It wasn’t easy to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin again. I knew how it was going to end. It has been about a quarter of a century since I read it the first time, so I didn’t remember details, but it came back to me as I got further along. There came a point where my proceeding was with dread. And, wouldn’t you know it, it ends the same way it did last time!
This week in our literature class, everyone was to have finished Uncle Tom’s Cabin. My first question for my students was, “Well, what did you think?” They agreed that they were all thinking what one asked: “Why do we keep reading these horribly sad stories?” Before I could answer, another student said, “I guess it’s because that’s how life is.”
Why, yes, my dears! Even if you determine that you will stick to reading rosey stories like Anne of Green Gables, there will be pain and death, because that is life.
This year we are working our way through American literature. The first two books (this one and The Last of the Mohicans) have highlighted historical eras. Typically, what makes an era noteworthy is conflict. A good story must have conflict and complication, with which America’s (and everyone else’s) history abounds. Good people suffer and die.
The fact that Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a sermon against slavery is too obvious to merit much discussion. We don’t need to spend class time checking to see if we all agree that slavery is bad. Stowe would like us to agree that no true Christian would own slaves or countenance the institution. But here’s a question for my Christian girls . . . Where in the Bible are we told that slavery is wrong and should be abolished?
Then what do you remember about what the New Testament says about slavery?
“That if you are a slave, you should do a good job.”
Not try to escape?
What if you are a slave owner?
“Treat your slaves as you would want to be treated.”
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. Ephesians 6:5-9
One of the girls brought up Philemon and the plight of Onesimus. Did Paul berate Philemon for owning slaves? Nope. He sent Onesimus home. But he also told Philemon to treat Onesimus like a brother since he now is also a believer in Christ. Ooooh, there’s a dilemma.
Here are some other questions we wrestled with:
Throughout the story, Uncle Tom serves under three different masters.
The third, Simon Legree, is among the most vile villains in all of literature. Again, not much discussion is required for him. The first, Arthur Shelby, and the second, Augustine St. Clare, are both relatively kind-hearted men. How does each of these justify the institution of slavery in his own mind?
Part of the answer is that both have succumbed to at least one of the deadly sins. Shelby is too proud to do what is right. St. Clare is too slothful.
Two slave owners in the story express regret over slavery. One is Augustine St. Clare. The other is Shelby’s son, George. What is the main difference between these two men when it comes to their slaves?
St. Clare talks about freeing his slaves, but the time is never now. He regrets the entire institution, but doesn’t believe that one man can have enough influence to make a difference. George Shelby sees the evils of slavery and frees his slaves as soon as he is able.
What should we do about laws we consider to be bad laws? When are we justified in disobeying the law? Were the Quakers who helped the runaway slaves thus justified?
Do you think everyone in the South thought slavery was good? Did everyone in the North think it was bad?
The question my girls will be grappling with and writing about this week:
To be humane is to be kind, merciful, and compassionate. Several of the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, if asked, would likely have claimed to be humane. Consider Mr. Shelby, Mr. St. Clare, Mr. Haley, and Miss Ophelia. Haley declares his humaneness loudly and often. The others, for the most part, believe they are pretty good people. Which do you think are truly humane? Why?
Besides writing their Uncle Tom’s Cabin essays, the students have started reading Henry W. Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. We will spend two weeks on this. Then we’ll take what I hope will be a bit of a breather with Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl.
My youngest student is 13. I would be hesitant to recommend this book to anyone younger.
Mrs. Stowe wanted this book to move readers into acting against slavery, but she writes in 1855. This means that there are emotionally intense situations, but that they are depicted much more circumspectly than in more recently written literature. There is violence, but nothing graphic. The words mulatto and quadroon are used, but there is little discussion as to how these people came to be born half or one quarter black in a time and place where it was illegal for whites to marry blacks. Likewise, unmarried women have babies, but the babies are mentioned as facts with few details of parentage.
In reviews of this book, you may see terms used such as “sex-slave.” In Stowe’s day, the word “sex,” when used in polite company, referred strictly to gender. Cassy, one of Legree’s slaves, tells Tom her life story. Because of her beauty, she is passed from one white slave owner to another. She discusses her treatment, but there is no overt reference to sex. With younger readers, you may be able to avoid the discussion about exactly what these men wanted with her. In that case, though, perhaps it is better to wait until they are old enough to have an inkling. Cassy says that she loved Henry, the first man who bought her, that she considered herself married to him, and that they had two children together. Henry’s cousin manipulates him in order to have Cassy for himself. Once he gets her, he sells her children. She is sold again. After that, she says, “In the course of a year, I had a son born.”
What may be more disturbing than the story of her treatment by these men is her admission that, after having two of her children taken from her and sold, she killed her next baby.
“O, that child!–how I loved it! How just like my poor Henry the little thing looked! But I had made up my mind,–yes, I had. I would never again let a child live to grow up! I took the little fellow in my arms, when he was two weeks old, and kissed him,and cried over him; and then I gave him laudanum, and held him close to my bosom, while he slept to death.”