Or, Life Among the Lowly
By Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
.......Uncle 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.
Type of Work and Style
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
.......Serious 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.
.......Shelby 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.
.......Eliza, 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.
.......“The good Lord have pity on us!' Aunt Chloe says. “What has Tom done that master should sell him?”
.......Aunt Chloe urges him to go with Eliza. But—ever loyal and selfless, even at a time like this—Tom says:
.......“No, 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."
.......So 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.
.......Eliza 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.
.......On 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 Canada.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......On 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.
.......St. 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.
.......Tom 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.
.......“He sings such beautiful things about the New Jerusalem, and bright angels, and the land of Canaan,” Eva tells her father.
.......And 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.
.......Unfortunately, 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.
.......In 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.
.......Although 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......Tom’s 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!”
.......Tom 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.
.......Legree 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.
.......George 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.
.......Shelby 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......Happily, 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.
.......After 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.
.......The 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.
.......After 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..
.......The main themes of the novel include the following:
1...Slavery is an evil institution.Eliza's River Crossing
.......One 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.
.......After 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.