On a farm in Kentucky, during a cold February afternoon in the middle of the nineteenth century, two white men sit discussing a business transaction. Arthur Shelby, a gentleman and slaveholder, is negotiating to sell some slaves to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave buyer. Mr. Shelby has fallen into debt and must sell several slaves to raise money, or else he will lose all his land and property. He tells Haley of a fine slave he owns, Uncle Tom—an uncommonly good and honest man, and a devout Christian. Haley says that one slave alone will not suffice, and he asks for Shelby to include a boy or girl with the trade. Despite Shelby’s reluctance, they decide upon Harry, the son of Eliza, Mrs. Shelby’s maid. Before the trade is finalized, however, Mr. Shelby says he must talk the matter over with his wife. While the men are talking, Eliza approaches Mrs. Shelby and asks her worriedly if Mr. Shelby is going to sell Harry. Mrs. Shelby, uninformed of her husband’s financial woes, promises Eliza that Mr. Shelby would never consider such a thing.
We learn that the beautiful Eliza married a talented mulatto named George, but was separated from him when he was hired out to work in a factory nearby. He invented a machine to speed the process of cleaning hemp, thereby earning the admiration of the factory’s proprietor. However, George’s master removed him from the factory, saying that he only invented the machine because he was too lazy to work. He put George to work at menial labor, which meant that he could see his wife only infrequently. George and Eliza lost two young children, making Eliza very protective of her only surviving child, Harry.
George comes to see Eliza soon after her conversation with Mrs. Shelby and tells her that he is going to escape because he can no longer bear the miseries he has been suffering. Eliza urges him to practice Christian restraint and to trust in God, but George explains that his master is urging him to take another woman as his wife. Eliza protests, and George reminds her that there are no lawful marriages among slaves. As he leaves, he tells Eliza that he will head north for Canada in a week; once there, he will work to buy freedom for Eliza and Harry.
In Uncle Tom’s cabin, Aunt Chloe is cooking dinner for Tom and the children. Shelby’s son, young Mas’r George, is teaching Tom how to write the letter G. They laugh and talk, bantering about, then eating griddlecakes and discussing pies. After dinner they hold a prayer meeting at which the gathered slaves sing hymns and Mas’r George reads the last chapters of Revelation.
While this happy scene takes place in the cabin, Mr. Shelby agrees to sell both Tom and Harry. He signs the papers, and Mr. Haley relieves him of his mortgage. Shelby reminds Haley that he has promised not to sell Tom to any but the kindest master. Haley states unconvincingly that he will do his best.
That evening, Shelby tells his wife about the sale. Mrs. Shelby, appalled, tries to convince her husband not to sell the slaves—after all, he has promised to set Tom free, and she has promised Eliza that Harry would not be taken away from her. But Mr. Shelby tells her that he must either sell those two slaves, or sell all of his property. Mrs. Shelby declares that slavery is a sin, that she hates slavery and wishes that she could do something to stop it. She offers to sell her watch to save Harry. Shelby apologizes to his wife, but says that the papers are already signed.
Eliza overhears their conversation. Realizing that her son is going to be sold, she takes him, tells him to be quiet, and carries him to Uncle Tom’s cabin. There, the prayer meeting has ended, and Eliza tells Tom and Chloe what she has heard. Tom says that he will not try to escape, but Eliza must. Eliza states her intention to head to Canada and asks Tom and Chloe to tell George to look for her. Taking her child, she glides into the night.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a particular purpose in mind: to educate readers in the North about what was happening in the South. At the time of the book’s publication in the early 1850s, the two regions stood so culturally divided that in some ways they seemed like two separate nations—indeed, the South would try to formalize this during the Civil War—and there was often little communication between them. The novel starts in Kentucky, then progresses into the Deep South. This gradual move southward is designed to give the Northern reader time to become familiar with the foreign world of the South.
Stowe uses relentless irony to expose the moral hypocrisies of the slave trade. The idea of the good slaveholder, as embodied by Shelby, is one such hypocrisy. After guiltily concluding the deal with Haley in Chapter IV, Shelby indulges in a cigar to soothe his nerves. At the same time as he smokes this comforting cigar, two families are being torn apart by his actions. The scenes in Chapter IV, in which we first see a seemingly happy evening in Uncle Tom’s cabin, and then see Shelby signing the papers that will destroy Uncle Tom’s family, use understatement and contrast to point out the horror of slavery. Elsewhere, Stowe uses biting sarcasm, as when she refers to Haley as a “man of humanity.” Stowe mocks contemporary thinkers who claimed the possibility of a “humane” or “benign” slavery. Although Tom and Harry may be comparatively well-off under the ownership of Shelby, Stowe shows how easily a slave can slip from a decent life to an abusive one. Even a relatively kind slaveholder makes no difference in the system. Such a construction, in which one cruel slaveholder can imperil the well-being of any slave, is inherently wrong. Indeed, the institution makes an otherwise decent man into an instrument of cruelty.
Stowe employs a direct and conversational style. She writes to the reader using the pronouns “us” and “you,” very conscious of the book’s status as her own personal expression of opinion, intended for a specific audience. Before Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she wrote parlor literature—long, detailed letters intended to be read out loud before a group. In these texts Stowe would allow her voice to emerge strong and clear. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in episodes in a newspaper, and took a form similar to these letters.
These first chapters also serve to introduce the main themes of the book. While the book most conspicuously emphasizes the evils of slavery, it also discusses issues of feminism and religion. Mrs. Shelby provides the voice of morality in the conversation between herself and Mr. Shelby in Chapter V, and she plays a similar role throughout the novel; indeed, in general, the novel’s women are presented as much more virtuous and pious than its men. Yet Stowe was conscious of her society’s reluctance to regard women as equal to men. Therefore, although she uses female characters as gentle sources of prodding to male characters, she never allows them to gain full authority in any situation. Mrs. Shelby influences her husband only through tempered and polite remarks; Stowe may have believed that such techniques were needed in order to avoid alienating the men in her audience as well. Nonetheless, Stowe seems to show a deep faith in the power of a woman’s influence over a man, whether exerted timidly or more forcefully. In writing her book, Stowe may have been banking on the influence of women to make her text’s message fully heard. In many ways, the novel is an appeal to female readers. For instance, Stowe focuses on the relationship between women such as Eliza and their families, demonstrating how slavery breaks these bonds. Stowe may have hoped that her women readers would identify particularly with these wronged women characters, come to believe in the evil of slavery, and then convert their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons.