“You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do! Things have got to a pretty pass, if a woman can’t give a warm supper and a bed to poor, starving creatures, just because they are slaves, and have been abused and oppressed all their lives, poor things!” “But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear . . . but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away with our judgment; you must consider it’s not a matter of private feeling,—there are great public interests involved,—there is a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings.” “Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow.”
This exchange occurs in Chapter IX, between Senator Bird and his wife, just before Eliza arrives at their doorstep. The quote crystallizes some of the main themes of the novel, condemning slavery as contrary to Christianity and portraying a woman as more morally trustworthy than her male counterpart. More specifically, this passage bears witness to Stowe’s attack on a common claim of her time—that slavery, and laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act, should be tolerated in the interest of greater public interest or civic order. Arguing against a law that basically paraphrases the historical Fugitive Slave Act, Mrs. Bird routs Senator Bird by insisting that she will follow her conscience and her Bible rather than an immoral law. She thus asserts that inner conscience should take precedence over law as a guide to virtue. This idea receives reiteration throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Chapter XLV, Stowe writes, “There is only one thing that every individual can do—they can see to it that they feel right.”
“I looks like gwine to heaven,” said the woman; “an’t thar where white folks is gwine? S’pose they’d have me thar? I’d rather go to torment, and get away from Mas’r and Missis.”
The horribly abused slave Prue speaks these words in Chapter XVIII, when Tom tries to convince her to find God and lead a Christian life, which he tells her will assure her an eternal reward in heaven. With this one line, Prue dramatically illustrates the extent to which racial politics and slavery were impressed upon slaves as unalterable, universal facts of existence. She assumes that if white people are going to heaven, she will be required to work as a slave to them in the afterlife. She unwittingly offers a devastating commentary on the horror of life as a slave when she says that she would rather go to hell (“torment”) to escape her master and his wife than go to paradise with them. Stowe intended her novel for a largely Christian audience, and with these lines she meant to shock the reader into an awareness of the extreme misery slaves endured.
“Mas’r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I’d give ye my heart’s blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ’em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. Oh, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than’t will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end!”
Tom speaks these words to Legree in Chapter XL as he pleads not to be beaten for refusing to divulge information about Cassy’s escape. Tom urges Legree to reconsider, not for Tom’s sake, but for Legree’s. Tom explains that his own “troubles” will soon end (i.e., he will die and go to paradise), but the damage Legree does to his own soul will lead to his eternal damnation. The quote reveals the extent of Tom’s piety and selflessness. Threatened with pain and death by a man who oppresses and torments him, Tom’s first thought is for his oppressor’s soul. He even tells Legree that he would give his “heart’s blood” to save him. In these lines and elsewhere, Tom seems to prove the validity of the Christian injunction to “love thy enemy.” Because he continues to love Legree, Tom ultimately defeats him, even in death.
“Witness, eternal God! Oh, witness that, from this hour, I will do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!”
George Shelby makes this dramatic vow after Tom’s death in Chapter XLI, when he decides to work against slavery. The quote instances Stowe’s most sentimental, melodramatic style, but it also brings a note of moral conclusion to the problem of how a person should undertake to stop slavery. Men like George’s father and St. Clare can see the evil of slavery but continue to tolerate and practice it. St. Clare says that he does so because there is nothing one man can do to change an entire system. But Stowe advocates acting on one’s own conscience, in accordance with one’s personal relationship to God. When George declares that he will do “what one man can” he essentially overrides all concerns about “the system.” Every individual should work against oppression to the extent that he or she can, in his or her own life. If all people did this, Stowe implies, following their consciences and practicing Christian love, then slavery would cease to exist.
“It was on his grave, my friends, that I resolved, before God, that I would never own another slave, while it is possible to free him; that nobody, through me, should ever run the risk of being parted from home and friends, and dying on a lonely plantation, as he died. So, when you rejoice in your freedom, think that you owe it to that good old soul, and pay it back in kindness to his wife and children. Think of your freedom, every time you see uncle tom’s cabin; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.”
This quotation from Chapter XLIV is George Shelby’s speech to his slaves as he sets them all free, fulfilling the dramatic vow he made two chapters earlier. The speech explains the novel’s title and establishes the image of Uncle Tom’s cabin as the central metaphor of the novel. When George Shelby sees the house, he remembers that Uncle Tom was taken from it, separating him from his wife and children and tearing apart his family. He therefore tells his former slaves to think of their freedom when they see the cabin and to resolve to lead lives of Christian piety, following Tom’s example. In this way, the cabin becomes a metaphor for the destructive power of slavery, which can split apart a family and break a home. It also comes to stand for the redemptive power of Christianity and love—for Tom’s enactment of these at his death motivated Shelby to set his slaves free. Thus the cabin comes to embody two of the novel’s central themes, uniting the idea of slavery’s vice and Christianity’s redemption in a single image.