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Literature / Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Uncle Tom's Cabin is a classic anti-slavery work written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1853, a decade before The American Civil War. It was ferociously controversial in its day.

At the opening of the story, Uncle Tom, Eliza, and her son Harry are all living relatively happily on a large farm in Kentucky. They have a good and kind master, Mr. Arthur Shelby. Tom is a well liked and trusted manager of the farm and is raising his family with his wife, Chloe. Eliza has a relatively easy life, living in the house as Mrs. Shelby's servant and is allowed visits from her husband, George, who lives on a nearby farm.

Then Mr. Shelby gets into debt, and a slave trader gets his hands on a mortgage on the farm. He proposes to settle the debt with Mr. Shelby in exchange for his best slave. Uncle Tom is sold to the trader who will then sell him "down the river"note . Little Harry is included in the deal, and his mother happens to eavesdrop on the conversation. Rather than have her child ripped from her, Eliza scoops him up and makes a run for freedom. She tells Tom and Chloe about everything she heard and Chloe urges Tom to go with her. Tom refuses to go on hearing that his sale will fix Shelby's financial woes, else he will have to break up the farm and sell all the slaves. Knowing his suffering will save the others, Tom resigns himself to his fate and Eliza slips off with Harry.

Eliza makes a daring escape across the Ohio River and lucks into the care of the Underground Railroad. She and Harry make the dangerous trip North, all the while hoping to find her husband, George, who told her his intent to run away from his cruel master and flee to Canada, where he plans to work to buy her and Harry's freedom.

Tom is bought by Augustine St. Clare after saving the life of his daughter, Evangeline. Tom is taken to live on their estate in New Orleans, and sends word home that he is safe and with a good family. Chloe and Mrs. Shelby resolve to raise the money and buy him home. They calculate it should only take about… four years.

For several years, Tom is happy with the St. Clares and patiently awaits the day he can return home. In the meantime, his Christian love and kindness touches everyone there. Augustine resolves to set Tom free, but before the papers are drawn up, tragedy strikes and the entire estate is broken up and sold off, including the human assets.

Tom ends up in the hands of the vicious sadist Simon Legree, who soon becomes determined to break Tom's Christian spirit or kill him in the attempt.

Stowe wrote this novel as an indictment of slavery. She uses Sarcasm Mode heavily, reminding readers that Tom, George, and Eliza are property, that attempts to help George and Eliza are illegal, etc. It is well-written and incisive, but the relative idyllism of the first couple of chapters, and her using self-sacrificing Tom as an example (he will do what his masters ask unless it is against his faith), have led to sharp Values Dissonance since. (There was some at the time, too, but of a different variety.)

The eponymous Uncle Tom has been subject to serious Audience-Coloring Adaptation thanks to Minstrel Shows. A modern reader could be forgiven for being shocked to learn that, far from a villainous traitor or a bumbling fool, Tom is a wise figure, self-sacrificing in the extreme. Thanks to the determined propaganda of the Sons and Daughters of Confederate Veterans spreading the myth of the Lost Cause, and a surge in white supremacist racism following World War I, Minstrel Shows turned Uncle Tom into a by-word for servile clowns across the nation, giving him a terrible reputation in the black community. He is thus the Trope Namer for the trope Uncle Tomfoolery, in which a black performer acts the fool to entertain white audiences.

Stowe's novel was adapted for the stage not long after it was released and has been adapted for film many times. The 1914 film has been placed in the National Film Registry.

