Uncle Tom's Cabin Summary and Analysis
Summary of Chapter 1: In Which the Reader is Introduced to a Man of Humility
The first scene of Uncle Tom's Cabin depicts a conversation between two gentlemen, Mr. Shelby and Mr. Haley. The two men are sipping wine in the parlor and discussing a speculation debt that Shelby owes Haley, a slave trader. Mr. Shelby, the owner of the Kentucky plantation at which they speak, must choose between property loss, financial ruin and social scandal or selling his prized slave, Tom. Shelby is loathe to part with Tom, who has been his loyal servant since boyhood, but nevertheless he tries to persuade the trader of Tom's qualities- religious piety, honesty, and sensibility- so he will not have to sell more than one slave.
Just as Shelby tells Haley that he has no young boys or girls he can part with in addition to his old servant, Tom, a "quadroon boy" enters the room. Quadroon means that the boy, around five years of age, was of one-quarter African heritage. Mr. Shelby calls the boy "Jim Crow," which is a stereotypical name for a black clown or minstrel. Shelby throws the boy pieces of fruit and commands him to show Mr. Haley his skills at dancing, singing, and making humorous impressions of the minister. Haley is delighted by the boy, and tells Shelby that if he gives him the boy as well, then his debt will be paid.
At that moment, a quadroon woman of about twenty-five enters the room. She is beautiful, and undoubtedly the mother of the adorable, curly-haired boy. Eliza takes her child, whom she calls Harry, away with Mr. Shelby's permission. Haley is much taken with her beauty, and tells Mr. Shelby that he could make his fortune selling her down in New Orleans. Mr. Shelby tells Haley that he would never consider selling Eliza, as she is Mrs. Shelby's personal maid and pet favorite. He finally settles on taking her son, who he plans to sell to an associate who raises handsome black men to sell to fancy restaurants and rich people as waiters and doormen. He tries to convince the still hesitant Haley that Eliza will not react to the sale of her son the way a white woman naturally would. He also emphasizes that he is not a cruel master, but rather thinks it is "good management" to "do the humane thing." He also tells Shelby that Kentucky folks spoil their slaves by trying to keep families together. Shelby tells him that he will discuss the matter with his wife, and warns him not to say anything, as he does not yet want to cause a stir at his plantation.
The narrator now interjects with her thoughts on slavery in the state of Kentucky. She surmises that the mildest form of slavery exists there, as the slow agricultural seasons do not demand the pressure of mass production as in states further south. Yet she warns the reader not to think of the evident affection shared between master and slave their as a justification of the theory of slavery as a benign patriarchy. On the contrary, asserts the author, the law overrides all relations between master and slave, rendering human beings the property of another. Thus, nothing good or desirable can result from the institution of slavery.
The scene now shifts to Eliza, who heard some of the conversation upon approaching the door to fetch her child. She thought that she heard the trader make a bid for Harry, and thus is very disturbed. Eliza is very distracted and clumsy when helping her mistress to dress, and when Mrs. Shelby inquires, Eliza asks her if Mr. Shelby would ever sell her child. Mrs. Shelby is adamant that her husband never would and teases Eliza that she is getting very proud of her child. The narrator describes Mrs. Sheby's high moral and intellectual nature, which makes her unable to even conceive of such an idea. Thus, Mr. Shelby is very worried about breaking the news to his wife.
Analysis of Chapter 1
Stowe's writing style combines vivid characterization and description with realistic dialogue. When describing characters, for example, Stowe uses ones outward appearance as a metaphor for personality. Consider this description to the slave trader Mr. Haley: "He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colorsarranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man." Haley's physical appearance is a metaphor for his "new rich" status. The description alludes that his ostentation hides vulgarity beneath.
Stowe's dialogues also merit attention, as they are written phonetically to reflect the southern accent and dialect. When Haley says, for example, "It don't look well, now, for a feller to be praisin' himself; but I say it jest because it's the truth," Stowe wants the reader to hear the dialogue as if we were there. Also, a character's manner of speaking is a symbol of his or her social class and education. For example, the aristocratic Shelbys do not speak with as much slang as the low-class Haley, and Stowe diverges from standard grammatical spelling the most when crafting the speech of the slaves.
Another important aspect of Stowe's writing style is her diction, particularly the manner in which the white characters refer to slaves. When trading, Haley refers to Eliza, Tom, and Harry as "articles." Statements such as "these critters an't like white folks" symbolize the white ideology of an inherent difference between the races. Referring to slaves as "critters," or animals, serves as justification of treating them as such.
