History has not been kind to Uncle Tom, the hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and one of the most popular figures of nineteenth-century American fiction. After its initial burst of sensational popularity and influence, Uncle Tom’s Cabin fell into neglect. Its circulation declined following the end of the Civil War and Stowe’s death, and by the mid-1900s, the book was virtually out of print. Not until the early 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement reawakened an interest in anti-slavery fiction, did the novel again become widely read. More than a hundred years after its initial publication, however, Uncle Tom’s Cabin stood as a testament to a past set of standards and expectations. The values and attributes that seemed admirable in its characters in 1852 frequently appeared incomprehensible and even contemptible to twentieth-century readers. In particular, the passive acceptance of slavery practiced by the novel’s title character seemed horrendously out of line with the resolve and strength of modern black Civil Rights crusaders. The term “Uncle Tom” became an insult, conjuring an image of an old black man eager to please his white masters and happy to accept his own position of inferiority.
Although modern readers’ criticisms hold some validity, the notion of an “Uncle Tom” contains generalizations not found within the actual character in the novel. First, Tom is not an old man. The novel states that he is eight years older than Shelby, which probably places him in his late forties at the start of the novel. Moreover, Tom does not accept his position of inferiority with happiness. Tom’s passivity owes not to stupidity or to contentment with his position, but to his deep religious values, which impel him to love everyone and selflessly endure his trials. Indeed, Tom’s central characteristic in the novel is this religiosity, his strength of faith. Everywhere Tom goes in the novel, he manages to spread some of the love and goodwill of his religious beliefs, helping to alleviate the pain of slavery and enhance the hope of salvation. And while this religiosity translates into a selfless passivity on Tom’s part, it also translates into a policy of warm encouragement of others’ attempts at freedom. Thus, he supports Eliza’s escape, as well as that of Cassy and Emmeline from the Legree plantation. Moreover, while Tom may not actively seek his own freedom, he practices a kind of resistance in his passivity. When Legree orders him to beat the slave girl in Chapter XXXIII, he refuses, standing firm in his values. He will submit to being beaten for his beliefs, but he will not capitulate or run away.
Moreover, even in recognizing Tom’s passivity in the novel, and Stowe’s approving treatment of it, one should note that Stowe does not present this behavior as a model of black behavior, but as a heroic model of behavior that should be practiced by everyone, black and white. Stowe makes it very clear that if the villainous white slaveholders of the novel were to achieve Tom’s selfless Christian love for others, slavery would be impossible, and Tom’s death never would have happened. Because Stowe believes that a transformation through Christian love must occur before slavery can be abolished successfully, she holds up Tom’s death as nobler than any escape, in that it provides an example for others and offers the hope of a more generalized salvation. Through this death, moreover, Tom becomes a Christ figure, a radical role for a black character to play in American fiction in 1852. Tom’s death proves Legree’s fundamental moral and personal inferiority, and provides the motivating force behind George Shelby’s decision to free all the slaves. By practicing selflessness and loving his enemy, Tom becomes a martyr and affects social change. Although contemporary society finds its heroes in active agents of social change and tends to discourage submissiveness, Stowe meant for Tom to embody noble heroic tendencies of his own. She portrayed his passivity as a virtue unconnected to his minority status. Within the world of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom is presented as more than a black hero—he is presented as a hero transcending race.
Probably the most complex female character in the novel, Ophelia deserves special attention from the reader because she is treated as a surrogate for Stowe’s intended audience. It is as if Stowe conceived an imaginary picture of her intended reader, then brought that reader into the book as a character. Ophelia embodies what Stowe considered a widespread Northern problem: the white person who opposes slavery on a theoretical level but feels racial prejudice and hatred in the presence of an actual black slave. Ophelia detests slavery, but she considers it almost necessary for blacks, against whom she harbors a deep-seated prejudice—she does not want them to touch her. Stowe emphasizes that much of Ophelia’s racial prejudice stems from unfamiliarity and ignorance rather than from actual experience-based hatred. Because Ophelia has seldom spent time in the presence of slaves, she finds them uncomfortably alien.
However, Ophelia is one of the only characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who develops as the story progresses. Once St. Clare puts Topsy in her care, Ophelia begins to have increased contact with a slave. At first she tries to teach Topsy out of a sense of mere duty. But Stowe suggests that duty alone will not eradicate slavery—abolitionists must act out of love. Eva’s death proves the crucial catalyst in Ophelia’s transformation, and she comes to love Topsy as a human being, overcoming her racial prejudice and offering a model to Stowe’s Northern readers.
Although largely a uniformly evil villain, Simon Legree does possess some psychological depth as a character. He has been deeply affected by the death of his angelic mother and seems to show some legitimate affection for Cassy. Nonetheless, Legree’s main purpose in the book is as a foil to Uncle Tom, and as an effective picture of slavery at its worst. Often associated with firelight and flames, Legree demonstrates literally infernal qualities, and his devilishness provides an effective contrast with the angelic qualities of his passive slave. Legree’s demoniacally evil ways also play an important role in shaping the end of the book along the lines of the traditional Christian narrative. Above all, Legree desires to break Tom’s religious faith and to see him capitulate to doubt and sin. In the end, although Tom dies and Legree survives, the evil that Legree stands for has been destroyed. Tom dies loving the men who kill him, proving that his faith prevails over Legree’s evil.