Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Chapters XVII–XIX

Despite this apparent resignation, St. Clare also shows anger against the system and tells of his mother’s moral perfection: “a direct embodiment and personification of the New Testament,” she possessed a love of humanity that contrasted sharply with his father’s aristocratic attitudes, lack of religious sentiment, and embrace of slavery. Although she never confronted his father directly, St. Clare’s mother made a great impression upon his moral constitution. Thus when St. Clare and his twin brother inherited the family’s slaves upon their father’s death, he found himself unable to bear being the master of a huge plantation and hundreds of slaves. St. Clare tells of a slave who was caught trying to run from the plantation. He explains that the slave had a reputation for rebelliousness, but St. Clare, by tending to him and caring for him, “tamed” him. He then made out free papers for the slave. But the slave felt so grateful toward St. Clare that he ripped the papers in two and pledged his life to him. Eva, who is also listening to the story, starts crying and says that hearing these things makes them sink into her heart.

Later, Tom tries to write a letter to his wife and children, but his limited literacy causes him trouble. Eva agrees to help him, and together they write a letter, which Tom sends.

Analysis: Chapters XVII–XIX

The standoff in Chapter XVII between the escaping slaves and Tom Loker’s gang provides one of the most dramatically compelling moments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, bringing to a crisis the conflict between the escaped slaves’ noble dignity and the slave hunters’ detestable cruelty. Stowe, who often uses the technique of directly addressing the reader, takes the opportunity to point out that if George were a man in Hungary he would be seen as a hero, but because he is a black man in America he is not. In this way, she attempts to simplify and sentimentalize the situation in such a way that her readers will identify with the heroism of George’s stand.

One of Stowe’s most effective techniques of persuasion lies in her presentation of the slaves as real human beings. That is, although Stowe does not portray them with a high degree of “realism” per se, she does render them human to her white audience. In 1852, whites lived such separate lives from blacks that Stowe could dislodge some of their prejudices simply by presenting blacks interacting as a family or feeling joy and sorrow. If she could make whites in the North realize that many of the escaping slaves had families, histories, and pressing human reasons to escape the system of slavery, she could make them see the institution in a new light. Historians have argued that Stowe succeeded in this project, effectively breaking through the familiar defenses of the slave system. By forcing her readers to see the institution from a new perspective, not dulled by custom and familiarity, Stowe may have helped to change many people’s attitudes.

Stowe’s attempts to render the slaves human prove integral to her powerful portrayal of Prue in the next chapter. Having begun to humanize the slaves, she shows a slave who has been dehumanized by the system. If George’s attempt to escape explores the theme of slavery from the standpoint of a noble hero, the story of Prue explores the same theme from the standpoint of a tragic victim. Although Stowe has had her characters discuss at length the evils of slavery, she now illustrates her point graphically, intending to shock the reader on a deeply emotional level. Until Stowe introduces Prue, all of the slaves seem to receive comparably decent treatment; the most cruelty they suffer seems to come when they are between owners, in trade and in transit. But slavery ruins Prue, even before it literally claims her life. She has been treated as nothing more than an animal—useful for breeding other animals to sell—and she has been destroyed morally and psychologically. Whether or not Prue’s story achieves its desired effect on the reader, it definitively converts Miss Ophelia, who realizes suddenly the institution’s wickedness.

Miss Ophelia’s outrage at Prue’s fate, along with her ensuing discussion with St. Clare, helps to shed light on the man’s character. Basically a good-hearted man, he nonetheless feels that he has no choice but to uphold a system of which he disapproves. This contradiction attests to the pernicious power of the slavery, forceful enough to override individual decency. Indeed, many people in 1850s America found slavery fundamentally repugnant, and yet the system persisted. The conversation between Miss Ophelia and St. Clare explores how this is possible. In St. Clare’s description of his father, he explains how much depends on the moral lines that an individual chooses to draw. While one may stand for freedom, one can choose to apply the ideal to men only, to whites only, or to white male landowners only.