Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Tom’s Cabin was one of the most widely read books in the world in the
nineteenth century. The masses in the northern U.S. and in many foreign
countries embraced its melodrama, as well as its timely message, and used
the book to galvanize the anti-slavery movement in the 1850's. The book
thus became one of the causes of the American Civil War. The story moves
swiftly, keeping the reader's interest, but the writing writing abounds
in sentimentality, clichés, and preachments.
of Work and Style
Tom's Cabin is a novel of social protest. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe
uses third-person point of view, but she sometimes interrupts the narration
to speak directly to the reader in second-person point of view. Purely
as a literary work, Uncle Tom's Cabin is average at best, relying
primarily on sentimentality and melodrama to appeal to the readers. However,
the themes in the novel are powerful, and they had an enormous impact on
the slavery issue in Stowe's day. They continue to hold meaning for the
modern reader in age when racial bigotry remains a major problem.
Tom's Cabin was published in a series of installments in 1851 and 1852
by the National Review, an abolitionist newspaper. It was published
in book form in 1852.
action takes place in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century in
Kentucky, Ohio, and Louisiana; on river steamboats; and in Canada and Africa.
The story unfolds during a time when tension was growing between the North
and the South over slavery.
Uncle Tom: Long-suffering,
hard-working, deeply religious slave who remains loyal to his Christian
ideals, even refusing to curse those who treat him cruelly. He endures
many hardships on behalf of whites as well as blacks and inspires others
with his Job-like patience and his Christ-like willingness to forgive.
wife, from whom he is separated.
Arthur Shelby: Slave
owner who treats Tom and other slaves kindly but refuses to renounce slavery.
To avoid financial ruin, he sells Tom and a slave boy, Harry Harris.
Emily Shelby: Arthur's
wife. She is appalled by her husband's decision to sell Tom and Harry Harris.
George Shelby: Son
of Arthur and Emily. After he grows up, he searches for Tom, finds him
just before he dies, and buries him. When he returns to his home, he frees
Mr. Haley: Slave
trader who buys Tom and Harry Harris, a child, from Arthur Shelby.
Eliza Harris: Maid
of Emily Shelby and mother of Harry Harris. Rather than endure separation
from her son, she runs away with him in an attempt to reach Canada.
George Harris: Eliza's
husband and a slave at a neighboring plantation. He also runs away.
Harry Harris: Son
of George and Eliza Harris. Haley buys him.
Andy: Slave in the
service of the Shelbys
Little Jake, Mandy:
Slaves in the service of the Shelbys.
Black Sam: Slave
of the Shelbys. After Eliza escapes, he places a beech nut under the saddle
of Haley's horse to cause it to throw him and thereby delay the pursuit
of Eliza and her son, Harry, whom Haley has purchased.
Tom Loker: Slave
Marks: Slave hunter,
friend of Loker.
man who helps Eliza during her escape.
Senator Bird: U.S.
Senate member who sponsors legislation making it a crime to aid fugitive
slaves. He changes his mind on the issue after meeting Eliza and hearing
her heart-rending story.
Mary Bird: Senator
Bird's kindly wife.
John Van Trompe:
Former slaveholder who lodges Eliza and little Harry.
Simeon, Rachel Halliday:
Quaker husband and wife who help Eliza and little Harry.
Little Eva (Evangeline
St. Clare): Saintly white child who loves Uncle Tom.
Augustine St. Clare:
Father of Eva. He buys Tom at her urging and takes him to his home in New
Marie St. Clare:
Augustine's niggling wife.
Miss Ophelia: Cousin
of St. Clare. She takes care of the St. Clare household.
child bought by St. Clare.
Simon Legree: Extremely
cruel slave overseer who buys Tom after Augustine St. Clare dies.
Quimbo, Sambo: Slaves
of Simon Legree.
Slaves in Legree's house who conspire against him. Cassy is Eliza's mother.
Emily de Thoux: Sister
of George Harris.
Slaves, Slave Trackers
Michael J. Cummings...©
money problems beset Arthur Shelby, a plantation owner in Kentucky in the
middle of the nineteenth century. To forestall financial ruin, he agrees
to sell two slaves to Mr. Haley, a slave trader and one of Shelby’s creditors.
