Harriet Beecher Stowe’s main goal in writing her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to convince people, mainly her fellow northerners, of the need to end slavery by showing it’s evils that are thrust upon black people and to convince all her readers that slavery conflicts with Christian values. To effectively establish her point, Stowe takes us along on the two very separate journeys of the novel’s main characters, Uncle Tom and Eliza Shelby. It is on their journeys that the readers bear witness to the various evils that the system of slavery encompasses.
Stowe begins the novel discussing a warm atmosphere on the Shelby plantation and presents to us the best possible circumstances of slavery where slaves are treated very well by compassionate owners. However, no time is wasted in this warm and compassionate setting, not twenty pages into the story we find that even the best masters fall into debt and must settle their bills by what ever means possible. This development quickly brings the reader into the slave world where humans, such as Uncle Tom, are sold to slave traders to settle their master’s debts and it is here that a very strong argument against slavery is made. Stowe shows us how human lives can be destroyed even under the best conditions slavery can offer. She also proves that slavery is a terrible ordeal for not only the slaves (Tom, Tom’s Family, Eliza, and Harry) who will be forced to move and never see their loved ones again, but for the owner’s family, who are very broken up at having to sell their close companions in order to pay off bad debts. She effectively illustrates this point by delving into the strong feelings of Mrs. Shelby, George Shelby, Eliza, Aunt Chloe and Uncle Tom. The readers are shown how hard it is for these people to part from one another and by presenting several characters feelings we are able to see the slaves as just human beings who are trying to survive. For example, Stowe presents a scene between Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, his wife, in their cabin and writes a dialogue that allows us to look beyond their skin color and see the pain of having no choice but to accept their circumstance. Through Stowe’s insightful writing, we are forced to put ourselves in Uncle Tom’s and Aunt Chloe’s position and discover the evils of slavery. The scene forces us to confront the fact that even in the great atmosphere that the Shelby’s provided for their slaves, the only way in which life would truly be good for a slave is for that slave to be free.
The argument that slavery is a terrible institution even in its best situations does not end with Tom leaving the Kentucky plantation, but it resurfaces again when he is purchased by another kind owner named Mr. St. Clair. In this instance, Tom, after years of faithful servitude, is promised by Mr. St. Clair that he will become a free man. However, Tom’s happiness ends abruptly with the death of Mr. St. Clair and is sold along with several other slaves to an evil plantation owner who is very abusive and runs a terrible slave institution. Here again Stowe provides us with another seemingly favorable atmosphere in which to be a slave, but the bubble bursts suddenly with the death of Mr. St. Clair and the volatility of a slave’s life is reiterated. Stowe writes, “We hear often of the distress of the Negro servants, on the loss of a kind master; and with good reason, for no creature on God’s earth is left more utterly unprotected and desolate that the slave in these circumstances.” She also is able to demonstrate the emotional strain slaves encounter as they are taken on a roller coaster of emotions from having such a great hope of gaining freedom and then having that hope dashed. It is especially seen when Uncle Tom, a seemingly unbreakable man, cries when he hears of the news that he is going to be auctioned off.
At this new plantation, Stowe switches the tone of the accounts of a slave’s life from gentle to harsh, and strengthens her argument for the abolishment of slavery by throwing Tom into the worst circumstances of slavery. This harsh tone is displayed through Tom’s experience of what many slaves endure, such as the terrible beatings that take place and the terrible living conditions that Tom is forced to live at the hands of Mr. Legree as plantation owner. This new experience is startling to us. Tom describes his new home and we are abruptly presented with the worst that slavery has to offer.
The small village was alive with no sounds; hoarse, guttural voices contending at the hand mills where their morsel of hard corn was… to constitute their only supper. He saw only sullen, scowling, imbruted men, and feeble, discouraged women… (Who) had sunk as nearly to their level as it was possible for human beings to do.
