Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Uncle Tom's Cabin

Unread postby CK » Mon Mar 03, 2003 9:51 pm

I am starting on a mid-term paper for this particular novel in understanding Stowe's objection towards slavery but increasingly, I feel that it is very much a "women's" novel in the sense of understanding her objections towards slavery. In many scenarios which are happy in nature, she always used the domestic appeal of the family and the moral/religious role of the mothers in overcoming the social conventions (like Eliza's escape, Mrs Bird suasion on Mr Bird helping Eliza etc.)

In fact, the title Uncle Tom's Cabin reminds us that the central focus of the novel is this idealistic/utopian family in chapter 4 in which slavery had not threathened the family institution.

Would you therefore agree or disagree with the fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin remain as much a feministic work of questioning slavery's hold/control over women's role as moral mothers in a household which repeatedly gets broken by slavery (ie child sold etc), as well as a political work?

For those who have not actually read the novel, it is actually recommended as an essential read towards understanding American history so I am hereby promoting this novel. (Of course, I am glad that it is assigned as a text for the American Intellectual History class for I may remain ignorant of this novel.) :wink:
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Unread postby CK » Fri Mar 07, 2003 8:40 am

Well, I am finally done and hopefully it will be useful in looking at this novel in a different light. As you would discover when you read it, quite a lot is BS. :lol:

And I would like to thank James for proof reading it. :wink:

An analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a feminist novel

Harriet Beecher Stowe argued, and the theme reverberates throughout her novel, that the institution of slavery ought to be abolished because it separated families, prevented women from fulfilling their roles as mothers and wives, and enslaved women sexually. Scenarios of joy and happiness were portrayed as heartwarming family gatherings with the presence of a motherly figure. The converse of dreaded environments associated with the lack of women moral authority was also true. Indeed, the idea of Republican Motherhood was so evident throughout her novel that most of the female characters seemed as the more moral humans compared to their male counterparts who if moral, were under the influence of their wives or mothers. They were thus presented as sources of true social reform with both their deeds and intentions to end slavery. Furthermore, though to a lesser extent in terms of the attention given by Stowe, there were mentions of female incursions into originally men’s sphere of influence, at times stopped by conventional social standards of the division of gender roles, which Stowe criticized. In this way, Stowe also presents a critique of gender relations during the historical context of her novel. As much as her anti-slavery novel represents itself as both a political piece with the rhetoric of liberty and a religious work with the emphasis on true moral Christianity, which were indeed important and relevant ideas in her novel, the emphasis on women was nevertheless central to such a large extent that one would argue that Uncle Toms’ Cabin could definitely be interpreted as a novel with many underlying feminist ideals.

Slavery was primarily described by Stowe as a prevailing system, “which whirls families and scatter their members as the wind whirls and scatters the leaves of autumn.” All the characters were at one time or another separated from their families. By forcibly separating families, black women were refused the opportunity to fulfill their roles as nurturing mothers. Worse, some even turned into a life of sin as contrary to their original characters. Lucy committed suicide aboard the La Belle Riveira when her baby was sold. Prue became an alcoholic and social outcast because of her excessive drinking habits and foul temper, both fronts in drowning her sorrow since her baby was sold. Cassy murdered her own son in a bid to liberate him from slavery. They also failed in their roles as wives, when “encouraged” to commit a different form of adultery by having different husbands and severing their familial ties, like how Lucy after being separated from her husband were bought by Legree to be given to Sambo as a bride. Instead of being moral mothers and wives, they became comparatively more immoral individuals who committed various sins when the slavery institution that treated blacks as property persisted in removing women from their traditional role of domestic influence and even at times attempted or actually sexually enslaved them as seen in the case of Eliza, Emmeline, Cassy and George Harris’s mother who were regarded by Stowe as “unfortunates of her race,” being a type of slave much worse than other slaves.

