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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A real novel, not just history, 29 Jun 2009
This review is from: Uncle Tom's Cabin (Wordsworth Classics) (Paperback)
Uncle Tom's Cabin: categorised first as anti-slavery propaganda, then (bizarrely) as a children's book, everyone has heard of it, few bother to read it, which is a pity. Harriet Beecher Stowe was a highly intelligent writer who had learned well from her master Dickens. The best passages of her book are well up to his standard of dry, understated polemic. Some of her characterization, like the dissection of St Clare's disastrous marriage, or Cousin Ophelia in her Puritan New England background, is as brilliant and individual as anything in the nineteenth-century novel. Her evangelicalism strikes us as mushy-gushy now, but underlying it is a moral toughness that has not been given sufficient credit. Like a marksman shooting down one target after another, she dispassionately showed all the many ways in which slavery inevitably corrupted both slaves and their owners. Humane owners could not escape responsibility:

`Well,' said the other, `there are also many considerate and humane men among planters.'
`Granted,' said the young man; `but, in my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foothold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one,' said he, pointing with his finger to Legree, who stood with his back to them, `the whole thing would go down like a millstone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.'


She was pretty bold, especially as an unmarried woman writer, in her exposure of sexual exploitation, at a time when George Eliot could cause shock simply by hinting at a character having an illegitimate child (of course this was America, not England). Her depiction of Simon Legree's plantation was astonishingly unsparing. This is in essence a concentration-camp novel, showing that twentieth-century labour camps and Gulags were part of a time-(dis)honoured tradition. The near-impossibility of resisting such dehumanisation throws into sharp relief the heroism of the few that did - and do.

I would not agree that Uncle Tom himself is an unbelievable plaster saint, nor yet the example of servility and acquiescence that later caricatures might lead you to believe. Notice that when Tom gets word that he is to be sold and declines to take the chance to run away, his decision is not because of any misplaced deference towards his owners but for the benefit of his fellow slaves: he realises that unless he is sold to pay off his master's debts they all may have to be sold. If you can bear with Miss Beecher-Stowe's religious effusions, Tom's moral arc is an entirely believable one. In his apparently hopeless position as Legree's slave, he (if not the author) gets beyond the evangelical morality of divine reward and punishment to the existential realisation that one has to choose good ... just because evil is worse. `If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar Sambo ... it won't make much odds to me how I come so: it's the bein' so - that ar's what I'm a-dreadin'. I find that quite moving.

Of course the author spoils things rather with her poor plotting. When Cassie hatches an escape plan, it goes against the most elementary rules of clandestine association that she should unnecessarily let Tom know the details, just so that he can be a hero and refuse to tell Legree. The resolution of the whole story contains a few coincidences too many. And some of the folksy scenes are undeniably dull. Still, you will not be wasting your time if you read this book. It is a real novel, not just a historical document.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 19 Nov 2011 07:17:08 GMT
snitsky says:
its dog plops

In reply to an earlier post on 15 Feb 2014 15:57:49 GMT
Wendy says:
If you're going to bother posting (however worthless) a comment, at least punctuate it better. 'It's dog plops'. (I think you meant.)
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