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Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Fairy Tale

Calderon's picture


Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe can also beseen as a fairy tale. I feel that Stowe wanted to highlight characteristics offaith to make the reader feel sympathy towards the main character, Tom. Thesecharacteristics are similar to those of fairly tales. Vladimir Propp argues on“Fairy Tale Transformation” that in order to understand how fairy tales are puttogether is important to understand the commonality of functions within thegenre. Propp believes that all tales have a common structure; that there areseveral recognizable functions, which may be fulfilled by various charactertypes or motifs; and that these functions, when they are present, always occurin the same sequence, although there may be some repetition of particularsequences, as may be seen, for instance, in the threefold repetition ofjourneys or test in many tales. Propp identified 31 distinctfunctions, which he argues dictated the structure of the fairy tales. Stowe might not have seen her novel as a fairy tale, but without a doubt the teststhat she exposes her main character Tom to encounter are one of many functionsthat reflect those of fairy tales in my point of view. I also believe that Stowe made religion and spirituality the essential characteristics to show Tom’s empowering unity with masters and slaves. Stowe shows how his heroiccharacter never fails to follow his faith and pure intentions of goodnessaround those he is surrounded by even when both slave and master betray himconstantly.

Tom's spirituality remains pure throughout the novel regardless of the horrible conditions he is forced to face. He has to leave his family in the beginning of the story. He is constantly sold to different masters and mistreated unjustly throughout the novel. These events of leaving and suffering are two of the 31 functions Propp believes dictate the genre of fairy tale. Propp also believes that there are “several types of relationships between the fairy tale and religion” (54). In Uncle Tom’s Cabin religion is seen all through out the novel. No matter how much Tom has to suffer and struggle, his faith and devotion to God never fails to give him hope to overcome the adversities he faces. This faith and loyalty serves as a symbol of his purity and innocence that in the last chapters of the novel help him show that he is a hero. In the last chapters he refuses to confess where Casse and Eliza (slaves) are hiding from their master. This sacrifice from Tom is the result of saving both Casse and Eliza’s lives. He pays with his life for his silence and is able to forgive those who hurt him, and perhaps serve as the final prove of his faith. Tom is able to forgive those who have offended him and since he has not only proved to be forgiving, but also a loyal believer to his faith throughout the novel this is according to Christianity a guarantee to heaven. Aplace of eternity, happiness, a utopian world that always seems to be the ultimate ending for fairy tales. I also believe that she includes religion so much because she wants to create hope for something better. That believing in paradise, in a perfect after life is worth the suffering of one’s life. It feels like Stowe wants to create a real story of suffering and transform into afairy tale ending of paradise and eternity through Christianity.

There are so many examples of the unbreakable faith in Stowe's novel. The last chapters of the novel are full of examples in which religion not only serves as a union among whites and blacks but also as prove that Tom can serve as channel for this unity. By doing this he appears not onlyas connection, but also as somewhat of a hero for being able to overcome these adversities. The meaning of religion among the characters really comes to surface though little Eva's death. She is described as an "angel-figure" with "that high celestialexpression" (298). Eva's death strengthens Tom's faith. Tom sees his relationship little Eva as somewhat divine. Eva's comprehension of the Bible and God's word allows her to overcome racial prejudices and let the family slaves into her heart. This quality also strengthens Tom's ability to admire and love Eva. They become somewhat like partners in their quest for divinity and justice. They share Christian thoughts, read the Bible together, and often sing praise of the God. Each believes the other is infallible which transcend racial divisions and place these magnificentlydifferent people under the same belief of God. Throughout the novel, we seedisplays of Christianity in both white and black families. The general components of belief are the same: believe in God, follow Jesus, and redemptionwill be yours. It seems as if Stowe wanted to create a hero not only for the black community, but also one for both communities combined; this of course is little Eva.

These instances of faith and its victory against temptation throughout the novel seem to me somewhat unreal, and more in a form of a fairy tale. Stowe's portrayal of Christianity in her novel is that faith is so much more than emotional because it has such power to sustain individuals even in the face of adversity. Stowe's novel illustrates the idea that faith is not as much a body experience as it is a connection between what can be known factually by a mind and what can be hoped for and sought out by the heart and imagination. Faith is real, but it is untouchable and unextracted from the body—fairy tales are real stories about ordinary characters that become self-sacrificing and then transform into eternal memories that are not represented in a body. Tom’s character dies and with his death he obtains the prize not only of eternity but a memory left to his family of a good men who died to protect two women.


Anne Dalke's picture

Not Like a Fairy Tale


I think that this is an intriguing experiment: to use Uncle Tom's Cabin as a test case for Propp's theory of what makes a fairy tale--does it exemplify all 31 functions? Or enough of them to "qualify"? In running this experiment, you are conducting an exercise that parallels my own argument, last week, that Stowe's religious novel works as a sub-genre in the "genre" of romance: because it is a story of wish-fulfillment.

What happens in the course of the paper, though, is that you don't really follow through on the experiment you initiate; you identify a couple of the functions which you see exemplified, and you also do a nice job of exploring the relationship of fairy tale and religious fiction. But then you veer off to explore the religious dimensions of the novel, and both Tom and Eva's heroism in that context. You don't bring those observations back to the the genre of fairy tale: is the partnership of Tom and Eva fairy-tale like, or a revision of conventions? Is Eva's assumption of the hero-role for both black and white communities a revision or an reinforcement of fairy tale motifs? Is the unrealness of the novel a part of its fairytale nature, or an overturning of that genre?

The other step you don't take, and which you really do need to take to complete this project, is to trace the ways in which the novel is Not Like a Fairy Tale. What functions does it have which are not included in Propp's list? What functions on his list does it not include? In what way does it exceed or (in Derrida's term) "contaminate" the genre of the fairy tale?