1. Discuss the differences between the portrayals of men and women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Does Tom fit with the rest of the men in the book? Why or why not? How does the portrayal of women reveal Stowe’s feminism?
Women often take the actively moral role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Often idealized as almost angelic mothers, wives, and counselors, they become guiding moral lights. Examples of such figures include Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, St. Clare’s mother, and Legree’s mother. In contrast, Stowe often portrays men as gruff, avaricious, and morally weaker than their female counterparts. Uncle Tom provides the one exception to this trend. Like many of the female characters, Tom serves the role of moral guide. Perhaps this parallel can be explained if one takes into account the similar position of disempowerment held by both white women and black slaves. Stowe never explicitly makes a connection between the oppression of women and the oppression of blacks, but she does imply it through her structure of parallelism and contrast.
2. Discuss Stowe’s use of opposites and the technique of contrast in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Parallels and contrasts lend Uncle Tom’s Cabin its structure and inform its rhetorical power. The book features two opposing plots, the slave narrative and the escape narrative. One could compare the different directions, both literally and symbolically, that these plots take. Eliza and her husband travel ever farther north, finding freedom and happiness, while Tom travels ever farther south, entering into martyrdom and death.
Other contrasts in the book include that between the good mother narrative of Eliza with the bad mother narrative of Cassy. One could also compare and contrast the roles of the various women in the book, from the upright Mrs. Shelby to the appalling Marie; additionally, one could contrast the childhood innocence of Eva with the adult cynicism of Haley, Legree, or St. Clare. Uncle Tom’s passive martyrdom contrasts with, but does not oppose, George Harris’s active heroism. This use of contrast seems particularly apt for a book that critiques a politically divided nation and a society organized by differences of skin color and gender. Against the grain of conventional thinking, the text imposes its own similarities and differences that cut across received categories. The text compares the subjugated positions of blacks and white women, links Tom and the Quakers in their religiosity, associates Eva with Topsy in their otherworldly energy and naiveté, and connects both Tom and Eva with Jesus Christ. Simon Legree, the representative of slavery’s most horrendous evils, was born in the North, in Vermont. On the other hand, George Shelby, who eventually sets his slaves free, lives his whole life on a Southern plantation. With these associations Stowe challenges conventional dichotomies between black and white, male and female, and North and South.
3. What roles do circumstance and chance play in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Does the text use either of them to help explain the existence of slavery?
Stowe acknowledges that circumstances of geography and birth may decide whether a person practices slavery, but she does not allow circumstance or chance to excuse these people. For instance, St. Clare tells Miss Ophelia that many of the prominent people in New England would be prominent slaveholders if they lived in the South. However, Stowe does not allow this to serve as a justification of slavery but rather as an indictment against humanity. All people possess some measure of evil, and therefore all people are capable of the evil of owning slaves. Depending on the circumstances of one’s birth, the evil in one’s life takes different forms. One should work toward eradicating the circumstances that allow this evil to become institutionalized.
1. In what ways does Stowe present the incompatibility of slavery with the Christian ethic of love and tolerance? How do the novel’s Christ figures underscore its basic Christian messages?
2. Compare and contrast Tom’s three owners in the novel—Shelby, St. Clare, and Legree. How are they alike? How are they different? Do they appear in the novel according to any particular sequence, and if so, how does this progression relate to the general themes of the book?
3. Discuss the role of Eva in the novel. In what ways does she contribute to the novel’s larger messages?
4. How do Stowe’s political objectives affect the style and formal aspects of the novel? In designing her characters to make a point, did she make them too simple? Do the noble politics of the novel justify its literary shortcomings?