They strike the deal on a chilly February afternoon in the dining room
of Shelby's home. The slaves to be turned over to Haley are Uncle Tom—a
faithful, obedient, and respectful worker of middle age—and Harry Harris,
a bright boy just shy of his fifth birthday.
has always gotten along well with his slaves, treating them kindly and
providing them needed comforts. Although he regrets having to sell Tom
and the little boy, he believes he has no other option. The decision appalls
his wife, Emily, for it will mean breaking up families. Tom will be separated
from his wife, Aunt Chloe, the plantation’s cook, and from his children.
Tom and the others have been living together in a pretty little cabin on
the Shelby property. Harry will be separated from his parents.
His mother, Eliza, twenty-five, is a beautiful quadroon (a person with
one half-white parent and one white parent), who serves as Mrs. Shelby’s
maid. His father, George, is a slave at a nearby farm.
who overheard Shelby and Haley talking about the sale, decides to run away
with her son. When she tells Tom and Aunt Chloe that Tom is to be sold,
they are deeply hurt.
good Lord have pity on us!' Aunt Chloe says. “What has Tom done that master
should sell him?"
Chloe urges him to go with Eliza. But—ever
loyal and selfless, even at a time like this—Tom
no. Let Eliza go. It is right that she should try to save her boy. Mas'r
has always trusted me, and I can't leave him like that."
Tom decides to stay put out of concern for the Shelbys. However, Eliza’s
husband, who has been treated cruelly by his master, has also decided to
run away and is to meet up with Eliza in Canada.
and little Harry sneak out in the middle of the night. The next day Haley
is so angry that Shelby gives him two men to help him track Eliza. She
and Harry have made good progress, all the way to the Ohio River. When
Haley and his trackers catch up and spot her, Eliza has only one choice:
to cross the river. But how? There are no boats. And the river is a fearsome
mix of ice blocks and frigid water. With Haley closing in, Eliza leaps
onto a slab of ice with Harry in tow, then jumps onto another, and another,
losing her shoes and cutting her feet. But she makes it across, to the
astonishment of Haley and his trackers.
the other side, a man named Symmes—who sympathizes
with Eliza, calling her “a right brave gal"—directs
Eliza to the home of U.S. Senator Bird and his wife, Mary. Senator Bird
had supported legislation making it a crime to assist runaway slaves, but
kindly Mrs. Bird—and Eliza’s heartrending
story—persuade him to help her. Senator Bird
decides to take Eliza and Harry to an out-of-the-way place where they will
be safe for the night. It is the home of John Van Trompe, located deep
in woods seven miles away. Trompe had once owned blacks in Kentucky but
freed them after realizing the evils of slavery. After lodging there, Eliza
and Harry move next to a Quaker settlement, where they stay at the home
of Simeon and Rachel Halliday. While there, they receive joyful news. George
is also in the settlement. And so Eliza and George are reunited. After
enjoying good food, rest, and the company of the Quakers, they leave for
Tom says his sad goodbyes to his family and friends on the plantation before
his trip south for sale at a slave auction. Young George Shelby, who loves
Tom, promises one day to come for him and bring him back to Kentucky.
the way down the Mississippi, Tom befriends a little white girl on the
steamboat. Her name is Eva. She enjoys talking with him—and
prizes the toys he makes for her. One day, after she falls overboard, Tom
saves her. Eva had once urged her father, Augustine St. Clare, to buy Tom.
So, deeply grateful to Tom for rescuing Eva, he fulfills her wish. Tom
then takes up residence at St. Clare’s elegant mansion in New Orleans.
