What Really Matters

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What Really Matters

Emily Feenstra

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he reportedly said, "So you're the little lady whose book started this big war" (Wikipedia). Of course, books alone don't start wars; many factors led to the American Civil War, but Uncle Tom's Cabin was certainly intended to be one of them. Stowe, who was born in Connecticut and later moved to Ohio, was an active abolitionist and a member of a devout Christian family. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, forbidding citizens from helping escaped slaves, Stowe became so infuriated that she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin as a piece of propaganda to persuade America, and particularly Northerners, of the evils and immorality of slavery. The book depicts heart-wrenching and tear-jerking situations that would surely make any true Christian cry. Families are torn apart, men are worked to death, and religion is cast aside. However, by writing the book as a piece of propaganda, much of the character development generally inherent in a novel is lacking. Almost every character serves a political purpose. While obviously historically effective, the simple characters become too flat and predictable to be effective as a novel. However, Uncle Tom's Cabin is an exception to the world of developed characters, in that it remains successful due to its overall message and historical timing.
Two characters who are incredibly effective as propaganda are Tom and Eva, but it is these very characters that are perhaps the least developed of the story. Both Eva and Tom represent Christ figures. As soon as the reader makes this connection, the actions of the characters become entirely too predictable. They do nothing but good, and are constantly in the process of trying to spread their Christian views and morals. Neither character has any personality traits other than extreme and overwhelming Christian kindness. Eva wants to save the slaves from their misery, and actually dies for them. One day, she even declares to Uncle Tom that she can understand "why Jesus wanted to die for us." "When I heard about poor Prue," she continues, "and a great many other times, I've felt that I would be glad to die, if my dying could stop all this misery. I would die for them, Tom, if I could" (258-59). In the real light of day, it makes no sense that a young child would ever think to sacrifice herself for the wellbeing of others. It's unheard of and entirely unrealistic. What is more, Eva is nothing but good and kind and Christian. No child, no human being for that matter, has ever singularly possessed these traits. It's against human nature. Everyone has a side to them that is unforgiving and vengeful, that can't help but occasionally wish bad upon others. By making Eva such a one-dimensional Christ figure, Stowe completely undermines character development, and the plot lacks for it. However, Eva's Christ figure goes a long way to strengthen the propaganda of the work. It makes the 19th century reader think, "Here is a child who is willing to die for the freedom of slaves; if she is willing to die, shouldn't I be willing to do something?" In addition, by literally interpreting Eva as Christ, the reader can literally see what Jesus would do, and be guilt tripped into action of her own.

What is odder than having a young girl be a Christ figure is the fact that there is a scond Christ figure. Tom is a duplicate personality. Just like Eva, he becomes a Christ figure who only does good, and who is willing to die for the wellbeing of others. Tom suffers for the other slaves on Legree's plantation, taking whippings for filling the baskets of the weak with cotton he has picked, and refusing to flog another slave (329-30). When Cassy tells him that he must "give up, or be killed by inches," Tom declares, "Well, then, I will die!" (336). He is so pious that he embraces death rather than harming others or renouncing his faith. He is, like Eva, a Christ figure. But why should the book have two Christ figures? One gets the point across, and two just makes the novel that much more predictable. There's no room for character development. They become entirely unrealistic, and by turning two characters into the same allusion, the story loses the potential emotional struggle of Tom, and the original perspective of a little girl living in New Orleans. Stowe makes it impossible for either character to seem the least bit realistic, thereby failing as a piece of literature. However, she does achieve a goal of propaganda. Eva and Tom present the fight of the evil of slavery against the goodness of Christianity, and show that Christianity is stronger than the evil institution. By doing so, she might have hoped to inspire her Christian readership to do the same; fight slavery with Christian morality. The reader, looking upon the actions of Tom and Eva, can see what a good Christian would do, and is called to action.

