Uncle Tom's Cabin:
Stowe's Paradoxical Christian Message
Perhaps the greatest criticism levied against Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is that it comprises of nothing more than Victorian sentimentality, and that the death of its two moral exemplars, Tom and Little Eva, do little which actually remedies the injustices of slavery. Critic Ann Douglas sees the novel as emblematic of the "feminization of American culture," which in religious terms figures as "a move away from the morally forceful Calvinism to the sloppiness of the humanistic cult of gentle Jesus" (Rachel Bowlby's paraphrase, 205). In order to recoup the novel from such charges, critics such as Jane Tompkins have attempted to demonstrate that the novel's coupling of sentimentality and Christianity results in far more than a luxuriating in lachrymose emotions. For Tompkins, the force behind the novel's sentimental Christianity is its subversion of the power hierarchy. Incidents like the deaths of Tom and Little Eva enact a "theory of power" in which "the powerless die to save the powerful and corrupt, and thereby show themselves more powerful than those they save" (128). Thus, the traditional locus of power, is in effect, decentered, and religious faith gives marginalized figures like slaves, children, and women a power, to which in strictly secular terms, they have no access.
One problem with readings which stress the salvific function of the deaths of Tom and Little Eva is their failure to account for the novel's self-conscious acknowledgment of the social forces which constantly challenge the brand of Christianity which it advocates. The Christian message of Uncle Tom's Cabin is ultimately paradoxical. On the one hand, the examples of Tom and Little Eva demonstrate a way in which Christianity enables the docile and the meek--the "powerless"--to transcend an institution which denies them power and authority. But at the same time, the novel recognizes that the barbaric nature of slavery undermines the power and authority of Christianity itself. For instance, a character like George Harris cannot even fathom being a Christian while under an institution which so casually allows the sale of his child, and denies him the freedom to which he feels he has every right. Readings like Tompkins' engage only the first half of Stowe's Christian message, and fail to grapple with the latter. This paper, while not discounting the decentering of power via Christianity, argues that the novel simultaneously acknowledges and limits the power Christianity offers.
Tompkins buttresses most of her claims in the novel's representation of Tom's and Little Eva's death scenes. Little Eva's protracted death accomplishes what never comes to fruition during her life: the unification of all the members of the household in a community of Christian feeling. Miss Ophelia cedes her New England formality for Christian lovingkindness; Topsy's "wickedness" becomes virtue; and the entire household sheds communal tears for Eva, which as Tompkins notes, "bespeak a state of grace" (131). The same tears and emotional gestures reappear in Tom's death, which moves even the most heartless and jaded members of Legree's plantation. Cassy, bitter and half-insane, nevertheless weeps and prays over the dying Uncle Tom; Sambo and Quimbo, the instruments of Tom's torture throughout his stay at Legree's plantation, repent for their previous actions, beg Tom for forgiveness, and ask him to "tell [them] who is Jesus" (625). Tompkins rightly identifies these scenes as moments of transcendence, where "death is the equivalent not of defeat, but of victory" (127).
But Tompkins' analysis stops where the novel keeps going, and her reading fails to fully explain the devastating events which occur despite the salvific effects of Little Eva's death. For Tompkins, the fact that "Topsy's salvation and Miss Ophelia's do not alter the anti-abolitionist majority in the Senate or prevent Southern plantation owners and northern investment bankers from doing business to their mutual advantage" is irrelevant since their hearts, i.e. Topsy and Miss Ophelia, have undergone the kind of transformation necessary "for sweeping social change" (132). While it is true that prior to Little Eva's death, Miss Ophelia cannot feel the kind of Christian love she later shares with Topsy, Tompkins' reading ignores the instability of the positive changes which Little Eva's death provokes.
The community of Christian feeling which Eva's death establishes is completely ephemeral. The novel acknowledges that slavery as a social institution weakens Christianity's potency. This is why Miss Ophelia is so insistent on Saint Clare immediately transferring ownership of Topsy over to her: "There is no use in my trying to make this child a Christian child, unless I save her from all the chances and reverses of slavery; and if you are really willing I should have her, I want you to give me a deed of gift or some legal paper" (445). The disintegration of the St. Clare household, the auctioning of slaves, the separations of families, and the cruelty of Simon Legree--all these events occur after Little Eva's death and dramatize the "chances and reverses of slavery" which undermine Christianity's power and authority. This is not to say that Little Eva's death is ineffectual. While it instills the household with the proper Christian sentiment, in and of itself, Eva's death does not ensure a lasting expression of this sentiment. The novel's depiction of the aftermath of Eva's death does not deny the redemption Christianity offers, but ensures that its readers perform the necessary actions (like Miss Ophelia's) which would allow for a full and proper expression of Christianity. As Catherine O'Connel notes, we must work against interpretations of sentimentality which "deem it necessarily apolitical or antipolitical by foreclosing the possibility of action through its focus on emotion" (17).
