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Week 7--What's the use of crying? generalizing? realizing?

Anne Dalke's picture

Darwin famously said, "Crying is a puzzler" (i.e.: he couldn't figure out the adaptive use value of crying...) And if the point of studying the world is to change it, and/or the point of representing the world is to change it....well? What is the use-value of crying? What purpose does crying serve (not to put too fine a point upon it) in Uncle Tom's Cabin?

We covered quite a few other topics this week, including the use-value of generalizing (what's the difference between a generalization that is a stereotype, and one that is an archetype?). We also tried together to locate "the real," in a variety of sites: on Bryn Mawr's campus (about to become a movie location), in the "Little House of Uncle Thomas" scene in the 1956 film The King and I, and in Stowe's novel, where it seems to reside in the spiritual, or ideal world, rather than in the material one we all know and recognize.

Further musings about any of this, as you head into the "real time" that is break?

M. Gallagher's picture

Because this was the week we discussed it-

A further link about "Tenure", the movie to be filmed on the Bryn Mawr campus, which I was just provided with:

 The article brings up some more interesting points about "the real" as well.

M. Gallagher's picture

Religion is not my friend

Just a thought I had concerning Stowe's writing after seeing the play in The King and I: it seemed no more heavy-handed and histrionic than the novel itself does, despite the play seeming an almost romanticized fairytale as someone mentioned in class.

Interestingly, these highly emotional events in the book are the events which get us closer to the "real" of the religious world which Stowe presents. Religion and crying seem to go hand-in-hand, though this is possibly due to Christians not being able to stand by and let these cruelties of slavery stand-thus they turn to their God in these emotional times. Or perhaps the overly emotional religious scenes (say any of the deaths or misfortunes) is to appeal to the Christian women to which the book is appealing.

At any rate, all emotional scenes seem to be heavily laden with the nauseating preaching, with which I assume the original readers would identify- making the end of slavery a religious mission. Even I didn't mind the excessive religion for the first few hundred pages, which is saying quite a lot. So, I feel that the "use of crying" is to enliven not only the motherly/humane aspects; also, as it is coupled with religion, Stowe appeals to a broader audience, calling them to action rather than mere sympathy/empathy or shrugging slavery off as "just how things go" because in the "real" of the afterlife, those who supported slavery would be damned. Unfortunately, the increasing role of religion as the book goes on- at least in these scenes- makes me much more disinterested in the emotional aspects. So, while crying may have been an appeal to religion missionary work in the original purpose, it has made the religion in the novel that much more tedious to me.

Anne Dalke's picture

where the real is

As an addendum to--and further data to fuel--our discussion about "where the real is," and what its relation is to writing/representing, and what the relation of all of the above is to genre, see both A Family Tree of Literary Fakers and Esquire Publishes a Diary That Isn't, which risks "sacrificing the "biggest strengths from each of the genres...losing the veracity of journalism, and...the imaginative license of fiction...ending up with something that is neither true nor interesting.”

Hannah Mueller's picture

Miss Ophelia as HB Stowe

We mentioned in class on Tuesday that perhaps Stowe puts herself into "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the character of Miss Ophelia. After yesterday's class I can believe this even more. One of the quotes we considered while trying to locate the "real" was St. Clare describing Miss Ophelia: " have a kind of eternal now, always in your mind" (450). She convinces St. Clare to write Topsy over to her, and pressures him to provide for the other slaves in his will, because she fears what would happen to them if he suddenly died (which he proceeds to do).

Stowe is concerned with the same "eternal now." She's not so much interested in huge systematic changes, but in immediate individual changes of heart. This attitude is evidenced by her sentimentality and her emphasis on the guilt of Northers for condoning slavery with their complacency. I think she was probably gratified that her "little book" started a "big war" to end slavery, but her aim was to convince a couple more sinners like St. Clare to change his/her ways and take action in a personal way. Miss Ophelia and Stowe's focus on the "eternal now" is a side effect of their belief in the spiritual as the ultimate "real." What matters to both of them are spiritual transformations; if those take place, changes in the "real" world will follow--and I would say that this is what happened, if "Uncle Tom's Cabin" really did have a hand in prompting the war.

Like Stowe, Miss Ophelia is always personally making an effort to intercede for the well-being of individual people--she tries to save Rosa from a whipping, and she writes (very much like Stowe) a letter to Mr. Shelby aksing him to save Tom. The fact that she usually fails--St. Clare does die and his slaves are sold, Rosa is whipped, Mr. Shelby doesn't reply before Tom is sold--is an interesting reflection on how Stowe felt about her work, if Miss Ophelia is her counterpart. Why is Miss Ophelia always thwarted in her attempts to help the slaves? Maybe to make the book more dramatic and the violence done to the slaves more shocking, and maybe because Stowe felt the same frustration in the face of the apathy and hatred of people around her.

