Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Christ Figures

As befits its religious preoccupation, the novel presents two instances of a sacrificial death linked to Christ’s. Eva and Tom, the two most morally perfect characters in the novel, both die in atmospheres of charged religious belief, and both die, in a sense, to achieve salvation for others. Eva’s death leads to St. Clare’s deathbed conversion to Christianity and to Ophelia’s recognition and denunciation of her own racial prejudice. Tom’s death leads to Emmeline and Cassy’s escape and to the freedom of all the slaves on the Shelby farm in Kentucky. Both Tom and Eva are explicitly compared to Christ: Ophelia says that Eva resembles Jesus, and the narrator depicts Tom carrying his cross behind Jesus. This motif of Christ-like sacrifice and death enables Stowe to underscore her basic point about Christian goodness while holding up models of moral perfection for her reader to emulate. It also enables her to create the emotionally charged, sentimental death scenes popular in nineteenth-century literature.

The Supernatural

Several supernatural instances of divine intervention in the novel suggest that a higher order exists to oppose slavery. For instance, when Eliza leaps over the Ohio river, jumping rapidly between blocks of ice without fear or pain, the text tells us that she has been endowed with a “strength such as God gives only to the desperate,” facilitating her escape from oppression. Similarly, when Tom’s faith begins to lapse at the Legree plantation, he is visited by religious visions that restore it, thus sustaining him in his passive resistance of Legree. Before Eva dies, she glimpses a view of heaven and experiences a miraculous presentiment of her own death; these occurrences reinforce Eva’s purity and add moral authority to her anti-slavery stance.

Instances of supernaturalism thus support various characters in their efforts to resist or fight slavery. But they also serve to thwart other characters in their efforts to practice slavery. Thus, as Legree pursues his oppression of Tom, he has an upsetting vision of his dead mother and becomes temporarily paralyzed by an apparition of a ghost in the fog. The fear caused by this apparition weakens Legree to the point that Cassy and Emmeline can trick him into believing that ghosts haunt the garret. This ploy enables them to escape.