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.