Calderon's picture

Uncle Tom's Cabin

CalderonI strongly believe that religion is the central theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and is what unifies Blacksand Whites.  For instance, the fact that George teaches Tom how to read theBible and the belief that God will save them if they truly believe in Him. It seems to me as if r God were to both races the purpose of life.  I aminterested as to how this common belief is used as a vehicle to unified bothraces: White and Black throughout the book. I also think that she makes adifference in believing in God and Christianity. I think that Stowe plays with religion a lot and I feel as if she is telling me that religion is somewhat cynical (not the belief of God).


egoodlett's picture

Art and Literature

We touched briefly in class on the topic of whether or not Uncle Tom's Cabin should still be read in schools nowadays, or whether the topics addressed in it are too dated to be of use in modern times. I will admit that, although no one said anything to me when I was sitting in the dining hall or the library reading this book, I felt a little self-conscious doing so at first. But the further I read into it, the more I feel that this is definitely a novel whose commentary is still relevant today, and which should be widely read.

Slavery is no longer a mainstream issue in our country, thank goodness, but there are still areas where it is (sex slaves are still being sold in black markets around the globe). And slavery isn't the only issue addressed in this book. The prejudice in the novel is still a problem today. Not as much of one, no, we've made a lot of progress, but there are plenty of lingering issues which, as students of Bryn Mawr, I think we've all seen evidence of.

Parts of this book make me uncomfortable, yes. I have never had to think about slavery except as an abstract evil of the past, which was obviously horrible, but I never thought about why. I felt uncomfortable and upset at parts in this novel (since I did empathize with the characters, even though yes, Stowe clearly intended me to sympathize with those ones), but that's the point, and that's why this novel still has value today. There are characters who appear stereotypical, yes, but that's their function in the story - and I agree, as we talked about in class, that they shouldn't be seen as stereotypes, so much as archetypes.

Considering the time period in which it was written, it's clear Stowe was very much a forward-thinker, and I don't see very much prejudice in her writing (though perhaps I missed the worst of it in my reading). Maybe she is heavy-handed with the authorial interruptions, but I think this novel, when she wrote it, was meant to be very pointed. She had very distinct comments to make about specific areas of society, and she used literature as a medium to express those. If she beats the reader over the head with it a little, I think it's because, at the time this was written, that kind of force was necessary to ensure her meaning was clear.

In a slightly different vein, some comments on ownership were made, for example the one about Vampire Weekend, and, I think it was an article someone had read?, asking whether or not it was right that they should use Carribean-inspired beats in their music, if they aren't of Carribean heritage. In my opinion, art belongs to everyone.

In several of the creative writing courses I've taken, I've been given essentially the same message by authors - what you write is yours to edit, rewrite, and do with as you wish, until you publish it. Once you publish something, it belongs to everyone. You still have partial ownership of it, as the creator, and your publisher still has partial ownership, as its producer, but the audience has ownership too. If someone reads your work and sees a completely different message in it than the one you had intended, you have no right to complain. The piece no longer solely belongs to you. You can explain your original intent, and try to convince the reader to see things your way, but if the reader has obtained a different message, they won't forget it. Even if you explain your intent fully, and they can see your perspective as well, they will still remember their original interpretation, too. That's the kind of thinking that keeps new literature evolving from old, new ideas emerging from older ones, and it's a process that can't be inhibited (and here I mean a literal can't - unless we all stopped thinking and feeling whenever art presents itself to us, we will continue to have new ideas about it).

So no, I don't see a problem with a group of non-Carribeans adopting rhythms from that culture into their creation. And I don't see a problem with Stowe writing about an issue which obviously affected her passionately, and one which was important in her time period, even if she was not herself a slave or subjugated to those kinds of horrors. It's a difficult subject for anyone to approach, and I'm sure she did not do it perfectly (humanity, imperfection, you know), but I think she gave it a fairly good shot (and judging by the book's popularity at the time it was published, I doubt I'm the only one who thought so).

AF's picture


When reading Uncle Tom's Cabin I thought of all the crying in two different ways. At first it seemed to be a nuisance, something that takes up a whole lot of space in the novel that just isn't really needed. It doesn't help that almost every single character seems to tear up at some point making the whole group of them a bit pathetic. 

But (and this is where the other way comes in) what I failed to notice at first is just that: the WHOLE group of them.  By making almost every character a pathetic sentimental cry-baby Stowe effectively crosses race lines and finds some common ground for both whites and blacks to share. Crying is the universal here, uniting everyone in a river of tears. 

Okay so maybe that's a bit harsh, but midterms are breathing down my neck and I needed to lash out at someone and I figure it's pretty safe to pick a dead novelist rather than a living breathing person I have to face everyday. 

akeefe's picture

The Type of Connection

There were a lot of very particular points and questions brought up in Tuesday’s class, but I will do my best to make some generalizations. The theme that I noticed both verbally and nonverbally was about connection and disconnection. What can we make a connection to, and what should we be allowed to make a connection to? For instance our discussion about cultural property. Should someone of another culture be able to engage in a different culture’s art or expression style. It was mentioned that if you create something you should maintain ownership. However, Someone else suggested that it might be counterproductive to keep cultures from blending, mixing, or overlapping. In fact, keeping them separate could just intensify the divide.