This work contains examples of:

  • Action Survivor: Eliza and her husband George.
  • Adaptation Decay: Minstrel Shows turned many of the black characters into dull, servile clowns. Some adaptations were even pro-slavery.
  • And That's Terrible: Constantly in the book, which Gustave Flaubert provided the page quote about. Indeed, even some contemporary abolitionist critiques of the novel could be boiled down to "people seriously need this spelled out for them?!" Sadly, they did, as numerous Southern people (and some Northerners) defended slavery (her book soon garnered a huge number of responses trying to rebut it). Not just as a necessary evil too, but in some cases even a positive good. This often came from leading thinkers, mind you (and not all were even slave owners themselves). Yes, it was necessary.
  • Anti-Villain: Mr. St. Clare is a kindly Southern dandy who is extremely lenient with his slaves and maintains them in a prosperous lifestyle. While he admits (when pressed) that keeping fellow Christians as possessions is probably immoral, he can't stand to inconvenience himself by losing all his slaves.
  • Author Filibuster: Stowe will stop the action in its tracks to have characters partake in moral debates about slavery. She uses this to present the counter-arguments to the points that she is making and almost all of them begin the next part of the story with a Contrived Coincidence of the main characters happening into the scene which was just discussing their current dilema. Most notably is when Senator Bird and his wife are discussing the new laws against aiding runaways and she vehemently chastises him for being an unchristian hypocrite who wouldn't be able to stand up to his own political philosophy when it came down to it. Almost on cue, Eliza arrives at their door, freezing, bleeding, starving, and begging for help with her child in her arms. Senator Bird immediately folds and goes above and beyond to help her.
  • Author Tract: The novel is an antislavery polemic aimed at female readers, who were considered the guardians of Christian morality at the time. The narrator will frequently talk directly to the reader about how she should feel about what is going on, and ultimately ends up begging the reader to influence her husband into supporting abolition. The book is also very much in favor of supporting Liberia, which didn't turn out so well.
  • Badass Preacher: The Quakers that help Eliza, George, and little Harry to run away. They also help Tom Locker to have his Heel–Face Turn after he's injured and they help him out.
  • Big Guy, Little Guy: The slave hunter duo. Tom Looker is the brawns and Marks is the brains.
  • Bittersweet Ending: George Shelby arrives too late to save Tom, and he dies in his arms. But the lives he touched and the souls he saved are forever changed. And if it weren't for Tom's cruel fate, George would never have been in a position to reunite Eliza and George's extended family when he meets the women on the boat home.
  • Breakout Character: Mr. Haley.
  • Break the Cutie: Eliza, Uncle Tom, Emmeline.
  • Broken Bird: Cassie, Prue (even more so).
  • Children Are Tender-Hearted: Evangeline forms an Intergenerational Friendship with Tom and is easily moved by signs of suffering, which also help contribute to her sickly nature. She is always trying to help the slaves. When she eventually dies, everyone is moved to be a better person as a result.
  • Creepy Long Fingers: Marks the bounty hunter has his hands compared to raven claws.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: Simon Legree is considered the Trope Maker, although he's a much more shaded, three dimensional character in the book than any of the whiplashes inspired by him, which often turned his persona into a mild caricature of its former self.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Augustine and Miss Ophelia.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Miss Ophelia, Cassie.
  • Driven to Suicide: The sad story of Lucy on the riverboat. Haley cruelly sells her baby out from under her and only tells her after the babe is gone. A few nights later she throws herself into the river. Tom realizes what has happened, but decides it a mercy to let the poor woman leave her misery behind.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Like many social reformers of her day, Stowe was a Dry Crusader. When alcohol appears in the novel, it is not presented in a favorable light (except when a newly reformed Sambo gives the mortally wounded Tom some brandy to quench his thirst — that's simply what they had on hand).
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Legree is willing to do almost any inhumane and cruel thing to make a buck, but he refused to take George Shelby's money when he asks how much for Tom's body. He is actually momentarily offended and says he has never dealt in dead bodies and tells George to do as he likes.
  • Evil Gloating: Simon Legree, seeing that George Shelby cared deeply about Tom, gloats about how there's no evidence the courts will accept and adds, "[W]hat a fuss, for a dead n***." Talk to the Fist ensues.
