An Analytical Paper by Tina Brinton
Prepared for Reed College English 341- Nation and Narration Spring 1997 |
Table of Contents:
The novel's female characters are admirable to a large degree because of their strength at acting out their roles as mothers. Consider Eliza jumping over the ice-floes to prevent the separation of her and her child, Aunt Chloe the motherly cook and child-rearer, Mrs. Shelby diverting the slave -traders to protect Eliza, and Cassy being held in submission by the threat of harm to her children. Even the cold Mrs. St. Claire could be best read as an inverse to the other female characters, rather than a counter-example. The women's other actions, even if not directly `maternal' can be seen as influenced by the strengths they developed as mothers. The positive, thoughtful action these women perform can be seen as in opposition to other notions of motherhood, ones that view femaleness or maternal responsibilities as weakness. As Sara Ruddick suggests, "[t]he primary bodily experience of mothers is a poignant reminder that to think of maternal power is immediately to recall maternal powerlessness " (Ruddick 32). In Ruddick's article, she argues that a mother's thought could be defined through
the intellectual capacities she develops, the judgments she makes, the metaphysical attitudes she assumes, [and] the values she affirms[. A] mother engages in a discipline. That is, she asks certain questions rather than others; establishes criteria for the truth, adequacy, and relevance of proposed answers; and cares about the findings she makes and can act upon. (Ruddick 347)
Ruddick makes clear that she is not arguing there exists a biological relationship to maternal thinking, but rather, that it arises out of actual child-care practices. The reader is brought to see Eliza's escape or Cassy's murder of her child as rational and ethical given the circumstances, and given the values and priorities of motherhood. By looking at the success of maternal thinking to solve the difficult situations portrayed in the novel, we might be able to determine the dimensions and viability of this model of conduct.
Ruddick suggests three strengths one develops from the act of child-care. They are: The ability to be flexible to changing situations, A humility that allows a woman to be aware of one's limits, and the ability to empathize and understand people to a great degree (Ruddick 345). Ruddick's characteristics are useful in that they describe exactly what make Cassy a powerful character in the novel. How is a mother flexible? Ruddick says,
To a mother, life may well seem terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you give it a chance. In response, she[a mother] develops a metaphysical attitude t oward, "Being as such", an attitude which is governed by the priority of keeping over acquiring, of conserving the fragile, of maintaining whatever is at hand and ecessary to the child's life. Mothers not only must preserve fragile, existing life. They must also foster growth and welcome change. If the "being" which is preserved seems always to be endangered, undone, slipping away, the "holding" preserving mother must, in response to change, be simultaneously a changing mother. (Ruddick 352)
And change Cassy does. She survives at Legree's plantation because of her ability to adapt to the assault she undergoes on her moral and emotional sensibilities. Built into the definition of the maternal code, then, is the basis for its topical decision-making. In a sense Cassy's skill at mothering is what allows her to survive where Uncle Tom cannot. Uncle Tom's martyrdom is not dismissed. However he is free to die partially because his wife is caring for his children. Would not his actions be construed differently if his responsibility to nurture and maintain the life of his children were at stake by his death? Uncle Tom's cabin is what the novel is named for, yet his conception of his paternal role is distracted by his Christian concerns.
The second strength Ruddick outlines is humility. Cassy is also strong because of her deep humility. When Uncle Tom addresses her as "missis" in respect to her aristocratic bearing, she says, "Don't call me missis! I'm a miserable slave like yourself-a lower one than you can ever be!" (UTC 346) We soon find out the reason for this deep humility. Ruddick describes a variety of maternal humility that seems to apply very much to Cassy's situation.
Humility is a metaphysical attitude one takes toward a world beyond one's control. One might conceive of the world as governed by necessity and chance or by supernatural forces that cannot be comprehended. In either case, humility implies a profound sense of the limits of one's actions. Humility which emerges f rom maternal practices accepts not only the facts of damage and death, but also the facts of the independent and uncontrollable, developing and increasingly separate existences of the lives it seeks to preserve (Ruddick 351).
This maternal strength is parallel to humanistic and Christian notions of humility. Uncle Tom and Cassy share this trait, doubly so because of the agonies of slavery. The virtue of their humility is highlighted by the depiction of their seemingly large degree of volition. Cassy picks cotton alongside Uncle Tom, yet by their skill and generosity despite the consequences they are elevated above the task at hand.