There was also a good deal of talk and silence regarding both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the readings given by Baldwin and Tompkins. We really seemed to be having trouble making a connection to this book. Several explanations were thrown around. We’re not sure how to handle the paradox of the work. Stowe is so clearly against slavery, but engages in language a stereotypes that we recognize a racist. Is it her attempt at accuracy, humor, biogtry… are we being to hard on her? Is it possible that we are put off by her strong use of authoritative voice telling us how to feel? Can anyone black, white, green, orange, really understand slavery and it’s horrors from such a distance as time creates? Is this book useless without specific context? One of us said this book was like a horrible fairytale.

That made me think, and for a moment I’m going to hop out of summary mode, but I promise I’ll bring it back. My first encounter with Uncle Tom’s cabin came from The King and I. Tuptim, a concubine, puts on The Small House of Uncle Thomas for the King of Siam. Her version follows Eliza’s escape to freedom. In the simplification of the tale, we see two things. One a parallel is drawn between Eliza and Tuptim as women who wish to escape from male oppressors, and two, the piece becomes more apparently archetypical, and less apparently stereotypical…told you I’d bring it back.

Our discussion about stereotype and archetype seemed to allow many of us the ability to make a connection to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The idea was that stereotypes are reductive, making an entire group represented by one model, while an archetype enlarges a particular being to be included in a concept or idealized model. It was first suggested that these terms are both two sides of the same coin. However, the suggestion of Tom as a type of Christ seemed at least as equally compelling. Is it possible that we have been trained so diligently to watch for stereotype that we no longer can read archetypically? Is it because we link books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin so strongly with stereotype that we are in fact primed to see it? Can you read it archetypically? I think by looking at a fairytale version of at least part of the piece, where we are primed to think archetypically, it is shown that this book has the capacity to be interpreted as such. Are our varying reactions and connections (or lack of them) arising from questions of genre?

One Student's picture

Is the writer in the room with zir characters and readers?

The slave system and the racial bigotry in Uncle Tom's Cabin don't touch me, don't bother me at all. Didn't bother me in Gone With the Wind either. What is bothering me is this: I'm reading Trumpet by Jackie Kay which is about a jazz trumpet player who was female-bodied, lived as a man, had a wife and an (adopted) son, and who was only discovered to be female-bodied upon his death. And there's this one character, a character whom we're not supposed to sypathize with much or agree with, who keeps referring to him with female pronouns, calling him a woman. That bothers me.

In part, I think it's because I identify as genderqueer* and I don't want to be referred to with female pronouns myself** and because issues of gender and sexuality are of tremendous importance to me, personally and intellectually, and because being queer is a big part of my identity***. But a bigger part of it is form. Trumpet shifts from first-person to first-person, all introspective. There are breaks of form, but for different kinds of first-person. Kay stays the hell out of it. And Kay lets us come to our own conclusions. Lets us think that Colman is a jerk at first, maybe. Let's us wonder what the hell is going on for the first couple chapters. Doesn't tell us who the hero is - breaking out, injecting the authorial voice can be interesting, formally, and can provide emphasis, but it's damn hard to do that and not ... distract the reader.

Melville did it better, but Melville wasn't constrained (if I may make a judgment like that) by the conventions of the sentimental novel. Admittedly, I like the adventure genre much better than anything that might be called sentimental, and Melville's writing style is much more to my taste, and I like the games he plays ... If Melville did it better, it's because he was playing a kind of game that I'm interested in playing along with and playing myself. Although Melville and Beecher Stowe use similar tactics, similar forms, the function is different - Beecher Stowe isn't playing like Melville is. (And when I say play, I mean something between child-play and work; an experiment, a game in emergence, a 'let's see what happens'.)

What was I talking about? Right. So, it's the way Beecher Stowe shows us her characters, the way she introduces us to them. She won't shut up and let us get to know each other in our own ways and in our own times, she's frantic that her readers draw the conclusions she means for us to draw. Overt authorial intent is never a pretty thing. There's characters I'd like if they were handled differently - mainly Augustus, though I've got vague recollections of someone named Cassy ... Anyway, them I'd like to get to know better, away from Beecher Stowe's busybody interference.

I'm not interested in the use-value of crying. But utterly obsessed with the functions of humor.

*I don't identify as a woman or as a man. And I can't get much farther in defining myself - nothing I'm going to write here, anyway. But that's a whole other issue.

**I prefer zhe, which is a portmanteau of female pronouns and the gender neutral neologism 'ze'. This might change, esp since I like fucking with language. I think what I'm doing with my poetry is breaking language down so I can build it back up some other way.

***Queer mentally ill (Jewish) atheist intellectual and netizen and writer, to put it more fully. And omnivore.