This sight instills a horror in us because we have yet to encounter slavery as harsh as this scene depicts. However, as we read on, life at the plantation proves to be worse than can be imagined, slaves know very little about religion, are constantly whipped, beat, and used for the personal sexual gratification of Legree. Stowe further convinces us of the terrible circumstances of this plantation life when the best Christian man many have ever even read about, Uncle Tom, is beaten to death because he will not tell where two slave girls ran off.
In using a character such as Uncle Tom, Stowe’s argument only grows stronger and gains more support because we are able to identify with Tom and grow fond of him. We don’t like to see him suffer, and in making each experience of his more and more difficult to bear, our sympathy for him grows much deeper until the point that we are totally convinced that slavery needs to be abolished.
Also, as Uncle Tom goes from experiencing slave life in Kentucky to slave life on a harsh plantation, Stowe presents both systems as extremely inhumane. The fact that both systems are extremely terrible shows us that in every instance slavery is wrong and slaves, no matter where they live, are doubtlessly born into terrible circumstances that are nearly impossible to escape. Although one system is worse than the other, both need to be abolished.
Uncle Tom’s journey is mainly detailed for the northerner who knew very little about a slave’s life; however, Stowe chooses a much larger population to present her next argument, and this time it is on Eliza’s journey that she conveys much of her evidence. This argument is also why so many southerners have taken offence to the book. She presents Slavery as an un-Christian institution and makes the point indirectly that Christians cannot own slaves. She argues that Christian values conflict with the whole institution of slavery and points out that Christians true in there convictions cannot be a part of the slavery institution. To establish this argument, Stowe uses several Christian characters and lets their actions represent her argument.
The first of these Christian characters that we meet are Senator Bird and his wife. These people are prominent folks who reside in Ohio. Senator Bird is in a unique position when Eliza arrives at his door. He is a Senator that obviously allowed the Fugitive Slave Act to be passed for political reasons; however, he is a Christian man that when faced with a person desperately in need of help will do what he can to provide assistance. Senator Bird and his wife let their strong Christian principles take over and they demonstrate a universal love that Christianity dictates they must do in this instance.
Stowe makes a very strong statement with Senator Bird’s character. She shows him as a true Christian and a well meaning man, but in making Mr. Bird a Senator she is saying that he is complacent at his political podium. Also, she implies that Mr. Bird is a hypocrite in what he represents as a member of the government and what he represents as a Christian man. It seems that this character is in the book because Stowe is trying to argue that to be a proper Christian means that one cannot accept slavery as an institution.
The other Christian characters that Eliza and her Husband encounter are the Quakers who help them evade capture from slave hunters. These people are clearly Christians who make it known on several occasions that what they are doing is their Christian duty. They also imply that even though they stand to get in trouble for their actions, they believe that to enslave another individual is wrong. They see slavery as going against the Christian principle of “love thy neighbor” and area not hypocritical from a Christian standpoint. Furthermore, Stowe uses this group as the Christian model by which all Christians should strive to live by.
Lastly, Stowe uses Uncle Tom and Eva as the most influential Christian characters in the book. Uncle Tom and Eva are mirror images of each other and Stowe argues that if everyone were to live the way Eva and Tom lived, then the institution of slavery would cease to exist. Eva has a genuine love for all people and clearly does not see any difference between black and white people. She shows her love for all people at almost every part of the novel she is in. As for Uncle Tom, we see his inner strength tested the most of any character and it is safe to say that he is the strongest Christian. His love is boundless and even at his death he tells Ledree, the man most responsible for his death, that he loves him. There is no greater expression of the Christian ideas of universal love than in this instance. Stowe was doubtlessly saying that if all men were to love as Tom did and be as strong a Christian as he was, then slavery would not be possible.
It is clear that Harriet Beecher Stowe presented a fabulous two pronged argument against the institution of slavery. She showed the evils inherent in its structure and she showed that if people choose to be Christians they cannot choose to be a slaveholder. This is because owning another’s life doesn’t allow people to truly practice one of Christianity’s most cherished principles, which is universal love.