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Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Breaking Down a Gendered Genre and a Genre of Gender

Hannah Mueller's picture

The novel, as a genre developed by women, is characterized by unchecked sentimentality and a thematic focus on love and domestic relationships. G.H. Lewes, a writer whom Mary Eagleton cites in her essay “Genre and Gender,” put forth this analysis of the novel in 1852, the same year that Harriet Beecher Stowe published her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A corollary of his analysis, Eagleton says, is that women writers in general can supply details and “emotion,” but only men are capable of writing books with “wide-ranging and significant meaning” (258). Lewes’ argument finds a challenge in his female contemporary and her work, a novel whose impact on precipitating the Civil War negates the claim that women’s writing cannot resonate on a large scale with both sexes.

In fact, Stowe’s novel transcends many of the rules constructed around novels as a “female” genre and women’s writing as a genre, while paradoxically still categorized by those genre definitions. If to say “novel” is to mean a text characterized by “weakness and unreality,” as the critic Ian Watt described the genre a century after Stowe and Lewes were writing, it is unclear whether or not Uncle Toms’ Cabin, a scathing indictment of slavery and a text that constantly avows its own veracity, can be considered a novel under this definition. Even more problematic is the assumption that the genre of the novel took on these characteristics because the primary contributors to the genre had been women. Critics have placed Uncle Tom’s Cabin in two suspect categories: a gendered genre, and genre constructed around gender. These genres are suspect because neither gender nor genre can be conclusively defined; or, to say the same, they are only definitions, in the sense of limits that restrict as soon as they are created with the intent to categorize. By looking at the social impact of Uncle Toms’ Cabin and its author’s methods and goals, we can question the validity of calling the novel a “female” genre and of labeling “women’s writing” a genre at all.

The set of stereotypes that composed Lewes’ and similar critics’ definition of the genre of the novel, like most stereotypes, was convincing because it had some basis in truth. Lewes’ definition does, in fact, accurately describe Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Love and domesticity are certainly themes, and sentimentality is, indeed, both an obvious trait of Stowe’s book and its driving force. What is ironic is that the novel’s sentimentality is what made it so powerful and meaningful in its day. Watt adds “weakness and unreality” to the genre’s characteristics, but these do not apply to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, though they may be thought logically to complement its sentimentality and domesticity. In fact, the novel’s sentimentality is the source of its reality. For Stowe’s characters and, she suggests, for her readers, emotional transformation and strength are the only ways to experience the ultimate reality—that is, the afterlife. Besides this insistence on truth through sentimentality, Stowe is also adamant about the literal truth of her story, its “living dramatic reality” (622), which she says comes from her own experiences and those of people close to her.

While many modern readers remain unconvinced by Stowe’s sentimental and religious rhetoric, this was anything but a “weakness” of the novel in the eyes of her contemporary readers. Lewes suggested that the “female” genre of the novel is a genre that allows for little meaningful substance (Eagleton 258). But the sentiment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is precisely what made it meaningful for so many people; so meaningful, that it is now considered one of the historical causes of the American Civil War. One criteria of the “female” genre, then, contradicts the other when applied to Stowe’s book. A novel must be sentimental and have no significance or resonance, yet Uncle Tom’s Cabin attained a social influence of “masculine” proportions through its insistence on sentimentality.

The conflict between sentimentality and reality that existed for critics who labeled the novel as a “female” genre had its basis in the assumption that genre—and gender, for that matter—can be conclusively defined. What the triumph of sentimentality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin helps to prove is that to define a genre by looking at a group of works and drawing similarities between them does not preclude the possibility of alterations in that genre, changes that would overstep the lines drawn when the similarities were connected. Therefore, to call the novel a “female” genre and then to call Uncle Tom’s Cabin a novel, although it does not have all the characteristics of the genre that would make it female, cannot be correct. The conclusion accepted today is that the novel is not a “female” genre at all, since so many of the books that fit into the genre of the novel would not fit if the genre were gendered. Whether or not the genre of the novel itself is acceptable, where its boundaries lie, and how those boundaries invalidate the genre while they create it, is a much larger but similar question.

Another related analysis addresses the issue of women’s writing as a genre onto itself. Eagleton writes that women’s writing, confined mostly to journals, letters and, of course, novels, had been characterized as “conciliatory, socially minded rather than ego-centered, [and] healing division and difference” (255-256). Uncle Tom’s Cabin, unarguably a piece of writing by a woman, is far from interested in preventing conflict or papering over divisive issues. Its unabashed goal is to start an argument, at the least, about the institution of slavery. While its concerns are “socially minded,” the novel is also egocentric; Stowe’s voice is strong throughout the novel as she addresses, questions, and accuses her readers. When Eliza is escaping, she asks the mothers among her readers, “how fast could you walk?” (105), placing her own voice and opinion foremost in the minds of her readers. She is anything but demure, as women were supposed to be according the gender definitions of the day, a distinction that translated into the genre definition of “women’s writing.”

