Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom

At this table was seated Uncle Tom, Mr. Shelby’s best hand, who, as he is to be the hero of our story, we must daguerreotype for our readers. He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence. There was something about his whole air self-respecting and dignified, yet united with a confiding and humble simplicity.

The author introduces Uncle Tom, the novel’s hero. The narrator’s description explains many of the novel’s events. Tom’s physical strength and good nature make him Shelby’s most valuable slave commodity, which motivates Shelby to sell him. Tom’s intelligence leads him to accept the sale rather than try to escape, because his sale has a better chance of saving his wife and children. Tom is a strong, masculine figure, physically as well as spiritually heroic.

Tom rose up meekly, to follow his new master, and raised up his heavy box on his shoulder. His wife took the baby in her arms to go with him to the wagon, and the children, still crying, trailed on behind. Mrs. Shelby, walking up to the trader, detained him for a few moments, talking with him in an earnest manner; and while she was thus talking, the whole family party proceeded to a wagon, that stood ready harnessed at the door. A crowd of all the old and young hands on the place stood gathered around it, to bid farewell to their old associate. Tom had been looked up to, both as a head servant and a Christian teacher, by all the place, and there was much honest sympathy and grief about him, particularly among the women.

Tom, who has been sold to pay his master’s debts, leaves his wife and children and the Shelby plantation. Mrs. Shelby distracts the trader so that the slave family can say goodbye more privately. The breakup of Tom’s family feels particularly painful because Tom is a faithful, loving father and husband. Several other families endure separation during the course of the novel. Stowe considered the separation of families one of the worst evils of slavery.

“But come, Eva,” he said; and taking the hand of his daughter, he stepped across the boat, and carelessly putting the tip of his finger under Tom’s chin, said, good-humoredly, “Look-up, Tom, and see how you like your new master.” Tom looked up. It was not in nature to look into that gay, young, handsome face, without a feeling of pleasure; and Tom felt the tears start in his eyes as he said, heartily, “God bless you, Mas’r!” “Well, I hope he will. What’s your name? Tom? Quite as likely to do it for your asking as mine, from all accounts. Can you drive horses, Tom?”

Augustine St. Clare introduces himself to his new property, Tom. St. Clare has purchased Tom at the request of Eva, his little daughter. Tom will be devoted to Eva for the rest of her short, saintly life. Tom and Eva form a small missionary team for the purpose of bringing Augustine into the Christian fold. Augustine opposes slavery and indulges his slaves, but he does not free them. He represents one of Tom’s greatest spiritual challenges.

St. Clare was indolent and careless of money. Hitherto the providing and marketing had been principally done by Adolph, who was, to the full, as careless and extravagant as his master; and, between them both, they had carried on the dispersing process with great alacrity. Accustomed, for many years, to regard his master’s property as his own care, Tom saw, with an uneasiness he could scarcely repress, the wasteful expenditure of the establishment; and, in the quiet, indirect way which his class often acquire, would sometimes make his own suggestions. St. Clare at first employed him occasionally; but, struck with his soundness of mind and good business capacity, he confided in him more and more, till gradually all the marketing and providing for the family were intrusted to him.

The narrator describes Tom’s position within the St. Clare household. Like Tom’s previous owner, Mr. Shelby, Augustine St. Clare comes to trust Tom and rely on his judgment. As usual, Tom’s talents add irony to the scene. Tom’s wise management gives St. Clare more wealth by which to live in indolence and creates resentment in Adolph, the insolent, careless slave who has been taking advantage of his master.

“Well, Tom,” said St. Clare, the day after he had commenced the legal formalities for his enfranchisement, “I’m going to make a free man of you;—so have your trunk packed, and get ready to set out for Kentuck.” The sudden light of joy that shone in Tom’s face as he raised his hands to heaven, his emphatic “Bless the Lord!” rather discomposed St. Clare; he did not like it that Tom should be so ready to leave him. “You haven’t had such very bad times here, that you need be in such a rapture, Tom,” he said drily. “No, no, Mas’r! ’tan’t that,—it’s bein’ a free man! That’s what I’m joyin’ for.”

