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Free Study Guide-Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe-Free Notes
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Uncle Tom

Tom is a stalwart, faithful slave. The initial scene of happy domesticity in his cabin shows Tom's love and pride in his family. He laboriously practices his penmanship for the desire of self- improvement. His cabin is also the focal point for Methodist gatherings. He is a sort of patriarch in religious matters for the other slaves. His touching simplicity and child-like earnestness while praying moves everyone in the gathering. Tom does not betray the trust others have in him, even when he knows he is sold to Haley. He does not run away with Eliza because concern for the other slaves and the Shelbys' ruin is upper-most in his mind.

Tom's belief in the Bible will not allow him to rebel; instead he smothers his own grief and consoles Aunt Chloe the morning Haley comes to claim him. His parting injunction to George Shelby is to be a comfort to his mother and to become a good master like his father. Tom harbors no grudges. He is complacent; at the very least, he is submissive to a fault.

In many ways, Tom is a one-dimensional character. He never slips into immorality; he has no tragic flaw. His goodness is unbelievable, but perhaps necessary for this slavery parable. His commitment to God is incredible and unyielding. In the end, Tom is a martyr for God, a saint who has earned his position in heaven.

Despite his apparent willingness to abide by the rules of slavery, Tom's yearning for home remains. He is overjoyed when St. Clare tells him that he will be a free man shortly. However, he refuses this future freedom, maintaining that he has a duty before he can leave; he wants to convert St. Clare and ensure Christian happiness for him. Though St. Clare's untimely death dashes Tom's hopes for freedom and reunion with his family, he bears it with fortitude, moving on to saving other souls in the process.

Tom does have his moments of doubt and despair. There are times when he feels the Bible has lost its strength for him. Legree's atheistic taunts depress him even further. What gives him the ability to carry on is the vision of Christ promising him a place on God's throne. He is a happier and stronger person after this. He starts exerting a strange power over the slaves on the plantation. For Cassy, he is "Father Tom." He prevents her from murdering Legree for he does not want her to sell her precious soul to the devil.

Modern black critics see Tom as a demeaning figure because he is submissive and passive. They claim his submission is a weakness rather than a strength, and that this weakness is the typical image whites harbor in their minds about blacks. However, it remains an undisputed fact that Stowe intended Tom as an ideal Christian figure. His Christianity is meant to be the primary and most effective weapon against slavery.

Mr. Shelby (Arthur)

He is a typical Southern gentleman who treats his slaves with kindness and consideration. Nevertheless, he still considers them disposable property in a time of need. His inability to manage finances is the reason Tom and Harry must be sold. He recognizes Tom's sterling qualities, honesty and piety, and highlights them when he is negotiating his sale.

Though Mr. Shelby is good and generous to the slaves, he possesses a distinct sense of superiority over them. He refers to Harry by the demeaning name of "Jim Crow" and makes him perform before Haley much in the same manner as a circus animal. He does not consider it morally wrong to sell Tom and Harry, though he recognizes it is breaking up two families. He does not sell Eliza off only out of consideration and respect for his wife's feelings.

Mr. Shelby is not very religious. Nevertheless, he respects his wife's high moral and religious sensibilities, even if he does not share them. He considers it degrading and unladylike of his wife to suggest that she give music lessons in order to raise the money to redeem Tom. He is of the opinion that slaves should not be "burdened with a morality above their condition." He is so brainwashed by the typical nature master-slave relationship that he considers blacks to be inferior.

Mrs. Shelby (Emily)

She is portrayed as a woman with high intellectual and moral caliber. Her opinion about slavery in general and her slaves in particular is markedly different from her husband's. She is convinced of the fact that the slaves are no different from their owners; they too have feelings and want to enjoy family life. She strives hard to be a good Christian and believes that as long as she treats her slaves well, God will not censure her.

She gets very upset when her husband sells off Tom and Harry to the ruthless slave trader. For her, it is as if all her "Christian goodness" has been undone. Eliza has been brought up under her protecting care. She has personally taught Eliza the importance of family. Now she must watch as her own husband separates two families because of his financial indiscretions.

Though she is helpless in preventing their sale she does not intend to absent herself when Haley comes to take them. This intention demonstrates her sympathy for them. She puts into practice what she had intended to do: offer some moral support to Tom when Haley comes to claim him. She considers Haley "ungentlemanly" but uses her womanly charm on him to delay the sale, thereby giving Eliza and Harry more time to escape. This indicates her excellent presence of mind.

In a generous gesture, she solemnly promises to Tom that she will redeem him as soon as possible. She has every intention of fulfilling that promise. She is willing to make monetary sacrifices and even coach pupils on the piano. When Aunt Chloe asks her permission to work at a confectioner's and use her wages for Tom's future redemption, Mrs. Shelby agrees, though such an act will certainly be an inconvenience. Though Mr. Shelby does not think much of her insight into business, the readers find him to be mistaken. After his death she admirably manages to straighten out his entangled financial affairs with success and characteristic energy. She encourages her son George to go to New Orleans and find Tom.


He is introduced as ostentatiously dressed and there is an air of pretension about him. His language is ungrammatical and profane. This speaks volumes of his crudeness and vulgarity. He has no regard for the familial ties that the "niggers" may have. He does not want mothers and children to be together when they are being sold because it "damages the article." He also advises Mr. Shelby to take Eliza away when he comes to collect little Harry so that they will be spared unnecessary tears.

On the Mississippi when he buys Lucy and her child, he puts his system of "management" into practice. He diverts her attention while her infant is being whisked off the boat. When it misfires and Lucy jumps into the river he is only concerned about the financial loss he has incurred. He has in fact, become so hardened to the suffering around him that he is unmoved by Lucy's look of anguish and despair.

When he compares himself with Tom Loker, he thinks he is more considerate and human because he does not use violence against his slaves. His reason, however, is less than humane; he simply doesn't want the slave to be too sore to work. He does not hesitate to engage the help of merciless slave catchers like Tom Loker and Marks to reclaim his property. Though he claims to believe in religion, it is clear that financial considerations always overrule his conscience.

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