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.