Augustine St. Clare informs Tom of his decision to set him free, and Tom cannot help but rejoice in the news. Tom’s involuntary reaction makes the reader aware of how difficult it has been for him to maintain Christian self-control during his life as a slave. St. Clare’s decision raises the reader’s hopes for a happy resolution to Tom’s story.

“What, Mas’r?” said Tom, earnestly. “I am dying!” said St. Clare, pressing his hand; “pray!” “If you would like a clergyman—” said the physician. St. Clare hastily shook his head, and said again to Tom, more earnestly, “Pray!” And Tom did pray, with all his mind and strength, for the soul that was passing,—the soul that seemed looking so steadily and mournfully from those large, melancholy blue eyes. It was literally prayer offered with strong crying and tears.

The narrator reveals that Tom’s master, Augustine St. Clare, lies on his deathbed. St. Clare has been stabbed during an attempt to break up a fight. Now, at St. Clare’s request, Tom prays for St. Clare’s soul even as his own hopes are dying. St. Clare has promised to free Tom, but he dies before he completes the transaction. After his death, St. Clare’s widow, Marie, sells Tom, condemning him to a living hell.

“Didn’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An’t yer mine, now, body and soul?” he said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot; “tell me!” In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of joy and triumph through Tom’s soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed, “No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it,—ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it;—no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!”

Simon Legree, Tom’s third and last slave master, taunts his new slave, Tom, for his piety. Moments earlier, Tom refused to obey Legree’s order to flog a woman slave, vowing that he would die first. Tom’s righteous resistance arouses Legree’s rage, but that same rage leads Tom to acquire spiritual power over his enemy. Tom’s faith makes him fearless, with the courage of all Christian martyrs.

Was he alone, that long night, whose brave, loving spirit was bearing up, in that old shed, against buffeting and brutal stripes? Nay! There stood by him ONE,—seen by him alone,—“like unto the Son of God.” The tempter stood by him, too,—blinded by furious, despotic will,—every moment pressing him to shun that agony by the betrayal of the innocent. But the brave, true heart was firm on the Eternal Rock. Like his Master, he knew that, if he saved others, himself he could not save; nor could utmost extremity wring from him words, save of prayers and holy trust.

The narrator describes the scene as Tom endures a severe beating at the hands of Simon Legree. The brutal slave owner is enraged because Tom will not reveal the escape plans of Cassy and Emmeline, Legree’s two sexual slaves. During Tom’s “long night,” Christ helps Tom resist the temptations of the devil. Tom retains “the brave, true heart” of a hero, even though standing firm means his own death.

Tom grasped his hand, and continued,—“Ye mustn’t, now, tell Chloe, poor soul! how ye found me;—‘t would be so drefful to her. Only tell her ye found me going into glory; and that I couldn’t stay for no one. And tell her the Lord’s stood by me everywhere and al’ays, and made everything light and easy. And oh, the poor chil’en, and the baby!—my old heart’s been most broke for ’em, time and agin! Tell ’em all to follow me—follow me! Give my love to Mas’r, and dear good Missis, and everybody in the place! Ye don’t know! ’Pears like I loves ’em all! I loves every creature everywhar!—it’s nothing but love! O, Mas’r George! what a thing ’t is to be a Christian!”

Tom addresses his dying words to George Shelby. The young master has come to buy Tom back but has arrived too late. With his last breaths, Tom speaks of his family and sends them messages of love. As his end nears, Tom feels nothing but love. Such sentimentality may provoke the reader to an opposite, more realistic response—anger. George Shelby shares the reader’s righteous wrath at the death of this martyr.

George here gave a short narration of the scene of his death, and of his loving farewell to all on the place, and added, “It was on his grave, my friends, that I resolved, before God, that I would never own another slave, while it was 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 honest and faithful and Christian as he was.”

George Shelby addresses his former slaves, to whom he has just given freedom. The memorial speech reminds the reader that Tom’s wife and children are free as a result of Tom’s sacrifice. Tom’s spiritual power is strong enough to make a slave owner voluntarily free his slaves. The novel functions as a polemic to persuade other Christian slave owners to free their slaves as well.