Clare’s wife, Marie, has become too sickly—or
imagines herself to be so—to do anything in
the household but nurse her headaches and complain, so St. Clare has brought
his cousin, Miss Ophelia, down from Vermont to run the household. Oddly,
Miss Ophelia opposes slavery but dislikes blacks. One of her duties is
to train a spirited slave child named Topsy.
is assigned to take care of the stables, receiving fancy clothes—including
a “well-brushed broadcloth suit, smooth beaver [high silk hat],glossy boots,
[and] faultless wristbands and collar"—to
wear on the job. But this job is only a sort of sinecure; his real duty
is to keep little Eva happy. And this he does remarkably well. She especially
enjoys hearing him sing.
sings such beautiful things about the New Jerusalem, and bright angels,
and the land of Canaan," Eva tells her father.
when she reads to him from the Bible, Tom explains the passages. Over the
next two years, life is generally happy at the mansion. What is more, St.
Clare comes to understand the evils of slavery, and Miss Ophelia begins
to overcome her prejudice against blacks. The changes are due in no small
part to the influence of little Eva and Tom, who see the goodness in everyone.
St. Clare decides one day that a man so worthy as Tom should not be deprived
of his freedom.
little Eva takes sick and dies. This terrible event is followed not long
afterward by another: St. Clare is stabbed to death while attempting to
break up a tavern fight. Consequently, the legal work required to free
Tom is never completed.
the settlement of St. Clare’s estate, his wife sells Tom for $1,200 to
an extremely cruel slave owner, Simon Legree, who runs a cotton plantation.
He beats his blacks mercilessly and uses slave women to satisfy his lust.
Tom has had bad luck, Eliza and George have had good luck on the trip to
freedom: By boat, they have reached Canada and safety. On the shore of
the town of Amhertsberg, “They stood still till the boat had cleared,"
the narrator says, "and then, with tears and embracings, the husband and
wife, with their wondering child in their arms, knelt down and lifted up
their hearts to God!" A missionary takes them in.
Tom’s fortunes continue to worsen. He angers his new master because he
gives him no reason to beat him; he is industrious and obedient as always.
So one day Legree orders Tom to whip a female who has done no wrong. When
Tom refuses to carry out the order, as expected, Legree threatens him.
But Tom, a man of deep religious faith, tells Legree that he can take his
body but he can never take his soul, for it belongs to God.
godliness somehow pierces Legree’s ungodliness, making him wonder whether
he has offended divine powers. A heavy drinker, he begins to hallucinate,
hearing strange noises and seeing ghosts. Two slave women—Cassy,
whom he had used as a mistress, and Emmeline, whom he plans to ravish—conspire
to play “supernatural" tricks on him. One night, after 1 a.m., Cassy comes
to Tom and tries to persuade him to kill Legree with an axe, saying she
would have killed him herself if she were strong enough to wield the weapon
effectively. But Tom refuses, saying, “Good never comes of wickedness.
I'd sooner chop my right hand off!"
then urges Cassy to escape with Emmeline but says he himself cannot join
them, for he believes God wants him to stay and give comfort to the other
slaves. After talking over the risks and possible gains, Cassy and Emmeline
decide to escape, but they do not leave immediately. Instead, they run
off into the surrounding wilderness to create the impression that they
have escaped. Then, they retrace their steps and hide out in the attic
of Legree’s mansion. There, they will work more “supernatural" mischief
against Legree to wear him down until the time is right for them to flee.
searches swamps and forests with bloodhounds but fails to find the escapees.
In frustration, he accuses Tom of abetting the escape and orders him to
tell what he knows. When Tom is unresponsive, Legree has him whipped. The
beating continues without interruption until Tom lies dying.
Shelby, who has been looking for Tom, arrives and says he will take Tom
back to Kentucky with him. But it is too late. Tom dies—remarkably
without rancor in his heart. Before he breathes his last, he even says
Simon Legree did him a favor, by opening the gates of heaven for him, and
hopes that Legree will repent his sins so that he too can enter heaven.
offers to buy Tom’s body from Legree, but Legree says disdainfully, “I
don’t sell dead niggers. You are welcome to bury him where and when you
like." So George, helped by two blacks, takes the body and buries it on
a knoll outside the boundary of the plantation.
Legree slips into ill health after Cassy and Emmeline “haunt" the house
and the property. He drinks heavily. He sleeps fitfully. There are reports
in the vicinity of the cotton plantation that he is gravely ill. One evening,
Cassy and Emmeline take advantage of his muddled state of mind and escape.
they meet up with George Shelby and, together, they board a steamship,
the Cincinnati, for the trip upriver. On the boat, they meet Emily
de Thoux, who turns out to be the sister of George Harris, Eliza's husband.
