16 June 2011

A longish essay on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic 1852 novel is best remembered for its emotional, conscientious appeal for the abolishment of slavery. The author, though White herself, had seen the lives of slaves from close quarters and could give a fairly accurate version of the atrocities that were heaped on them. The book's powerful, hard-hitting narrative had the desired effect and within 5 months of its publication nearly half a million copies were sold. The book became extremely controversial. By this time slavery no longer existed in North America. But it thrived in the South where slaves were an economic necessity, as they were needed in the fields. The Southerners put up a fierce resistance against attempts to change existing laws, leading to the Civil war in 1860s. The North won, and America was finally declared free of slavery.

Beecher's novel came a decade before the civil war took place and continued to have immeasurable influence on the political and social narrative on slavery. The Southerners expectedly slammed Uncle Tom's Cabin terming it exaggerated and even untruthful. However, the horrors that were captured in the novel and the psychology of human violence it brought out so incisively made a deep impression upon its readers. Over the years Beecher's novel grew so famous that it's characters - Uncle Tom, Eva, Simon Legree, Topsy became American by words. The novel was adapted for the stage many times and several film adaptations of it were made in the silent era. This did some disservice to the book "as many of these were garish dramatisations, emphasing the most melodramatic, seemingly improbable incidents in the novel", says Alfred Kazin in his introduction to the classic. For the later generation the novel turned into a caricature. "The characters had become such worn-out symbols that without knowing the book, people who mockingly used these symbols thought the book beneath their notice," he writes.

Yet, it's impossible to deny the novel's historical significance. It remains the single-most enduring novel written on slavery. Over the years the Blacks have come to view the book with with mixed feeling. The novel unquestionably aided in the abolition of slavery but many also saw the portrayal of Blacks as objectionable for a variety of reasons. Author and critic Charles Johnson's introduction for one of the newer editions is especially useful in understanding the Black point of view to the novel. Johnson -though he finds the novel untidy, full of contrivances, improbable situations and mawkish sentimentality, applauds it for its stupendous characters and narrative power. He states that much need not be made about these faults because this was the structure prevalent in the nineteenth century. Also, Uncle Tom's Cabin came at a time when fiction was being published in serialized form in newspapers, which meant there was the natural tendency to stretch a story too long. Beecher's novel came in 45 weekly instalments which explains its immoderate length. "What Uncle Tom's Cabin lacks in concinnity it more than makes up for by being fully imagined and deeply felt," says Johnson.

He sees the novel as a staggering success in terms of story-telling but firmly objects to the way Blacks have been portrayed, calling it 'ineluctably racist' "Stowe's interpretation of the 'nature' of Negros is her novel's most central and self-destructive flaw. It simple replaces one racist stereotype with another that is equally condescending and unacceptable." He goes on to say that this is typically the problem with most white Americans who will understand the racial and cultural "other" only 'in their own terms'

Johnson is especially displeased that the author tags Blacks with adjectives like 'patient, timid and unenterprising' Also, he believes Beecher overdoes her sympathy by showing all Blacks as innocent and good. Even Topsy who is a wild, irreligious child is someone who monkeys around and amuses people. So essentially, the argument becomes that Blacks ought to be freed because they are harmless and pet-like. It totally deflects from the simple ethical question of human freedom and dignity. These points are extremely valid. He even quotes Charles Dickens who was disturbed by Beecher's attempt at portraying Blacks in an over-the-top positive light. "I think this extreme championship is likely to repel some useful sympathy and support."

Similarly, while the Southern's felt that Beecher had fabricated the truth, Johnson on the other hand believes that her book only "touches upon the iceberg of two hundred years of depravity and cruelly inflicted on Africans"

Beyond these points of debate, let's also look at what the books actually aims to do. Without much doubt Beecher's social and moral concerns overpowered her artistic ambitions. The issue of slavery was foremost on the author's mind. And yet, she has a terrific sense of drama, and some of her characterisation is as good as it gets in classic literature. Yet, there are also painfully exaggerated figures she creates in the lead characters of Uncle Tom and Eva - the angelical do-gooders as symbols of Christ. Both epitomise Christian ideals of forbearance and sacrifice, and belong to the Black and White sides respectively. This choice of characterisation was most probably derived from the fact that Beecher was herself brought up on tales of Christian charity and brotherhood. Her faith was strong and her attempt was clearly to evoke the image of Christ amidst the cruelties she saw around her.
Where Beecher is really in top form is in her slow peeling of the evil characters. She demonstrates an immense and awe-inspiring talent in the description of Marie Clare and Simon Legree.

