Literature has the most power with the right combination of context, theme, and language. In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we are enveloped in the Shelby household where slaves are seemingly treated humanely as opposed to other slave-owning households. This book historically has been said to be “the book that started the Civil War” and there are evident reasons about why that may be (Volarro). Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses themes of family, humanity and freedom to enable readers to sympathize not only with the fictional characters, but with the enslaved people.
Stowe utilizes the intimate theme of family in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, allowing for readers to understand and join the abolition movement. The pathos used within the text can be credited to Stowe’s background in moral philosophy; Stowe studied in Catherine Beecher’ Female Seminary where she studied subjects within the male college curriculum (Hedrick). The thematic choice of family is evident within the text, focusing mainly on the interactions between Eliza and her family of George and her son, as well as the ones between herself and Mrs. Shelby. In Chapter I, we see both Eliza’s love for her son as well as her daughter-like dependency on her mistress, Mrs. Shelby. Eliza overheard the conversation between Mr. Shelby and Haley and goes to her mistress with worries that her child will be taken away from her but is then reassured by her mother-like mistress,
Sell him! No, you foolish girl! You know your master never deals with those southern traders, and never means to sell any of his servants, as long as they behave well. Why, you silly child, who do you think would want to buy your Harry? Do you think all the world are set on him as you are, you goosie? Come, cheer up, and hook my dress. (Stowe)
This intimate connection between both women shows a family-like bond, which is radical for the time. This exemplifies how slaves were people too and had family and family-like connections that were affected by the injustices of slavery. Along with the relationship between Eliza and Mrs. Shelby there is also the family that she has within her enslaved life, consisting of George and her son. Although she has a comfortable status within her slave-owners’ home, she is still pulled to follow her husband along with her child to freedom:
But stronger than all was maternal love, wrought into a paroxysm of frenzy by the near approach of a fearful danger. Her boy was old enough to have walked by her side, and, in an indifferent case, she would only have led him by the hand; but now the bare thought of putting him out of her arms made her shudder, and she strained him to her bosom with a convulsive gasp, as she went rapidly forward. (Stowe)
This emotional journey of motherhood for Eliza allows readers to have empathy for her as a mother, humanizing her and breaking down the institution of slavery in which she was comfortable in but trapped.
Along with the familial theme, humanity is prevalent throughout her novel, inciting readers to reflect and connect the vulgarity of slavery to their own lives. By implementing this theme into her writing, Stowe reaches the hearts, minds, and morals of her readers, reminding everyone that we are all humans and slavery is not humane. The first mention of humanity is seen in Chapter I when a slaveholder explains that “I lays it all to my management, sir; and humanity, sir” (Stowe). Humanity makes the basis for good management of slaves. He then goes on to explain how awful some slaveholders can be, ripping children from their parents and mistreating them. Although this is a slaveholder talking, Stowe incites sympathy and an understanding from readers as they see that the way slaveholders treat slaves- roughly- is inhumane. Stowe uses humanity in the slave business to show that treating them as property is wrong and can have damaging effects on the slaves themselves. Readers are then seeing these slaveholders as the bad guys and the slaves as the victims. Stowe goes on to face the readers and say, “Perhaps you would laugh too, dear reader; but you know humanity comes out in a variety of strange forms now-a-days” (Stowe). This almost cynical comment incites the reader to relate this fictional text to their own lives, allowing them to sympathize with both the characters in the story, and the slaves in real life. This enables readers to see that the idea of slavery as bad goes beyond a story.
The final theme is freedom which is especially prominent within the third and seventh chapter. Freedom, especially in this story and with real life slaves, meant safety. For the slaves, it was the ability to be their own person and not who their master wanted them to be. George Harris goes on about this within the third chapter:
My master! And who made him my master? That’s what I think of – what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,—and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,—I’ve learned it in spite of him; and now what right has he to make a dray-horse of me?—to take me from things I can do, and do better than he can, and put me to work that any horse can do? (Stowe)
Eliza wants to be free for herself, for her husband, and for her son. This theme especially is one that makes readers sympathize with characters and real slaves, as freedom is something every person has wanted. America’s freedom was still fairly new at the time, and could be seen as fragile. Americans could read this text and relate to these characters. It was an insight into the mind of a slave that evoked sympathy, and impacted the way people thought about slaves, both within the story and out of it.
Through the use of freedom, humanity, and family, Uncle Tom’s Cabin effectively evokes sympathy from its readers. The idea of freedom allows readers to understand the slaves because that’s what everyone is looking for- freedom. Humanity as a theme, makes readers see that slaves are being treated inhumanely, inciting sympathy and awareness. And finally, the theme of family encourages readers to see that both enslaved and free people share bonds that connote emotion and dependency. Stowe’s piece uses these themes to create a revolutionary text, empowering readers to take a side against slavery.
Hedrik, Joan D. “Stowe, Harriet Beecher (1811-1896), Author | American National Biography.” (1811-1896), Author | American National Biography, 16 June 2017, www.anb.org/view/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.001.0001/anb-9780198606697-e-1601582.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/203/203-h/203-h.htm.
Volarro, Daniel R. “Lincoln, Stowe, and the ‘Little Woman/Great War’ Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote.” Quod.lib.umich, 2009, quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0030.104?view=text;rgn=main.