Summary of Chapter 2
This chapter introduces the reader to George Harris, Eliza's mulatto (half black and half white) husband from a neighboring plantation. George is very clever, and invents a machine for cleaning hemp at the factory where his master hires out his slave laborers. When the jealous master learns of George's success, however, he relegates him to the most menial farm work. A flashback tells the reader that it was when George worked at the factory that he met Eliza and the couple fell in love. They were married in the Shelby's parlor, and lost two infants before Harry was finally born.
Analysis of Chapter 2
Contrary to what one might expect from a novel protesting slavery, Eliza is very content at the Shelby plantation. She does not miss or question her lack of personal autonomy under the master-slave relationship, but rather is grateful for masters who have instilled in her Christian ways. This is an ironic commentary on how the tenets of Christianity and slavery can be compatible, for it seems that Christian doctrine is subverted to keep slaves in their place. This is evidenced by Eliza's protest to her husband, that she "must obey master and mistress" in order to be Christian. Overall, the opposite experiences of kindness and cruelty at the hands of masters that Eliza and George experience are Stowe's means of painting a fair portrait of the condition of slavery. Like Eliza, not all slaves were discontent, but all lacked basic human rights. As we will see, even Eliza was soon to learn the crueler aspects of bondange when she does not have the right to keep her own child.
Summary of Chapter 3
While Eliza had kind masters and was "indulged" as Mrs. Shelby's pet favorite, her husband was not so lucky. His master worked him very hard, beat him, drown his dog out of sheer spite, and ordered him to marry a girl on his own plantation, Mina, so that George can no longer visit Eliza. George can take no more injustice and decides to escape to Canada: "I'm a man as much as he iswhat right has he to make a dray-horse of me?" he asks.
George tells Eliza that although her masters have been kind to her, that Harry will have a worse fate because he is male. Eliza, remembering the slave trader who came to visit Mr. Shelby, worries for her son's future as well as her husband's safety. The couple part in tears, and Eliza reminds George to "be good" so that they may see one another in heaven.
Analysis of Chapter 3
This above quote is important, as it manifests that slavery is both dehumanizing and robs one of their natural rights to self-determination. Here, Stowe is questioning the entire institution of slavery. By relating George's story of success in a factory stifled by his spiteful master, Stowe tries to awaken the reader's sense of indignation that a slave enjoyed virtually no rights over his own individual personage.
The sorrow that the couple feels in parting is also significant, as it counter's Haley's earlier justification for dividing slave families on the basis of slaves not having strong family ties like white people. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, many people in Stowe's day had to be taught that slaves were human beings with human emotion. In order to convince her readers that slavery is a moral wrong that strips people of their rights, Stowe embellishes the theme of slavery with those of feminism and religion. Women, as revealed by both Eliza and Mrs. Shelby, are more pious than male characters in the novel. This is an attempt to appeal to the moral conscience of female readers, inspiring them to question their husbands as Mrs. Shelby did. So too, the theme of the break up of the family should strike a chord with female readers as it shows how slavery destroys a mother's inherent bond to her child and invades the sacred relations between a wife and her husband.
Summary of Chapter 4
The scene now shifts to Uncle Tom's cabin, a small log house with a flower garden close to the master's house. Tom's wife, Chloe, is the head cook on the plantation, and this boisterous, turban-clad woman prides herself on her culinary reputation. Tom and Chloe have two young sons, who are teaching the new baby girl, Polly, to walk. George Shelby junior is at the cabin teaching Uncle Tom to write. Aunt Chloe convinces the thirteen-year old boy to stay for a dinner of hot cakes, and the cabin is alive with merriment as George praises Aunt Chloe's cooking and Uncle Tom plays with his baby.
The cabin is then filled with slaves who are convening for a religious meeting. The slaves first gossip about the rumors concerning a slave trader's visit to the plantation, and then the religious service begins. The ceremony is full of energy, laughing, crying, and singing. Tom leads the slaves in prayers full of "touching simplicity" and "child-like earnestness."
Analysis of Chapter 4
Although she wants to awaken the conscience of her readers to the evils of slavery, Stowe uses many images of happiness and life- from the flowers blooming around the cabin to the children playing inside- to give the readers their first glimpse of how slaves live. This method is effective, because it contrasts with prevailing attitudes- symbolized by Mr. Haley- that slaves a little more than unfeeling animals. Indeed, the "satisfaction and contentment" Chole feels contrast with the pictures of squalor that Stowe reveals later. Thus, the author's strategy is to first fully humanize her black characters to elicit the reader's sympathy.
In order to appeal directly to her white readers, Stowe uses stereotypes when characterizing Chloe and Tom. She over-emphasizes characteristics such as Aunt Chloe's turban and overweight frame, as well as Uncle Tom's "truly African features."
The pleasant exchange we encounter between the "young master" and Uncle Tom is significant. On one hand, it shows us a realistic portrait of the sincere affection master and slave could have for each other. On the other hand, however, the fact that a boy must teach a grown man to write and the deference Tom must give young George shows how degrading the patriarchal system of slavery is to a slave's sense of self esteem and worth.
