When it was first published in the mid-19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an instant success, gaining worldwide acclaim for its groundbreaking stance on slavery and becoming the best selling novel of the century. Even now, 165 years later, it retains popularity and acknowledgment among critics and lay readers alike. But when placed in a more modern context, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel has created a controversy in regards to its placement in the classroom setting. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a requirement in many middle school and high school English or History curriculums. Some who support the novel’s inclusion in the classroom emphasize its historical significance, arguing that the ideas themselves and their monumental impact on society are crucial to understanding antebellum American society and the buildup towards the Civil War. Other supporters mirror arguments found in Jane Tompkins’ “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History”: that Stowe’s use of sentimentality heightens the book and gives it power; that the popularity it achieved is a direct correlation to its merit; and that each character and event in the book serve to further her message. Conversely, James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” highlights the over-sentimentality and religious aspects of the book, criticizing both how the book is written and how the characters are presented. While Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have been relevant in the time it was written, its ethics no longer pertain to students living in the 21st century. Stowe’s erroneous underlying suggestions about the nature of people and race and the novel’s overwhelming religious ideology make it a novel that should excluded from an English teacher’s repertoire, at least in the classroom setting.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an attempt to excite the population of the North into abolishing slavery. Stowe undertook the view of black slaves in an effort to make her readers understand and empathize with the enslaved race. She attempted to teach her readers about slavery in the 1800’s, but instead distorted and cemented stereotypes that were condescending and racist. By white-washing her characters, Stowe preaches to her audience that the enslaved race could only become free through mirroring the “pure” aspects of white culture. Two of her main characters, pious George and Eliza, copy stereotypical white characteristics in every aspect, and although they are slaves, they appear white to others. Meanwhile, Uncle Tom, the titular character, is only considered good through the purification of Christianity. The novel also sustains stereotypes of the “happy darky” typecast, and oversimplifies all her characters into one trait.
All of Stowe’s characters can be defined with one word: either righteous, or evil. Take Tom, for example: there is not one evil drop of blood in his God-loving, faithful body. His love, mercy and compassion allow him to be a martyr, his sacrifices are for the good of others and he toils without complaint. Tom is a Jesus figure who tells the truth even at the expense of his life and forgives his plantation owner, Simon Legree, even after he is brutally whipped to death. His inhuman capacity for love contrasts sharply with the aforementioned Legree, who seems to be the devil incarnate. He feels no remorse even as he murders, and his only regret about working a slave to death is that he’ll have to buy another. Legree has no morals and no ethics; he is self-serving and brutal. Stowe’s strict characterization suggests a black and white society in which anything short of perfection and Christian virtue is automatically considered evil. Tom and Legree are just two examples of Stowe’s limited use of characterization – from the selfish Marie to the kind St. Clare, from the wicked Topsy to the beautiful and sweet Eva, from the evil Tom Loker to the quiet Quakers, from blustering Hailey to loving Mrs. Shelby, each character seems to fit perfectly into a single category and all lack any semblance of depth or substance. Stowe’s characters are unequivocally two dimensional. Her oversimplification of characters represents a fallacy in her representation of a “realistic slavery setting,” and demonstrates her ineptitude as a writer.
Even putting aside the blaring issues with the presentation of the characters, the exhausting, endless use of religion throughout the novel, especially in each of the prolonged and tiresome death scenes, make it an inappropriate choice for the classroom. Stowe’s novel teaches that morality equates Christianity. Everyone “moral” in the novel is Christian – from loving, angelic, oh-so-sweet Eva, whose very dying breath reaffirms her love of the savior, to the simple-minded Tom, whose boundless faith in God results in the salvation of Sambo and Quimbo (the godless black overseers with evil in their hearts), the escape of Cassy and Emmeline, and the freedom of everyone back at home in Kentucky. Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only teaches something that should not belong in the classroom, it also has the potential of creating extreme discomfort for many students who are either atheist or practice other religions. And yet, because we are forced to read it, those students cannot simply “put it down” if they are uncomfortable. The religious beliefs of each classmate deserve to be respected, and as a result, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with its copious religious preaching, should not hold a place in a high school or middle school curriculum.
The entire focus of the book was to bring attention to the horrors of slavery during the 1800’s, which it accomplished at the time. However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not address contemporary issues. While the impacts of slavery manifest in today’s society through strained racial relations, police brutality, and prejudice, the novel’s message does not translate to or expand our understanding of racism today. In fact, Stowe’s racist portrayals exacerbate negative stereotypes. In other words, the novel is not timeless and its ideas are not empowering in a way that, say, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, is. I recognize the immense impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at the time it was written, and I will concede that it is an integral part of American history. However, while it is necessary to teach about the novel and its repercussions, it should not be a required reading in a public school curriculum.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Rebecca Huang of Richard Montgomery High School