Families were regarded as important social institutions, which women had inherent roles to uphold, and Stowe constantly used the domestic appeals of the family in describing joyous occasions of unity like the scenario in Uncle Tom’s cabin, the Quaker settlement and the transcendental image of George’s family in Montreal, all scenarios with strong women influence present. On the other hand, the oppressive and derelict nature of Legree’s mansion was primarily due to the absence of a wife or mother. The novel was named Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it was a utopian scenario of family homeliness that was unaffected by slavery. It was also a home that would be impossible without the work and presence of Aunt Chloe’s as “Tom’s cabin were shut up for the present” when Aunt Chloe went to work in a confectionary.

Stowe had thus constantly stressed the importance of women and their contributions to the establishment of families in such a manner. The division of families was in Stowe’s opinion tragic to the extent that it is inconsolable as described in a conversation between Emmeline and Lucy. The importance is that much of Stowe’s criticisms of slavery and the social ills it brought about were centered on its impact to women and their incapacity in enacting their role of moral mothers and wives because they had no families to perform such domestic roles, which is very much an agenda that predominantly focused on women and a feminist criticism of slavery.

Another feminist aspect of Stowe’s novel is her constant descriptions of women who were more revolutionary in their views on slavery, as well as being sources of social reform with their challenges against slavery compared to their male counterparts. Mrs Shelby was visibly more opposed to selling Tom, raised the issue of redeeming Tom first and was the one educating the slaves; Eliza escaped from the Shelby’s against the law to save her son Harry; Mrs Birds convinced her husband to break the very law he proposed; Eva wished for total emancipation and emphasized that education is essential to the Negroes to learn the religious texts and gain salvation; Aunt Chloe working as a breadwinner in the public sphere to redeem Tom’s freedom; Ophelia also mentioned nationwide emancipation; and Cassy who strived for radical means to break away from slavery by contemplating killing Legree and escaping in the end.
The importance with these characters is that their rhetoric of educating and emancipating the slaves as well as their personal struggles to attain freedom attest to their moral superiority, and their conviction to bring about revolutionary changes against the institution of slavery. The exceptions would be the lady aboard La Belle Riveira and more importantly, Marie St Clare who supported slavery because the former had been to while the latter grew up in the South. The point is this could again be interpreted as a feminist criticism against slavery since slavery resulted in the creation of less than moral women much like what was emphasized earlier. The only difference is that the women affected are white instead of blacks.

On the other hand, the males were in many ways depicted as either supporters of slavery or people who subjected themselves to the institution without resistance. Legree, Mark, Haley and Tom Loker were people who participated in the slave trade and slavery willingly for profits and there was little or no mention of any influence of women on them. Mr Shelby was forced to sell Tom when he got into a debt. As Uncle Tom himself also said, “Mas’r Legree, as ye bought me, I’ll be a true and faithful servant to ye. I’ll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength.” These male figures, unlike their comparatively more revolutionary counterparts, did nothing to attempt to end slavery and by their actions even allowed slavery to continue.

If some men did try to change the system, they were referred by Stowe as either under the influence of moral women or described as women. Augustine St Clare was a liberal slave owner who emphasized that for slavery to end, the North must also accept the blacks as part of the American society. As he explained himself, his objections for slavery and love for all human beings were inherited from his mother but were too insufficient for him to really confront slavery since his mother died when he was thirteen. “If I had lived to grow up under her care, she might have simulated me to I know not what of enthusiasm. I might have been a saint, a reformer, a martyr.” When Senator Bird helped Eliza and Harry to escape, not only was he under the moral suasion of his wife, Stowe explicitly titled that particular chapter, as “in which it appears that a senator is but a man.” It would seem as if only women were capable of moral acts and Stowe again stresses the importance and even the nobility of a woman’s role in acting as moral mothers and wives to provide guidance for the male. “Men born of women are not savage beasts.” Their moral influence would even affect people like Tom Loker who became more softhearted while under the care of Aunt Dorcas and even Legree who exhibited some instances of humanity when his mother and Cassy had an influence over him.

