197 Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Andrea Wasgatt

After reading both “Benito Cereno” as well as The Heroic Slave, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided a much deeper glance at the relationship held between slaves and their masters than the other two texts have thus far provided. The text features the complexity of the relationship held between the kindly Mr. Shelby and some of his most beloved slaves (Tom, Eliza, and her son Harry), while still showcasing more villainous slave owners, such as George’s (Eliza’s husband) master and Haley, the slave trader.

While “Benito Cereno” acted as more of a pro-slavery text, demonstrating through the plot’s uprising of the slaves that slaves are dangerous, unpredictable, and savage creatures, Uncle Tom’s Cabin definitely acts as an anti-slavery text by featuring the complex human emotions experienced by the slaves. Stowe instills sympathy within the reader by providing the background stories of each of the slaves, such as Tom’s good-natured and Christian tendencies, Eliza’s upbringing within the Shelby’s home as well as the loss of two children, and the manner in which her husband is essentially ripped away from her and their child’s lives simply because he is seen as another man’s property rather than an actual person. It truly makes you feel for this characters- similar to The Heroic Slave, except no slave revolts have actually occurred (yet) in which anyone is dying, which is a pro in my book.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin features slaves that are both painted as, and depending on the master, treated as a human being, as well as demonstrating the complexity of the slave owners themselves. For example, although Mr. Shelby has been forced into a financial position in which he must sell some of his most beloved slaves, he feels true sympathy towards these same slaves, worrying very much at what will become of them, as well as feeling as though he is betraying them- in Tom’s case, betraying the promise that he had once made of someday granting him his freedom, as well as betraying Eliza’s trust by ripping away her young and only child.

However, the text still features the much more usual and villainous slave owners, such as the trader, Haley, who at one point remarks to Mr. Shelby, “…you Kentucky folks spile your niggers. You mean well by ‘em, but ‘tan’t no real kindness, arter all. Now, a nigger, you see, what’s got to be hacked and tumbled round the world, and sold to Tom, and Dick, and the Lord knows who, ‘tan’t no kindness to be givin’ on him notions and expectations, and bringin’ on him up too well, for the rough and tumble comes all the harder on him after” (Chapter 1). Haley obviously sees slaves as pieces of property, and does not think that they should be brought up in the manner that Mr. Shelby has brought up his own slaves, seeing it as “spoiling” them for the exact same reason as the situation which is currently unfolding- at some point, these slaves will either be sold off for one reason or another, or their kind master will eventually die, leaving them to an unknown fate.

So while Uncle Tom’s Cabin exhibits many differences from the much more “pro-slavery” “Benito Cereno”, such as its anti-slavery message, it features multiple similarities with The Heroic Slave in the depiction of how both white and black characters are treated throughout the entirety of the text.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Andrea Wasgatt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book