Societal Issues Portrayed in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Literature can have a far-reaching impact on society as it conveys and introduces emotion, catalyzes one towards action, and creates an awareness which, often times, leads to social change. One of the most influential American books ever written, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a clear and profound effect on American culture and politics as it exposed the immorality of slavery in the U.S. in the 19th century. Not only did the novel affect the way people viewed slavery, the novel inspired plays, boardgames, and ceramics. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was written in 1852, at a time when slavery was commonplace especially throughout the South. For 200 years, slavery had been common practice in the U.S and was acknowledged by the U.S. Constitution. It was written prior to the start of the American Civil War and although controversial, it is one of the most popular 19th century novels and the second best-selling novel of that century.
The novel describes the life and experience of the black slave and the tension and philosophical differences between whites living in the North and South. Additionally, the book dramatizes the life and experience of the black slave and was influenced by Stowe’s abolitionist and Christian beliefs, as well as, her experience being around slaves while living in Cincinnati, Ohio. The novel portrayed and publicized the horrors of slavery and subsequently created tensions between the owners of slaves in the South and non-slaveholders of the North. While Stowe was praised for portraying the atrocities of slavery to the entire nation, she was criticized for spreading stereotypical black characterizations of her characters. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, her sons’ death, and her firsthand contact with fugitive slaves and their treatment by white slave owners were the catalysts that drove her to write this powerful novel which had a profound effect on American culture and politics. Indeed, some believe that this novel laid the groundwork and perhaps even ignited the American Civil War.
One of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s most famous literary works Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was influenced not only by the family she was born into but also by the time period in which she lived. The debate over slavery was one of the key factors that influenced Stowe’s attitude towards slavery. As Americans left their homes in the East in search of economic opportunities, many of these pioneers migrated westward. There was a fierce debate as to whether slavery should be allowed or outlawed in these new western states. White Southerners felt that the economy would deteriorate and perhaps be eradicated if slavery was to be outlawed. White Northerners, however, believed in freedom and equality for all. Congress attempted to keep the union balanced with slave states and non-slave states, as well as, a series of compromises that temporarily maintained peace within the union. However, as westward expansion continued, legislators found compromise difficult and decided to let settlers make their own decision as to whether they wanted their states to be slave or free. Like her father and her siblings, Stowe was an abolitionist who advocated for the emancipation of all slaves. She was born into a prominent Connecticut family whose father was a preacher who sermonized against overindulgence and slavery. The abolitionist movement was both social and political as it fought for the end of racial segregation and discrimination. The abolitionist movement began in the 1830s and was most prominent in Northern societies, churches, and politics. Uncle Tom’s Cabin allowed many Americans to see the savagery and inhumanity experienced by black slaves throughout the South. After her novel was published, many were inspired to join the abolitionist movement and demanded that Congress allow all to live freely and equally.
There were three main reasons and events that prompted Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one personal and one public. The harrowing stories of a slave’s life were given to Stowe firsthand by slaves who escaped their Southern masters. The stories she heard from these fugitive slaves became her impetus as she used her writing talent to expose the horrors of slavery. Secondly, Stowe’s sixth child, Samuel, died of cholera when he only eighteen months old. At that time, little was known of this disease and popular belief held that the death of three thousand people in the epidemic of 1849 in Cincinnati was an act of God. After her son passed, Stowe wrote that his death would be in vain unless she was able to do good for others. His death helped her empathize with mothers who had their children taken away from them to be sold as slaves. She wrote that she now understood what it felt like when a slave woman’s child was taken away at an auction block. Lastly, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law by Congress in 1850 was yet another precipitating event that propelled Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This law required citizens to aid law enforcement officials in the capture of runaway slaves. Northerners faced a difficult decision between obeying the law and following their Christian beliefs when a slave came knocking on their door looking for assistance. Stowe encouraged citizens of the North to disobey the law as she emphasized how un-Christian it was to own slaves.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe discusses several pertinent societal and ethical issues that she felt went against the laws of the constitution and her religious Christian faith. She not only addresses the evil and inhumanity of slavery and the fundamental right of freedom for all but also advocates for women’s rights. There are multiple examples throughout the novel that describe the indignation suffered by black slaves. Stowe blames not just the Southern whites but the Northern ones when she says, “Northern men, northern mothers, northern Christians, have something more to do than denounce their brethren at the South; they have to look to the evil among themselves.” In addition, Stowe expresses the pain suffered by slave women whose children were ripped away from their arms when she says, “ How can it be otherwise, when a system prevails which whirls families and scatters their members, as the wind whirls and scatters the leaves of autumn?”