The fact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was performed as a play also breaks the rules of the genre of writing by women, thus questioning the validity of the genre itself. Drama was a “male” genre because of its exhibitionism and the public role a playwright performed. Stowe’s very purpose in writing was to seek out the public’s attention. Because the book and all the publicity she generated around it are truly audacious, Uncle Tom’s Cabin cannot be considered part of the genre of women’s writing as it existed then. Therefore, because it is written by a woman, the book invalidates the genre altogether. Today, women’s writing is still considered a genre; to prove the point, I am currently taking a class called “Contemporary Women Writers.” The difference between this use of the genre and the one in use when Stowe wrote her novel is that the only rule for inclusion in the genre of women’s writing today is that the book be written by a woman. No other judgments are attached, because none would hold true across the board.

The way characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin perform unconventional gender roles serves to illuminate further the problematic intersection between genre and gender and to show that the essence of gender can no more be defined than the essence of genre. Stowe sets up a binary system in which “female” aligns with “sentiment” and “male” with “reason,” but she does not constrict herself to staying within the boundaries of her own system. Mrs. Shelby, although “she was a woman…had a clear, energetic, practical mind,” which made her “superior” to her husband (372). St. Clare, on the other hand, says his brother called him “a womanish sentimentalist” (342), a trait that actually makes him a much better person than his unfeeling wife. In the novel, as in life, it is impossible to define gender roles conclusively. These characters, along with the deeply emotional Tom himself, are stronger and better than their counterparts, in Stowe’s system of morality, because they break down the rigid classifications associated with gender.

In the same way, Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved to be such a potent force because it overstepped the bounds prescribed for the novel as a “female” genre and for “women’s writing” as its own genre. As Stowe began to make clear in her day, seeking to make a genre out of the collected work of a gender is a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” as Eagleton asserts (260). By looking at writing by women and drawing up criteria for what women are and are not capable of writing or likely to write, and then by applying these rules to the novel as a gendered genre, theorists like Lewes and Watt were blocking women in, not defining the essence of genres. To create gendered genres was to stifle, however unwittingly, the possibility of a creation like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a powerful social and political juggernaut and a woman’s novel. That Stowe wrote such a book in spite of not only the acceptance of slavery in the country, but also the accepted social and literary norms surrounding her as a female author, is a testament to her strength as a person and as a writer.

Work Cited
Eagleton, Mary. “Genre and Gender.” Modern Genre Theory. Ed. David Duff. London: Longman. 250-262.


Anne Dalke's picture

outlawing genre


This is a very Derridean project, very deconstructive: you show how definitions restrict as soon as they are created; you upset the common-sensical distinctions between sentimentality and reality, between sentimentality and reality-change; and you've got great examples of the undefine-ability of both gender and genre (though I'd disagree that this "invaliadates" either--I think what you are tracing is an inevitable and unending process of revision and overhaul, rather than invalidation).

I'm very curious to know if your Contemporary Women Writers course problematizes the category of "woman writer," and (if not) what would happen to/in the course if you did? Would that be a "generative" (sic) move for you to make?

I also wish you'd been around, last fall, in my Critical Feminist Studies class; the students and I decided to organize the second half of the course around a sequence of different genres, and to highlight the distinctions among them. We spent some time talking about science fiction as a feminist didactic; about the relation between the visual and the written and between looking and licking; about the variety of forms that both feminist poetry and feminist drama might take. It occurs to me now, through the lens of your paper, that these were all different ways of testing your observations about the relation between gender and genre and the break down of both.

I would actually say that you blink a bit in recognizing the radical nature of the claims you've explored in this paper. You should acknowledge the work of Jane Tompkins when you talk about the powerful ends achieved by the sentimentality of Stowe's fiction. But when you end by saying that--in writing against social expectations--Stowe was testifying to "her strength as a person and a writer," you are neglecting a stronger philosophical claim that you fall just short of making here, one that says something not only about an individual's strength of character, but about the epistemology and ontology that guides how we all construct and make meaning of the world: by generating categories that self-destruct in their very making (not to mention in their critique). Very... Derridean, to acknowledge that this  axiom of non-closure or non-fulfillment enfolds within itself the condition for the possibility and the impossibility of taxonomy.