Thus, one of the main epiphanies a character can have in Uncle Tom's Cabin is the realization that it is virtually impossible to be a true Christian and still be imbedded in the institution of slavery precisely because of Christianity's paradoxical position within the system. Even before Miss Ophelia example, Mrs. Shelby articulates the kind of tensions inherent in the novel's Christian message. After Mrs. Shelby learns of the sale of Tom and Harry, she realizes the impotence and hypocrisy of her Christian teachings since her husband's actions completely contradict them: "I have talked to Eliza about her boy--her duty to him as a Christian mother, to watch over him, pray for him, and bring him up in a Christian way; and now what can I say, if you tear him away, and sell him, soul and body, to a profane, unprincipled man, just to save a little money? I have told her that one soul is worth more than all the money in the world; and how will she believe me when she sees us turn round and sell her child" (84)? One of the greatest duties a character can perform in Uncle Tom's Cabin is instructing another in the lessons of Christianity; the image of Little Eva reading to Tom from the Bible has since become iconographic. But these teachings lose their forcefulness in such a barbaric system. Note how Mrs. Shelby's apprehensions stem from issues of Christianity and its diminishing authority. Though Tom and Little Eva demonstrate the possibility of being a true Christian within the institution of slavery, they are examples of only the first half of the paradox which this paper has been attempting to delineate. Readings which stress the "salvation of Tom and Little Eva," such as Tompkins,' have usually ignored George Harris, the character who most radically exemplifies Christianity weakening within the context of slavery, or the latter half of the paradox.
George's narrative contests Tompkins' claim that "religious conversion is the necessary precondition for sweeping social change"(130) because he only becomes a true Christian after social changes occur to justify his beliefs. In an early conversation with his former employer, Mr. Wilson, George demonstrates the difficulty involved in maintaining a Christian outlook, when the pressure exerted by social reality almost completely undermines Christianity's authority: "Don't quote the Bible at me that way, Mr. Wilson...don't! for my wife is a Christian and I mean to be, if ever I get where I can; but to quote Bible to a fellow in my circumstances is enough to make him give up altogether" (183). Prior to this scene, details about the George, such as his devotion to Eliza and Harry, his physical and mental prowess, and his superiority over his master, establish him as a character worthy of the reader's sympathy. In asking its readers to sympathize with both Tom and George--the former, the paragon of Christian virtue; the latter, at least initially, the figure of doubt and cynicism--the novel problematizes its readers' own conceptions of Christianity, and asks them to feel its paradoxical nature in the context of slavery. Stowe does well to show how certain actions which in no way would find sanction in a truly millennial context are to a large degree excusable or understandable because of the institution. As O'Connel notes, one of the most subversive qualities about the novel's stance on Christianity is that it "grants men and women the right to question the ways of God and to insist that God's ways be consistent with human standards of mercy and justice" (20).
In the conclusion to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe acknowledges both the power and the unlikelihood of assuming "the courage and grace of martyrdom," and concedes the near "impossibility" of "any adherence to morals of Christianity" due to the barbaric nature of slavery (625). Thus, critics who focus only on "the courage and grace of martyrdom," neglect a significant portion of Stowe's Christian message. In assuming the role of the nation-forger, George enacts the socio-religious drama of the founding fathers, and opens up a space for the proper and full expression of Christianity. The nation he envisions not only develops along "essentially" Christian lines, but also has the power to more fully contest the injustices of slavery: "A nation has the right to argue, remonstrate, implore, and present the cause of its race--which an individual has not" (610). While the novel may value the individual examples of Tom and Little Eva, it nevertheless recognizes the difficulty of sustaining one's Christianity within the context of slavery, as well as the limitations of the individual's power to challenge such a large institution. George, in deferring his acceptance of Christianity until he reaches a place of freedom, ultimately comes closest to Stowe's agenda of establishing a true Christian nation, uncorrupted by slavery, on earth.
Bowlby, Rachel. "Breakfast in America--Uncle Tom's Cultural Histories." Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. New York, NY: Routledge Press, 1990, 197-212.
O'Connel, Catherine E. "`The Magic of the Real Presence of Distress': Sentimentality and Competing Rhetorics of Authority." The Stowe Debate. Eds. Mason I. Lowance, Jr., Ellen E Westbrook, R.C. De Prospo. Amherst, MA: U. Massachusetts Press, 1994, 13-36.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs. New York, NY: Oxford U. Press, 1985.