I have always asserted that books could never drive me to tears. But that is until now; because Uncle Tom’s Cabin came close, very close. And if it could have such an effect on me, after all these years when slavery is pretty much done and dusted with and everybody acknowledges it for the abominable act that it was, I cannot even begin to ascertain the way it would have moved the population that was directly or indirectly a part of it, back when it was originally published.
Much of that can be credited to the author’s devastating portrayal of the black families: what they were in the eyes of the slave-keepers and traders, what they had to endure, and ultimately, what they had to lose. It almost feels ridiculous to say this in retrospect, but the book’s raison d’etre is to show that the slaves were just people, after all. We, in the current world, have the privilege of history. We know how ultimately slavery was abolished under Lincoln in 1865, but at the time that book was published, things were still under steam. A group of people would vehemently hold on to their belief (based on their holy book) that the slaves were better off under their masters, that they needn’t be free. And I suppose this book served as a bird’s eye view to finally see the issue of slavery as a humane problem. That every man was equal under the eyes of God, to quote the Bible.
Christianity, indeed, is one of the bigger themes of the book. And one that Harriet uses to drive her point home multiple times. It begs the question of whether it would have been impossible to make people see the good side without bringing God and salvation into the picture, but as was evident, it did serve her purpose. Take Tom for instance, our lead character, who is a man of integrity, compassion, courage and just what you’d call a “really good fellow”. It is frequently implied that Tom is the person that he is because of his faith and his joyous submission to God. So much so that his unwavering faith helps him even in death. He knew that he was going to a better place. And he makes it clear to the people around him, and by extension, the readers.
The other political and civil messages are delivered through various characters such as George Harris for instance (an industrious man who flees to Canada with his wife and child to attain freedom from his abusive master). Even otherwise, Harriet populates her book with characters who fall under every corner of the moral compass. It’s through these characters that we see the plight of the slaves and also of the keepers. One of my favorite sections of the book are the debates between Augustine St. Claire and Miss Ophelia. Two people who are on the same page about slavery, but for totally different reasons.
It’s all these ideas and contemplative remarks bouncing off the pages that make this book such a thrilling read. There’s hardly ever a dull moment, because even when nothing of import is going on, the narrative still keeps you mulling. And while this is not a book that one praises for its prose, I will say that it was pretty functional. The fact that she even went as far as to get the voices distinct is no small achievement.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an important book; not just for what it stands for, but also for what it was able to achieve. In Abe Lincoln’s own words, Harriet was “the little woman who made the great war”.