetic.Mrs. Lydia Sigourney is the author of “Letters to Mothers,” an encompassing view of 19th century motherhood. Sigourney’s views were both popular and respected at the time of Stowe’s novel. At a time when children were beginning to live longer and childhood experiences and learning became more important, the duties and privileges of motherhood expanded. Letter I of Mrs. Sigourney’s publication outlines these privileges and duties. Sigourney encourages women to mold the “unformed character of their infants” (1). Only through a mother’s good influence, was it believed, could a child be able to develop into an intelligent and conscientious person.Stowe’s characters, showing from much to no maternal upbringing, are evidence of Sigourney’s conclusion. Chapter Twenty of Stowe’s novel is devoted to Topsy, a young girl of nine or ten bought by St. Clare. Topsy has known no maternal love and has suffered no pangs of sympathy for the plight of others. Her “wickedness” is great, and it is stated that she is an accomplished thief. Topsy has never cared for anyone because no one has cared for her. Like many slave children, maternal love was denied her, having been raised by a speculator on what amounted to a child-farm. Topsy wasn’t raised, but rather just “growed-up”. Slavery has created this tragic girl. Having been taken from her mother, whom Sigourney, with 19th century society, would say should have been her moral educator, Topsy is described as “so heathenish, as to inspire a good lady to utter dismay” (352). One may imagine the 19th century mother’s shock and scorn at the system which could allow this to happen.Mothers of the time were lead to believe that their duties were so great, and even divine, that denial of them was both inherently wrong and detrimental to the child and society. Topsy’s mother, having been denied the right to raise her and even to feel her child’s love, is most pitiful. Motherhood was popularized as both a duty and a privilege thought to emanate from a “Divine Source.” Sigourney goes back to ancient times to suggest that motherhood is the most natural occurrence and even holds to the terribly mistaken notion that being a mother is the most a woman can hope to be. She sites the dignity involved and compares it to “trifling amusements and selfish pleasures” which she feels only motherhood can lead away from. Although one can see the mistaken nature of these notions, one can imagine women a century ago accepting this rhetoric and living in accordance with it. Motherhood was not only one of the few things socially acceptable for a woman to be employed at, but was also dignified and extremely important. Teaching by example and influence was seen as a woman’s duty and it was repaid by the “transforming love” her children gave her. Stowe’s mothers could therefore feel for Topsy and her mother. Stowe has done an excellent job of proving to her readers that slaves have the same human sympathies and readers are called to feel for this novel’s poor women who have been denied their children, duty and privilege. Mothers who have lost young children are especially akin to the pain of slave mothers. Knowing a mother’s pain in losing a child, Stowe shows the pain wrought from a child being sold as equal, if not worse, than their death.Mothers and non-mothers alike are called to feel for Topsy and the society of people she represents. Everyone can see her “wickedness” and deduce what it is attributable to. Unlike other children, both white and black, raised with caring mothers, Topsy is disobedient and thievish. This distinction is important. Topsy is introduced to us only after we have seen the distinguished behaviors of Harry and the child-typical playful disobedience of Aunt Cloe’s children. This distinction allows readers to see that Topsy’s behavior is not racial but rather situational. Stowe shows that above all things denied Topsy as a slave, lack of a mother figure has had the greatest impact on her. Denial of a mother meant denial of mutual love. The children of Mrs. Bird obey her, not because she whips them but because they don’t want her to feel bad. Stowe shows that children obey out of mutual love and respect for their mothers. Topsy, having been denied the love of a mother is selfish and thievish and we are told that there are many others like her. Not only is this meant to be sad as it draws us into sympathy for slave mothers and children, but it also is meant to lead us to think of the slave problem in society. Instead of motherly love, many slaves were educated in “barbarism and brutality” (391). This problem is important to the North and South. Without refined sympathies in his slaves, a slaveholder can not hope to control them. The thought of this would have alerted northerners also. Even abolitionists wouldn’t have been happy with the thought of brute slaves killing their owners and escaping North. Sigourney writes of insubordination becoming a “prominent feature” in many cities and imparts upon her readers the need for “obedience – to be inculcated with increased energy, by those who have the earliest access to the mind.”Unfortunately slavery many times does not permit this to be the case. The injustice Stowe shows here is a violation of motherhood as understood by her first readers. What motherhood does and should entail according to 19th century writers like Sigourney often times was not permitted by the institution of slavery. Stowe’s success is due in a large part to her ability to draw in maternal sympathies. Called into sympathy and anger, I’m sure that many a view was changed by reading of the flagrant disregard for an institution believed to be so sacred, natural and important. The discount of which has led to a small version of society’s fear – a person educated by brutality and devoid of sympathy and morals – Stowe’s character Topsy.

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