The conversations that ensue reveal that Cassy is Eliza’s mother.
George Shelby reaches Kentucky, he frees his slaves. The three women—Emily,
Cassy, and Emmeline—go to Canada, where they
reunite with George and Eliza. The Harrises, along with Cassy, later leave
Canada for Africa, where they establish a colony for former slaves.
climax occurs when Tom suffers a brutal beating and dies shortly thereafter
in the presence of George Shelby. There are climactic moments earlier in
the novel, such as the moment when Eliza and little Harry cross the Ohio
River and the moment when little Eva dies.
the death of Tom, Simon Legree becomes seriously ill, perhaps symbolizing
the sickness that afflicts the entire South before the Civil War. Cassy
and Emmeline take advantage of his weakened mental and physical condition
by escaping. Meanwhile, George Shelby buries Tom. When George returns to
Kentucky he frees his slaves...
main themes of the novel include the following:
is an evil institution.
in God sustains and ennobles the oppressed
courage does not require violence
human soul is neither black nor white
human being has the right to deprive another human being of freedom.
children are blind to adult prejudice.
of the most memorable episodes in the novel is Eliza's escape from slave
hunters. With her pursuers closing in, she jumps from one block of ice
to another across the Ohio River with little Harry in her arms. Her act
demonstrates her resolve as a mother and a black woman to place her child
beyond the reach of the inhumanity of slavery. It also foreshadows the
historical liberation of the slaves during the Civil War, when President
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Novel as a Reflection of Reality
the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, supporters of slavery accused
Harriet Beecher Stowe of fabricating or exaggerating her descriptions of
the misery suffered by slaves. In response to these accusations, Stowe
wrote The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that documents her indictment
of slavery. The Boston firm of John P. Jewett and Company published it
in 1854. In Chapter 1 of the book, she writes,
At different times,
doubt has been expressed whether the scenes and characters pourtrayed in
“Uncle Tom's Cabin" convey a fair representation of slavery as it at present
exists. This work, more, perhaps, than any other work of fiction that ever
was written, has been a collection and arrangement of real incidents, of
actions really performed, of words and expressions really uttered, grouped
together with reference to a general result, in the same manner that the
mosaic artist groups his fragments of various stones into one general picture.
His is a mosaic of gems—this is a mosaic of facts. .......The
1854 edition of The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin includes this explanatory
subtitle: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the
Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the
Truth of the Work. Click
here to access the complete text of The Key.
Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811. She
was one of 13 children of Lyman Beecher, a well-known Presbyterian minister.
All seven of his sons became clergymen. Harriet's husband, Calvin Ellis
Stowe, was also a minister and, like Harriet, an abolitionist. After the
publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1851 and 1852, Mrs. Stowe published
Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which provided evidence to support her stand
against slavery. In 1856, she wrote another anti-slavery book, Dred:
A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. She also contributed articles to
the Atlantic Monthly magazine and to several newspapers, including
Independent and the Christian Union. Her brother, Henry Ward
Beecher, had worked as an editor at both newspapers. Mrs. Stowe died on
July 1, 1896, in Hartford, Conn.
Questions and Essay Topics
Who is the most courageous character
in the novel? Explain your answer.
Was Tom right when he decided
not to escape with Eliza?
Although the novel is entitled
Uncle Tom's Cabin, much of the story takes place after Tom leaves the cabin.
Does Tom, in a manner of speaking, take the cabin with him? Explain your
Before President Abraham Lincoln
promulgated the Emancipation Proclamation (a document proclaiming freedom
for slaves) on Jan. 1, 1863, he issued an ultimatum to the southern states,
ordering them to give up their fight and return to the Union. If they had
agreed to end their rebellion, would Lincoln have allowed them to keep
Write an informative essay explaining
what everyday life was like for slaves on a southern plantation.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote
the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he included in it the words "all
men are created equal." Write an informative essay explaining Jefferson's
personal views on slavery.