Now for the gist of the novel. The action starts at the Shelbys, a kindly family who treat their slaves well. However, when Mr Shelby's fortunes take a beating he is forced to sell off his loyal slave of many years, the middle-aged and diligent, Uncle Tom. He also plans to give away one of their female slave Eliza's son. When Eliza hears that her child would be taken away from her, a strange motherly power possesses her and she makes a great escape. Tom - the ever tolerant man meekly follows his new master, Mr Haley, leaving his wife and children behind. Tom is industrious and god-loving and doesn't face too many problems. But his stay with Haley is short-lived, as a young man of fortune and family, St Clare absorbs him into his large, picturesque household in New Orleans. St Clare buys Tom at a princely sum, since his little daughter Eva takes a great liking to him. Eva is portrayed as a little angel who cannot see anyone suffering around her and is always compassionate to everyone. She holds no prejudice of colour or class.

Her mother Marie is the polar opposite. She is hypochondriac and a nag. The author says describing her, "Marie had never possessed much capability of affection, or much sensibility, and the little that she had, was merged into a most intense and unconscious selfishness; a selfishness more hopeless, from it quiet obtuseness, its utter ignorance of any claims but her own. From her infancy she had been surrounded by servants, who lived only to study her caprices; the idea that they had feeling or rights had never dawned upon her even in distant perspective."

Marie intensely resents the fact that her husband is excessively lenient with their servants. She finds it absurd that he never whips them. Things seem to go along nicely for Tom for a while. But then almost suddenly Eva takes ill and dies. St Clare is a broken man but as kind as ever. He is keen to give Tom his freedom, but just days before the formalities can get completed, he too dies. Now at the mercy of their heartless mistress the servants start to get nervous about their altered circumstances. On one occasion Marie even sends one of her slave girls to a flogging house. Clare's middle-aged cousin, Miss Ophelia pleads the girl's case with Marie, but she obtusely holds on to her own position.

Marie sells off some of the slave, including Tom. This proves to be the third and final destination for Tom. His master Simon Legree is a ruthless, sadistic tyrant. Yet, he means to be decent with Tom as he sees potential in him and wants to promote him as an overseer. Legree, however, is uncomfortable seeing the pious side of Tom. His inhuman and immoral acts fill his heart with a dread of the unknown, and he gets determined to break his will. He asks Tom to flog a woman. When he refuses, he unleashes the worst torture on him. Finally, Tom dies at the hands of Legree's men, much like Christ.

The story is deeply moving and its emotional sweep is tremendous. Harriet Beecher Stowe's prose is compassionate and courageous, and it's not difficult to see that such a novel -with its particular nuances and shades - could only be written by a woman. Happy domestic scenes clearly delight the author and to her mind nothing can be more tyrannical than forcibly breaking up a family. This is the refrain throughout the novel. Slaves were allowed to marry but these marriages were not legally recognised and their owners very often would sell one half of the couple to anyone they wished. This inhuman aspect of slavery moved Beecher the most and she recounts countless episodes that show husband-wife and mother-child being cruelly separated. The author was evidently appealing to the sympathetic heart of White American wives and mothers, who would be able to feel the full impact of such an act.

The novel's other important theme is the psychology of violence. When irresponsible and uncontrolled power is placed with someone, human beings are capable of unleashing the most perverse violence on each other. This is what is revealed in the case of both Legree and Marie.
While the author portrays the 'good' in its purest form, reaching almost unrealistic levels, she is more interesting when she tackles evil in people. Ever the evangelist, she likes to believe that people can have a change of heart. Many characters in the book do go through that feeling.
The novel’s other strength is that it wonderfully penetrates into the psyche of women and captures how their minds operate. There is always a fair bit of guile and tact that women employ to negotiate their way around, and this the author astutely brings out.
All of this makes Uncle Tom’s Cabin as much of an artistic success as much as it one of the most significant social novels in all of literature.


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