One of the more interesting characters is that of Augustine St. Clare, a man who provides the most unique perspective in the novel. Unlike Eva or Tom, or even Eliza, George, the Quakers, or Haley, he doesn't have an agenda; he just makes the reader think. He thinks, but never does. He recognizes the evil of slavery, but doesn't do anything to end it. St. Clare treats his own slaves very well. Adolph wears St. Clare's clothes and uses his cologne, Dinah keeps the kitchen in a perfect state of disarray, and the other slaves are asked to do very little (158, 201). He even buys Topsy because he is "tired of hearing her scream" as her masters beat her every day (226). He admits that he doesn't see slavery as right according to Scripture, but is just too lazy to do anything about it (217). He admits, "There was a time in my life when I had plans and hopes of doing something in this world. I had vague, indistinct yearnings to be a sort of emancipator- to free my native land from this spot and stain... but, some how or other... I became a piece of drift-wood" (219). St. Clare is one of the few characters who is unpredictable. He wants to help slaves, but seldom gathers the incentive to do something. The reader can see his thoughts, and can ponder over the use of helping slaves along with St. Clare. He provides an intellectual and round character lacking in most of the novel. The result is a character who unexpectedly buys slaves to give them a better life, especially if it pleases his daughter, Eva. Perhaps not so very coincidentally, St. Clare is not Christian. He is good, but not Christian. In Stowe's propagandist light, his unchristian character serves to exemplify the masses of people who don't agree with slavery, but aren't moved into action. He is an example of the unhappiness and discontent this can bring. St. Clare can be read as lacking the Christianity necessary to help the slaves, and therefore as an example to all Christians of the power of their own faith. It's almost as if Stowe is trying to say that Christianity gives you the power to make change, and therefore any Christian should use that power to act. She uses St. Clare as an example of the strength God gives, because unlike the other Christian characters, he doesn't have the strength to act.

What saves Uncle Tom's Cabin from the fate of so many forgotten novels is its message and its timing. It was published in 1852, at a time when America was seriously rethinking the institution of slavery. For example, that same year, Frederick Douglas was asked by the leading citizens of Rochester to give a speech at their Fourth of July celebration. He accepted, but the speech he gave was unexpected. In it, he declared, "And let me warn you, that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation [Babylon] whose crimes, towering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin," and that "There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour" (Douglas). Thus, a Fourth of July celebration became a moment of reconsideration. In 1839, the National Anti-Slavery Convention was held in Albany, and churches everywhere began or continued opposing slavery, including the Wesleyan Methodist Church, the Free Presbyterian Church, and the Quakers (Goodell). Stowe took advantage of this atmosphere with Uncle Tom's Cabin, and with its message of slavery as anti-Christian and evil, the book took America by storm. In its first year of publication, the novel sold over 300,000 copies in the United States, second only to the Bible, and was eventually translated into almost every major language (Wikipedia). Just nine years after its publication, the Civil War began, beginning the end of slavery. The characters may not be well developed, but this didn't affect its success. And today, it continues to be read in a historical mindset, uncovering what there was about it that caused such an uproar and so greatly affected American history.

Uncle Tom's Cabin is an exception to the rule. The characters lack development, creating a story with major shortcomings. Everything is drawn out in black and white; there is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad, and no room for gray areas. It affords the reader little room to contemplate its message, but unlike most literary works, this doesn't really matter. What matters is the ability of the novel to emotionally move its readers, and move them into action. It uses the very ideas that 19th century Americans relied on in their daily lives to urge them to act: family, faith, and freedom. As a piece of literature it falls short, but this is forgivable by seeing that as a catalyst piece of propaganda, Uncle Tom's Cabin is undeniably effective.

Works Cited
Douglas, Frederick. "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery." The History Place: Great
Speeches Collection. . 15 March
Goodell, Rev. William. Slavery and Anti Slavery; a history of the great struggle in both
hemispheres; with a view of the slavery question in the United States. William
Harned Pub. New York: 1852.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Airmont Publishing Company, Inc. New
York: 1967.
Wikipedia. "Uncle Tom's Cabin." . 10 March 2006.

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