Feminist Ideals in Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe Essay
I have a love / hate relationship with the novel. Some days, I think that Stowe is unforgivably racist and cares only about preserving the souls of white people who are forfeiting their place in heaven by owning slaves. On other days, I am really impressed by the way that Stowe is working within many of the discourses of her time and creating a radical message about why slavery is unchristian, unpatriotic and unwomanly.
Of course, everyone knows that Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling book of its time, outselling even the Bible. It sold over 1,000,000 copies, and, for every copy sold, about 10 people read the book. For every person who read the book, about 50 saw a dramatic adaptation (possibly one of the versions by Aiken or Conway, which took away much of Stowe's message and retained mostly the melodrama and racial stereotypes). Nineteenth century America was steeped in Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was the first book to have spin-off products that are common for films today - actions figures, tea sets, dolls, board games, card games, sheet music. Uncle Tom's Cabin permeated American culture. It is speciously reported that, upon meeting Stowe during the Civil War, President Lincoln said, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that caused this great war."
There are so many things to fault Stowe for. In our politically correct culture, all of the faults of Stowe's novel are incredibly salient: she co-opts many racial stereotypes from the minstrel stage. Influenced by romantic racialism, she sees all blacks as simple, docile, childlike, and innately Christian. She sees people who are bi-racial, on the other hand, as intelligent and discontent with their position in slavery because of the "Anglo-Saxon blood" that is flowing through their veins.
But I think that what is important to focus on in Uncle Tom's Cabin is the way that Stowe created an inherently domestic attack on slavery by associating slavery with the public sphere of economy and capitalism and slaves with the domestic sphere of womanhood and Christianity.
Stowe was writing during the time of the cult of true womanhood. In the nineteenth century, women were supposed to be (sexually) pure, (religiously) pious, domestic (staying in the house / kitchen), and submissive (to men). Stowe believed in these prescriptive categories for women (as you can see through the characters of Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird). To her, the best people in the world are mothers and Christians, and Christ himself is a mother-figure; he is pure, pious, domestic, and submissive. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eva and Uncle Tom are both Christ figures and mother figures because mother and Christ are interchangeable. They are the best type of people in the world. The Quaker Settlement, where Rachel Halliday gentle nudges her family to work in harmony in a Christian matriarchy is Stowe's vision of a millennial utopia.
Slavery is evil for Stowe because it is the opposite of Christianity. Christianity is domestic and spiritual, and slavery is a part of the public sphere; it is mundane. Appealing to white Northern women, Stowe shows how slavery creates problems for women: it separates mothers from their children and wives from their husbands. It is bad for the slaveholders because it corrupts them morally. Stowe also attacks the North for their culpability in Slavery. Through the character of Miss Ophelia, she shows that Northerners, while the want slaves to be free, do not want to come near black people with a ten foot pole. They have a visceral reaction to blackness. Through the Fugitive Slave Law, Northerners are helping Southerners to return blacks to slavery.
Lobbying for the inclusion of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the literary canon, Jane Tompkins says of the novel in Sensational Design, that it "retells the culture's central religious myth - the story of the crucifixion - in terms of the nation's greatest political conflict - slavery - and of its most cherished social beliefs - the sanctity of motherhood and the family."