The novel makes it clear that the institution of slavery is so deeply ingrained in the lives of white Southerners that despite the fact that they understand that it perpetuates wickedness, they nonetheless continue to treat them as if they are subhuman. When Ophelia St. Clare argues with her cousin Augustin about the indecency of owning slaves, he essentially tells her that owning slaves is a normal part of life and that “appropriating one set of human beings to the use and improvement of another, without any regard to their own.”
Although literature can have a positive impact on society, it can have the opposite effect when the content of the book emphasizes the status quo. Furthermore, while Uncle Tom’s Cabin made a remarkable impact on the making of America in the 19th century, it also emphasized stereotypes of black men and women while depicting blacks as submissive and physically and spiritually weak. In addition to creating black stereotypes, Stowe was criticized by pro-slavery groups for creating an unrealistic, one-sided image of slavery. They stated that the poor living conditions for their slaves were exaggerated and that the conditions of the working-class blacks in the North were far worse. Moreover, in the 20th century, blacks used the term Uncle Tom as being synonymous with a black man who was a racial sellout. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin focuses on the immorality of slavery, the author subtly brings the issue of inequality towards women as she tells the story of some of her female characters. The female morality and virtue, as well as, the role of women which made a real impact on the freedom of slaves, was crucial to the abolitionist cause.
Two such female characters in the novel are Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird. The first is Mrs. Shelby who invited Haley to have lunch which subsequently delayed the departure of his search team, allowing Eliza to escape with her son, Harry. The second example is Mrs. Bird who criticized her Senator husband for voting to pass the Fugitive Slave Law, saying “You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one thing, the first time I get a chance; and hope I shall have a chance, I do!” (68). Bird’s condemnation of the Senator eventually leads him to helping Eliza and her son to a safehouse. She therefore influences her husband’s decisions as he breaks the same law he voted to pass in the first place. Thus, in addition to bringing the plight of black slaves to light, Stowe also introduces the repression and lack of respect women suffered in that time period. Nevertheless, Stowe showed how women had the power and influence to shape the morals, values, and actions of the men in their lives.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a powerful impact on American society as it portrayed the brutality experienced by black slaves. The struggles of the characters in her novel allows the reader to not only understand the realities of slavery but to empathize with their physical and mental torment suffered by the slaves. In addition to inspiring the abolitionist movement, the novel also caused many to speak out against slavery which, in turn, caused further strife between Americans living in the North and South. The animosity and tensions between North and South subsequently led to the American Civil War. It is therefore believed that Stowe’s novel inspired America to move in the direction of justice. Her novel helped shape a country’s popular attitude and moral beliefs. While most Northern whites praised the book for its exposition of the realities of slavery, other white Northerners accused Stowe of racism as she used offensive racial stereotypes when describing some of her characters. Those who promoted slavery criticized the novel saying that the image of slavery was one-sided and unrealistic. Despite criticisms and being widely banned in the South, the book was popular not only in the northern United States where it sold 300,000 copies in its first year, but was also popular in Great Britain where it sold 1.5 million copies. It clearly had an impact on those who read the novel as many began to oppose the treatment of slaves and fought against the injustices of slavery.
Throughout history, there have been a number of literary works that reflect the author’s society while influencing and shaping society. There is no doubt that literature transcends time and can have a remarkable impact on society and culture. It can have an impact not only on the society during which the literary work was written but can affect societal issues, such as human conflict, for future generations, as well. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an example of a literary work that reflects the society of the time period in which it was written and was used as a vehicle to help shape societies and cultures. While there are many positive aspects to the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is often criticized for portraying racial stereotypes. Stowe opened the reader’s eyes to the realities of slavery and the struggles of black slaves living under the rule of Southern whites in the 19th century.
Although the novel highlighted the egregious behaviors of the Southern white slave masters, by no means were all Northerners in favor of antislavery politics. Stowe is credited for bringing significant change to America even years after her novel was written as she exposed slavery’s harsh realities and used the characters in her novel to build empathy for the enslaved.
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