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 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 curriculums. Some who support the novel’s inclusion in the classroom emphasize its historical significance. They argue that the ideas themselves and their monumental impact on society are crucial to understanding antebellum American society and the build-up prior to 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. They claim 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 and criticizes both how the book is written and how the characters are presented.
While Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have been relevant at 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 be excluded from the classroom.
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 sympathize with them. She attempted to teach her readers about slavery in the 1800s but instead distorted and cemented condescending and racist stereotypes. By white-washing her characters, Stowe preaches to her audience that black slaves 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. 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” archetype and oversimplifies all her characters into one trait.
All of Stowe’s characters can be defined either righteous or evil. Tom, for example, has 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 incredible capacity for love contrasts sharply with the aforementioned Legree, who feels no remorse. Legree’s 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 shortcomings as a writer.
Stowe’s novel teaches that morality equates Christianity. From the 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), and to the escape of Cassy and Emmeline and freedom of everyone back home in Kentucky, everyone “moral” in the novel is Christian.
The entire focus of the book was to bring attention to the horrors of slavery during the 1800s, 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 expand our understanding of racism today. In fact, Stowe’s racist portrayals exacerbate negative stereotypes. The novel is not timeless; its ideas are not empowering in a way that 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, the novel itself should not be required reading in a public school curriculum.