Their humility, as Webster defines it as "Having or showing awareness of one's defects." shows itself to be a virtue in Uncle Tom when he begs the Lord not to let him break his spiritual resolve, and in Cassy when she recognizes the error of her past actions. This self-awareness seems to preserve their sense of self, by letting both accept and forgive themselves, as opposed to the confusion and guilt Simon Legree feels about the death of his mother that he has not been able to get over. Cassy's atheism indicates that her humility is on some levels in nature different than Uncle Tom's. Tom succeeds in not breaking down to Legree's cruelty by trusting in the existence of an afterlife while Cassy continues to look toward future action. The solace from her suffering because of guilt will come by correcting some of the evil of the plantation. Cassy's path opens up the abolitionist message of the novel more successfully than Uncle Tom's by its focus on correcting present ills. That is not to say that Stowe is favoring the maternal model here. She is simply offering two equal paths of action. Perhaps Stowe's recourse to gothic imagery, to dimension-crossing, in this part of the novel is a way to reinvest Cassy' action with spiritual intent lost by her atheistic temperament.
Ruddick's third strength, empathy, is also clearly played out in the character of Cassy. Similar to how Ruddick argues a mother must change to understand the growing needs of her child, Cassy grows to understand Legree better than he knows himself. She handles him by empathizing and understanding him, and thus turning his superstitions and ambitions against him. However it is the manner in which she accomplishes this which circumvents the master/slave relationship she is in. She maintains a psychological attentiveness, and a readiness to "again and again regain the sense of the complexity and the reality and the struggle.. with some pity, some envy ,and much good will."(353) It is not sexual favors Cassy gives to Simon Legree, but maternal attention. And by her success Stowe is valorizing the maneuver.
It is made clear that Cassy's masters controlled her by that she loved best; her children.
I gave up, for my hands were tied. He had my children; whenever I resisted his will everywhere, he would talk about selling them, and he made me as submissive as he desired. Oh, what a life it was! to live with my heart breaking, every day- to keep on loving, when it was only misery.(UTC 354)
In Uncle Tom's Cabin we encounter female characters who make choices based on their maternal ties. These women are shown to make dramatic changes of self and outlook to maintain this maternal bond. Eliza chooses to run away from her beloved mistress to save her baby's life, while Cassy chooses to kill her own infant, counter her Christian upbringing, to protect it from suffering. These dramatic sacrifices are non-judgmentally balanced against what Uncle Tom does in the face of his family being threatened. He withdraws from the physical world and chooses to contemplate entirely his spiritual fate. By Cassy's and the other female characters' positive portrayals in the book, it appears that what the message of the story is that mothers are bound to deal with the physical world and its trials in a way that is not required of men because of their maternal tie. Stowe is thus offering us two gendered models of living correctly, one based on Christianity, the other on maternity.
Frankly I am bringing a feminist perspective to my analysis of Uncle Tom's Cabin. I believe that historically women as a class have been given unequal rights and opportunities. It is difficult to determine the less concrete institutions of oppression, and how thoughts and attitudes shape and limit ways of thinking or living. I bring to the novel my curiosity as to how Harriet Beecher Stowe constructs characters and their actions in such a way as to perpetuate, collude or disarm sexist institutions. The relationship between the fiction of the novel and present-day actualities is a tenuous one. However I would go so far as to claim that fictional representations open up possibilities of thought, ways of acting that might have never occurred to the reader, or new ways of looking at familiar situations that empower or make self-conscious the reader. On the other hand, the extent any novelist colludes with sexism and the reader does not notice it creates or reinforces limiting thoughts and behavior. However the permanent quality of the written word allows for discussion and reference to those fictional moments that other forums do not. Writing about any popular work which has received a great deal of critical attention is daunting. I am not claiming to make an authoritative claim about the text. More, I am looking at the text as a source of information . I chose Sara Ruddick's article on "Maternal Thinking" because her ideas seemed relevant for the ways that I see Stowe as resisting sexist thought. Perhaps Stowe originally meant the work to be solely an abolitionist work, but the novel still speaks to ideas and institutions that survive today. I see my approach as limited in its breadth. By focusing on only one character I lost much in perspective that I was trying to gain in clarity. It would be interesting to write further on the ways Stowe colludes with sexist thinking or how Uncle Tom himself embodies some of these maternal skills I speak of. Although I recognize these limitations of the paper might alienate my audience to some extent, I hope that my reader will be challenged to form an opinion that accepts the validity of the strong mother figure. Also I hope that the web-page will interest my reader in other theoretical resources. Because I saw the book as a resource and a starting-point for feminist thinking, my web page is also organized in this way. I would like browsers to find my links informative and useful in their own study of feminism and the classics of American Literature.
Ruddick, Sara. "Maternal Thinking." M Studies 6 1980: 342-63
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York: Macmillan Co., 1926.
Uncle Tom's Cabin -A Hypertext version
Biography on Harriet Beecher Stowe
Great Bibliography on Stowe
Review of Stowe Biography