The Compulsive Reader: Classics Corner: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Monday, November 30, 2009

Classics Corner: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Classics Corner feature is just a little friendly commentary on my own experiences with the classics in the hopes that I can convince you to pick one or two up and not send you running away screaming. We all know how awesome and wonderful YA novels are, but really, these books are very important to read as well, so make an English teacher happy and read them. They're really not as boring as your teacher would make them out to be, promise.

So, Uncle Tom's Cabin. I thought this would be more about the cabin in the title, but it's really not. It's is a little lengthy (my edition was just shy of 500 pages), but as far as readability, I was able to get into this one much easier than The Scarlet Letter. The narration is direct and very full of detail, but it wasn't over the top.

A summary: The Shelbys live in Kentucky sometime before the the Civil War, and they own a fair amount of slaves. Mr. Shelby somehow is indebted to a nasty slave trader, and in order to settle his debt, he agrees to sell him Tom, one of his most dependable and capable slaves, and a little boy named Harry. Harry's mother Eliza hears of the plan and with gumption I was surprised to see, runs away with Harry and warns Tom.

Tom, however, doesn't run away. He is that honest that he refuses to let down his master, and allows himself to be sold away from him family and home to go down the river, where it is common knowledge that the slaves are treated worse than they are in Kentucky.

And so the story follows Tom as he changes masters and goes down the Mississippi River, and Eliza and and her family's perilous journey to Canada.

I really liked how the novel focused on two different storylines, allowing you to see the only two options that the slaves had: be sold away from family, or risk it all to try and reach freedom. Both paths took an amazing amount of courage. As you got deeper into the story, Tom's story took the lead and left Eliza and her family dangling in danger in the back of your mind for a couple hundred pages before returning to them once more, which was a little awkward, but Tom's journey was intriguing enough that the book didn't necessarily drag.

As this is a novel about slavery, it was full of the many different sorts of brutality that the slaves faced, all of the physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse is present, but since the book was written in the 19th century, the author does refrain from going into too much detail in some areas. However, the most startling and heartbreaking events weren't always happening to the main characters: they came in the small stories and backgrounds of the supporting characters. Those were what oftentimes brougth me to tears.

Another thing I really enjoyed about Uncle Tom's Cabin was how religious it was. A great deal of people were Christians in that time period, and it was so heartening to see Tom cling to God and the promise of eternal life after death with an unshakable belief and trust. It was what got him through every single one of his hardships, and it reminded me of Job and how God tested him. It was heartbreaking to see Tom struggle, but to know that God was with him every step made it more bearable to read.

Obviously in a book such as this, it's unrealistic to expect a happy, peaceful ending where everything turns out all right--we know better than that; extreme racism still exists in our country even if slavery doesn't. However, the ending did surprise me in some sad and some happy ways, certainly making it worth reading. Uncle Tom's Cabin caused quite an uproar in our country when it first came out, and I can see why. Though fiction, everything in Stowe's book is based in truth, and the truth is oftentimes more startling than anything we can ever dream up. If you were to ever pick up a classic, read Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's important that we remember what those slaves went through, and too many people don't realize just how horribly and deeply wrong the practice of slavery is. Uncle Tom's Cabin won't let you forget.

Now, go pick it up!


Valerie Geary said...

I read this book a long long time ago... but I remember really being moved by it... perhaps I should read it again.

Staysi said...

I read this last year for my English class and I absolutely loved it. It was heartwrenching but a very important book that I think everyone should read. Great review!

Anonymous said...

An interesting review, nicely done. Stowe's 200th birthday is 2011; any thoughts about ways to extend the discussion?

Unknown said...

that is one of the longest reviews you wrote (ever?).

Bow-ties are Cool: Alyssa Guyll said...

I find it funny that you should do a Clasics Corner on Uncle Tom's Cabin because the local high school where I live just put on "The King and I" which has many references to the book. Awesome review, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Well, actually Harriet Beecher Stowe never step foot in the South; she had never seen slavery up close. So her depiction of slavery isn't necessarily accurate. But, that's not why this book is a classic. It's a classic because it had such a big effect on how people viewed slavery. This book had a major rule in influencing Northern opinion of slavery.