Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which made it illegal for anyone in the United States to offer aid or assistance to a runaway slave. The novel seeks to attack this law and the institution it protected, ceaselessly advocating the immediate emancipation of the slaves and freedom for all people. Each of Stowe’s scenes, while serving to further character and plot, also serves, without exception, to persuade the reader—especially the Northern reader of Stowe’s time—that slavery is evil, un-Christian, and intolerable in a civil society.
For most of the novel, Stowe explores the question of slavery in a fairly mild setting, in which slaves and masters have seemingly positive relationships. At the Shelbys’ house, and again at the St. Clares’, the slaves have kindly masters who do not abuse or mistreat them. Stowe does not offer these settings in order to show slavery’s evil as conditional. She seeks to expose the vices of slavery even in its best-case scenario. Though Shelby and St. Clare possess kindness and intelligence, their ability to tolerate slavery renders them hypocritical and morally weak. Even under kind masters, slaves suffer, as we see when a financially struggling Shelby guiltily destroys Tom’s family by selling Tom, and when the fiercely selfish Marie, by demanding attention be given to herself, prevents the St. Clare slaves from mourning the death of her own angelic daughter, Eva. A common contemporary defense of slavery claimed that the institution benefited the slaves because most masters acted in their slaves’ best interest. Stowe refutes this argument with her biting portrayals, insisting that the slave’s best interest can lie only in obtaining freedom.
In the final third of the book, Stowe leaves behind the pleasant veneer of life at the Shelby and St. Clare houses and takes her reader into the Legree plantation, where the evil of slavery appears in its most naked and hideous form. This harsh and barbaric setting, in which slaves suffer beatings, sexual abuse, and even murder, introduces the power of shock into Stowe’s argument. If slavery is wrong in the best of cases, in the worst of cases it is nightmarish and inhuman. In the book’s structural progression between “pleasant” and hellish plantations, we can detect Stowe’s rhetorical methods. First she deflates the defense of the pro-slavery reader by showing the evil of the “best” kind of slavery. She then presents her own case against slavery by showing the shocking wickedness of slavery at its worst.
Writing for a predominantly religious, predominantly Protestant audience, Stowe takes great pains to illustrate the fact that the system of slavery and the moral code of Christianity oppose each other. No Christian, she insists, should be able to tolerate slavery. Throughout the novel, the more religious a character is, the more he or she objects to slavery. Eva, the most morally perfect white character in the novel, fails to understand why anyone would see a difference between blacks and whites. In contrast, the morally revolting, nonreligious Legree practices slavery almost as a policy of deliberate blasphemy and evil. Christianity, in Stowe’s novel, rests on a principle of universal love. If all people were to put this principle into practice, Stowe insists, it would be impossible for one segment of humanity to oppress and enslave another. Thus, not only are Christianity and slavery incompatible, but Christianity can actually be used to fight slavery.
The slave hunter Tom Loker learns this lesson after his life is spared by the slaves he tried to capture, and after being healed by the generous-hearted and deeply religious Quakers. He becomes a changed man. Moreover, Uncle Tom ultimately triumphs over slavery in his adherence to Christ’s command to “love thine enemy.” He refuses to compromise his Christian faith in the face of the many trials he undergoes at Legree’s plantation. When he is beaten to death by Legree and his men, he dies forgiving them. In this way, Tom becomes a Christian martyr, a model for the behavior of both whites and blacks. The story of his life both exposes the evil of slavery—its incompatibility with Christian virtue—and points the way to its transformation through Christian love.
Although Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin before the widespread growth of the women’s rights movement of the late 1800s, the reader can nevertheless regard the book as a specimen of early feminism. The text portrays women as morally conscientious, committed, and courageous—indeed, often as more morally conscientious, committed, and courageous than men. Stowe implies a parallel between the oppression of blacks and the oppression of women, yet she expresses hope for the oppressed in her presentation of women as effectively influencing their husbands. Moreover, she shows how this show of strength by one oppressed group can help to alleviate the oppression of the other. White women can use their influence to convince their husbands—the people with voting rights—of the evil of slavery.
Throughout the novel, the reader sees many examples of idealized womanhood, of perfect mothers and wives who attempt to find salvation for their morally inferior husbands or sons. Examples include Mrs. Bird, St. Clare’s mother, Legree’s mother, and, to a lesser extent, Mrs. Shelby. The text also portrays black women in a very positive light. Black women generally prove strong, brave, and capable, as seen especially in the character of Eliza. In the cases where women do not act morally—such as Prue in her drunkenness or Cassy with her infanticide, the women’s sins are presented as illustrating slavery’s evil influence rather than the women’s own immorality. Not all women appear as bolsters to the book’s moral code: Marie acts petty and mean, and Ophelia begins the novel with many prejudices. Nonetheless, the book seems to argue the existence of a natural female sense of good and evil, pointing to an inherent moral wisdom in the gender as a whole and encouraging the use of this wisdom as a force for social change.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
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.
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.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Near the end of the book, after George Shelby frees his slaves, he tells them that, when they look at Uncle Tom’s cabin, they should remember their freedom and dedicate themselves to leading a Christian life like Uncle Tom’s. The sight of Uncle Tom’s cabin on George Shelby’s property serves as a persistent reminder to him of the sufferings Tom experienced as a slave. The cabin also becomes a metaphor for Uncle Tom’s willingness to be beaten and even killed rather than harm or betray his fellow slaves—his willingness to suffer and die rather than go against Christian values of love and loyalty. The image of the cabin thus neatly encapsulates the main themes of the book, signifying both the destructive power of slavery and the ability of Christian love to overcome it.
The scene of Eliza’s leap across the half-frozen Ohio river constitutes the most famous episode in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The scene also serves as an important metaphor. The leap from the southern to the northern bank of the river symbolizes in one dramatic moment the process of leaving slavery for freedom. Indeed, Eliza’s leap from one bank to the next literally constitutes a leap from the slave-holding states to the non-slave-holding states, as the Ohio River served as the legally recognized divide between South and North. The dangers Eliza faces in her leap, and the courage she requires to execute it successfully, represent the more general instances of peril and heroism involved in any slave’s journey to freedom.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses the North to represent freedom and the South to represent slavery and oppression. Obviously the opposition is rooted in history. However, Stowe embellishes the opposition so as to transform it from literal to literary. Two main stories dominate the novel—the story of Eliza and George and the story of Uncle Tom. One story serves as an escape narrative, chronicling Eliza and George’s flight to freedom. The other story is a slavery narrative, chronicling Uncle Tom’s descent into increasingly worse states of oppression. Not surprisingly, the action in the escape narrative moves increasingly northward, with Canada representing its endpoint and the attainment of freedom by the escaped slaves. The action in the slavery narrative moves increasingly southward, with Tom’s death occurring on Legree’s plantation in rural Louisiana, far into the Deep South. This geographical split represents the wide gulf between freedom and slavery and plays into Stowe’s general use of parallelism and contrast in making her political points.