Thursday, December 24, 2015

BookMarks #9: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Title: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Life Among the Lowly) 
Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe 
Genre: Fiction, Slavery, Civil Rights 
Setting: USA 
Published: 1852 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is set in mid-nineteenth century America, where slavery and slave trade are rampant. It depicts the life of the slaves and their owners. In the book we come across all kinds of slaves and masters. 
Tom is a genial, negro slave working in one of the plantations in Kentucky. Faced with financial difficulties, his master Arthur Shelby, agrees to reluctantly sell him to a slave trader along with a negro child, Harry. Harry’s mother, Eliza overhears the plans and runs away with her child. To ensure his master doesn’t get into any more trouble, Tom chooses to stay and agrees to be sold off, leaving behind his wife and children at the plantation, . 
Eliza manages to unite with her husband, George, who has also made his escape from a cruel master. They successfully manage to escape to Canada with help from many different folks, black and white, along the way. 
Tom, is bought by a plantation owner, Augustine St. Clare. St. Clare is an easy-going man who is not comfortable with the idea of slavery but doesn’t do much to negate it. He often gets in an argument with his cousin, Ophelia about the slave trade. Coming from the North, Ophelia, abhors slavery but the negro slaves seem to offend her more. St. Clare has a daughter Evangeline, or Eva, on who everyone dotes on. She reads the Bible to Tom, who seems to believe that she is an angel. Eva dies at an early age leaving everyone affected deeply. St. Clare agrees to make Tom a free man, but before he could get the papers in order, he is killed in a brawl. St. Clare’s wife reneges on his word and instead of granting freedom, she sells Tom off alongwith the other slaves. 
Tom is now bought by Simon Legree, who is depicted as a harsh owner, concerned only with his profits. He plans to make Tom his supervisor. When Tom refuses to use the whip against a fellow slave, he is enraged and whips Tom. Although his body takes a lot of punishment, Tom’s spirit is not broken. Tom’s refusal to divulge the details of the slave women who fled the plantation enrage Legree to such an extent that he gets his supervisors to beat him up till his death. Tom dies from the injuries sustained in the beating but his spirit changes the other slaves who seek forgiveness from him. His erstwhile Master George Shelby from Kentucky arrives just in time for a final word before Tom’s death. Moved by his beloved Uncle Tom’s death, George goes back and releases all his slaves. 

The book depicts the terrible conditions of slavery in America. As you read the story, you are filled with disgust at the treatment meted out to the slaves. They are treated more as a commodity than as humans. Often they are also referred to as just creatures, not worthy of being called human beings. 
Reading the book now just 150 years later, one wonders how such a system could even exist and why the slaves never revolt. One gets the feelings that there were more white people who found the system abominable than the slaves themselves. Also the slaves who have a rebellion streak all are shown as mixed blood. 
The story is quite evangelistic in nature with the author constantly reaffirming the power of the Bible and stressing the importance of being a devout Christian for both white and blacks.

Trivia: Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century and the second highest selling book after the Bible. And it is also credited with helping the cause of the Slavery Abolitionists thus acting as a trigger for the US Civil War. 

Previously on BookMarks – World War II in Photographs 

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