The religious ceremony, however, symbolizes a power the slaves have that is all their own- faith. Their expressions of religious faith, albeit mired in Christian doctrine, are uniquely their own expressions of hope and survival. The rhythms, clapping, and African roots of the praises sung evidence that in religious meetings, the slaves exist for themselves alone. So too, the fact that George Shelby junior is merely an onlooker, and Tom an important leader, reveals why a unique form of religious praise and community prayer was an important form of slave autonomy and solidarity with one another.
The fact that Tom's cabin is the central meeting place for the slaves and that he mesmerizes them with his earnest and simple prayer shows that Tom has an important leadership role among the slaves. He has not earned their respect by fighting for it, but rather they respect his earnest Christian piety and love for all his neighbors, black and white. Another important aspect of the prayer meeting is the repetition of the words "die" and "glory." Heaven, thus, is the slaves' consolation for the early deaths they will face after years of labor and cruel treatment. Thus, we see that the contentment symbolized by Aunt Chloe's blustery personality does not indicate satisfaction with the present life, but rather hope for the future. Indeed, the slaves remind themselves that they will be free upon their deaths by repeating "glory is a mighty thing."
Summary of Chapter 5
The scene now shifts back to Shelby's house, where he is finishing his deal with Haley and exchanging Tom and little Harry for notes and bills. Mr. Shelby makes Haley promise that he will not sell Tom to a cruel master, but he is unsure of whether the unfeeling businessman will keep his word.
When Shelby and his wife are retiring to bed, Mrs. Shelby questions her husband about the exact nature of his dealings with "that negro-trader," as she disparagingly refers to Haley. Shelby confesses to his wife that Haley had a mortgage to their plantation, and the only way to clear his debts and save his property was to sell Tom and Harry. He tells his angry wife that he could have sold Eliza and didn't, and pleads with her to "see the necessity of the thing."
Meanwhile, Eliza has been listening in a passage outside the master bedroom. She quickly follows her maternal instincts, awaking her child and writing a note to Mrs. Shelby saying that she must try to save Harry. Eliza then goes to Uncle Tom's cabin, where she tells Tom that he has been sold as well, and that he should flee with them. Aunt Chloe begs Tom to go, but he staunchly refuses to "break trust" with his master and resigns himself to his fate. He says, "Mas'r ain't to blame" before he starts to cry.
Analysis of Chapter 5
The transaction between Shelby and Haley is an ironic contrast to the passionate faith expressed by the slaves at Uncle Tom's. Stowe uses this scene to instill a sense of foreboding in the reader. For example, one cannot trust Haley's promise, which sounds ironic when uttered by a slave trader: "If there's anything I thank the Lord for, it is that I'm never noways cruel." The use of the word "Lord" not only manifests his hypocrisy, but also is a heartbreaking shattering of the faith the slaves showed in God's protection in the preceding chapter.
Mrs. Shelby's reaction to the sale of Tom and Harry is a metaphor for the spiritual perversion the institution of slavery enacts upon the whites. Mrs. Shelby is indeed concerned for the slaves, but ironically, this concern revolves around her selfish preoccupation that her plan of mothering these "poor simple creatures" as an act of Christian goodness has been spoilt. The shame she feels to "hold my head up among them" underscores the moral compromised slave owners made to justify themselves. This is revealed when she calls slavery "a curse to the master and a curse to the slave."
Indeed, Mrs. Shelby is a metaphor for the hypocrisy of the slave owner who rationalizes his or her actions by "gild(ing) it over" with "kindness and care." Indeed, Stowe uses Mrs. Shelby to deliver an important message to her readers. That is, anti-slavery sentiments and Christian good deeds towards the slaves are by no means enough. Instead, slavery itself must be immediately abolished, or tragedies like the separation of families, which cannot be mended by good works or feelings, will perpetuate.
Stowe also delivers a powerful anti-slavery message by focusing on the relationship between mother and child. The descriptions of Eliza's sleeping son, for example, are supposed to elicit the reader's indignation that the sacred bond could be broken and such a precious child with "a smile spread like a sunbeam over his whole face," be taken away from his mother. By focusing on a mother's love for her child, Stowe creates a metaphor for the injustice of the entire system of slavery. Indeed, Eliza's tears of blood ("bleeding away in silence") symbolize slavery's perversion and violation of the human condition.
Uncle Tom's Cabin Essays and Related Content
- Uncle Tom's Cabin: Essays
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- Harriet Stowe: Biography
- Uncle Tom's Cabin Summary
- About Uncle Tom's Cabin
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-5
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 6-10
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-25
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 26-30
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-35
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-40
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 41-45
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