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Uncle Tom's Cabin

In: English and Literature

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a unique historical fiction novel which portrays life during the American Civil War. In this story, Harriet Beecher Stowe tells the tale of Uncle Tom, along with several other slaves, and their journey through the wretchedness of slavery. She combines ethics, redemption, religion, and prejudice; and illuminates the hard truths about the sordid business by having characters alleviate or minimize guilt by comparing themselves to slave owners who treat their slaves far worse than they do. Slave owners vary from Mr. Shelby to Augustine St. Clair to Marie St. Clair to Simon Legree. Slave owners like Shelby and St. Clair imagine themselves as moral owners by treating their slaves in a kind, humane and benevolent way that avoids cruelty like flogging. Despite all the arguments used to justify and rationalize slavery, Stowe mounts great evidence to prove the injustice, cruelty, and evil truths of slavery.

Having run up large debts, a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby faces the prospect of losing everything he owns. Though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, have a kindhearted and affectionate relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise money by selling two of his slaves to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave trader. Mr. and Mrs. Shelby value their slaves as faithful employees who deserve respect, civility, and kindness. However, Mr. Shelby views slavery primarily as a business and fails to realize that he is splitting up Tom’s family. Mr. Shelby believes that splitting up a slave family is an inevitable way of life: "Tom'll have another wife, in a year or two; and she had better take up with somebody else." Mr. Shelby knew that separating Tom from his wife was not the morally correct thing to do, however, he sold him anyway out of pure desperation and lack of financial stability. Shelby defends his decision to sell Tom by saying: "I don't know why I am to be rated, as if I were a monster, for doing what everyone does every day." Because slavery was legalized, he did not see it as intentionally evil.

Augustine St. Clair, father of Eva and brief owner of Tom, is perhaps the most contradictory character in Stowe’s novel – he sees what’s right but fails to do it. Although it is clear he despises slavery, he never speaks up or tries to stop the wicked practice. In addition, he is a hypocrite because he himself owns slaves. In order to relieve his conscience, he acts as a permissive slave owner and never once beats or mistreats his slaves. St. Clair blames his failure to act against slavery on his harsh, slave-owning twin brother, Alfred, by claiming that one man cannot really make a difference. However, Stowe’s readers know that a difference can only ever be made by one person. She even gives an example of how much one person can do even if they seem powerless – In St. Clair’s daughter, Eva, whose dignity and faith affect everyone around her.

Mr. Shelby and St. Clair often compared themselves to evil slave owners like Simon Legree. They believed as long as they were not treating their slaves as awful as Legree; they were fine and ultimately benefiting the slaves by giving them a place to stay. However, they failed to realize that a true moral standard demands something from an individual. No human being should congratulate themselves for comparing themselves to lower individuals, they should compare themselves to great people.

In conclusion, the novel shows that distinguishing between the moral and immoral treatment of slaves does not exist. There is nothing moral about owning another individual against their will. Kind or not, a master is still a master and one human should not be allowed to own another.

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