It is important to note that there are two separate meanings to the concept of feminism as in accordance to the historical context of the debate on women’s rights during the antebellum years between promoters of women’s superior role in the domestic sphere and those who advocated equality. Clearly, Stowe’s ideas tend to side more with the former interpretation of feminism since much of her novel was about women’s domestic role and influence as mothers and wives, and that women were both more religious and moral. For instance, if Topsy was to be understood as the ills of slavery and her acceptance into the white community she later lived in as the end of slavery, then the only way to solve the problem would be by ending discrimination, which Eva promoted, and to give her domestic education in religion and sewing etc, which Ophelia provided. It is more by design that Stowe suggested the termination of slavery be primarily due to the moral efforts of women in giving out love and education. Indeed, in her concluding chapter and appeal to the womenfolk to unite against slavery, much of her rhetoric focuses again on domestic issues like motherhood and education.

This of course did not mean notions of sexual equality were completely absent from her novel. As a matter of fact, there were references and certain scenarios whereby Stowe criticized the social conventions in limiting the role of women to play a more public and moral roles, and instances where women succeeded publicly. “Men are constitutionally selfish and inconsiderate to women.” While Marie St Clare made the above remark, it was nonetheless written and designed by Stowe to criticize how men utilize the constitution to deny women certain rights. Mrs. Shelby “had a clear, energetic, practical mind, and a force of character every way superior to that of her husband.” Yet, Mr. Shelby criticized her for interfering in a men’s affair, which she would have no knowledge of. It was of course later proven that she was more than adept in handling financial matters.

Stowe also mentioned along with many successful former slaves a women who raised nine hundred dollars to redeem her husband’s freedom. This is particularly significant since it illustrated a possible reversal of roles whereby men had to depend on women financially and one believes it was the intention of Stowe to use this example to illustrate what women were capable of. It was also never Stowe’s intention to neglect the tensions between gender especially when she mentioned, “between Sam and Aunt Chloe there had existed, from ancient times, a sort of chronic feud.” Sam, being interested in politics and Chloe, a domestic person, served as a microcosm for viewing the gender divide within a larger society. In my honest opinion, the feud between the two different sexes could be seen as the subjugation of men over women and women’s resistance to gain more rights by proving themselves as equal or even better than men.

To digress from our main discussion, there were certain inadequacies and further doubts that I feel were present in the novel. In many ways, the novel was too simplistic, utopian and romantic in terms of the method suggested to abolish slavery by moral suasion and its portrayals of slaves who kept faith with Christianity and who, being innocent people, needed the moral guidance of an enlightened white population. By sending Topsy and George’s family into Africa for a “happy ending”, it moreover raises the question of whether the white community in reality was prepared to accept the black slaves in America itself. While the novel emphasized that it was by choice of the Africans, it did fail to address the all-important issue of racial integration and the abolition of discrimination, and hence raises the possibility of exclusion. Of course, the slaves under the Shelbys would live with their former master but then one would again have to question, even if its wage labor, whether the Africans felt that they were really free by remaining in an environment in which they were once enslaved.

Without a doubt, Stowe did include in her work political arguments against slavery, like her rhetoric of legal injustices that treated people like properties, her critique of the Fugitive Slave Act, and revolutionary male heroes like George Harris and George Shelby. Moreover, her constant writings of God and Christ being held in reverence, as illustrated by her characters faith, made the novel a heavily religious text as well. While I am not arguing against the aforementioned two natures of the text, I do feel that her novel has a strong feminist nature to it not only because of the lengthier feminist writings compared to her political and religious ones, but also due to the emphasis of morality, religion and education that were very much areas where women had more public involvement in due to their traditional roles as moral figures; her critique of slavery from a feminist viewpoint whereby women were seized of the chances to be moral beings with the break up of families; and her cast of more revolutionary women compared to the male.
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