  • Generation Xerox: Eliza's daughter looks so exactly like her that her mother, Cassie, on seeing her look exactly like her daughter the last time she saw her, quite forgets the decades that have passed since they were parted and is momentarily convinced that her granddaughter is her daughter.
  • Happiness in Slavery: Averted in the novel itself, but the publication of this book produced a slew of pro-slavery novels (Anti-Tom Literature) depicting the slaves as either mentally unfit for freedom or happy with their lot in life.
  • Hate Sink: Simon Legree is a slavedriver who remorselessly abuses his slaves with reckless abandon. When the titular Uncle Tom refuses to bend to Legree's will, Legree doubles down on his efforts to subjugate Tom. Harriet Beecher Stowe deliberately wrote Legree as a treatise against the idea of humans as property. There’s a reason why he, (or rather, Horace Horsecollar portraying him), provides the page image.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Tom Loker, the slave hunter; Sambo and Kimbo at Legree's plantation.
  • Heroic BSoD: Tom, during his first days in Legree's plantation. Luckily for him, when Legree tries to twist the knife even more, Tom reacts and deal a Shut Up, Hannibal! to him.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Tom is whipped to death after helping Cassie and Emmeline to run away. He still manages to live enough to see George Shelby before he dies and to redeem two of his tormentors, Sambo and Quimbo.
  • Hope Spot: George Shelby finally makes good on his promise to track Tom down and bring him home. He arrives two days too late. Tom has been beaten savagely and left to die in a wood shed. All George can do is hold his friend's hand as he dies.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Legree has a brief moment of surprise that Tom is still claiming to forgive him even as he's being whipped to death. There's a hint that he might change his mind, but the moment passes and Legree resumes his vicious cruelty.
  • Jerkass:
    • George's owner is a jealous, petty, mean-spirited man who drastically worsened his treatment of George when he realized that George was smarter than him.
    • There is also Simon Legree, although in his case, “jerkass” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Two:
    • George Harris had an older sister, Emily, who was sold by their cruel owner. Near the end of the story, George Shelby befriends a French woman named Madame de Thoux, who turns out to be the long-lost and now grown-up Emily. With his help, the siblings are eventually reunited.
    • Cassie actually had a daughter, who was taken away from her when she was sold as a slave. Said daughter? Eliza Harris. Again, they're reunited thanks to George Shelby.
  • Machiavelli Was Wrong: A secondary Aesop to Tom's time on the Legree plantation is that rule by fear stops working when the tyrant fails to break a subject's spirit.
  • Magical Negro: Tom, especially at the St. Clare home.
  • Manly Tears: "George Shelby wept tears that honored his manly heart..."
  • Naïve Everygirl: Poor, poor Emmeline.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Sam and Andy's delaying tactics to keep Marks and Loker from catching up with Eliza and her son.
  • Offing the Offspring: Cassie smothered her baby to save it from a life of slavery.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted, with many white and black characters sharing names. At least two separate women named Lucy appear briefly and the tendency dissuades the reader from guessing the relations revealed at the end, as many main characters are shown to have common names.
    • Tom the slave and Tom Loker the bounty hunter. There are more Toms as minor characters as well.
    • There are also two Georges: George Harris, the husband of Eliza, and George Shelby, the son of the ranch owner.
  • Patched Together from the Headlines: The book basically consisted of Harriet Beecher Stowe gathering together a whole bunch of stories of actual people who were actually enslaved, then changing the names and adding in a plot to tie it together.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Most of the slave traders, auctioneers, and owners. Owning and selling slaves is simply part of their jobs; their aim is to earn money, and they'll be kind or cruel depending on what gives them the most profit. They're villains not primarily because of how they treat the slaves, but because they simply don't think the slaves are fully human beings. Their cruelty is just a matter of efficiency and profit.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: White owners raping female slaves is brought up on multiple occasions and the evil of having sex with a woman you own and fathering children condemned to slavery by it is vehemently condemned. Em's mother is particularly fearful of what might happen to her daughter when sold because of her beauty. She was right to fear as Cassie mentions being replaced as Simon's "companion" and cast out into the cotton field when he buys Em. Rescuing the girl from him is a huge motivator in her plan to run away.
  • Real Men Hate Sugar: Invoked; Marks' preference of fruit punch and mint creme liquer over hard liquor are treated with the same gravity as someone who eats their cereal without milk.
  • Reverse Psychology: Sam and Andy convince Haley to get hopelessly lost in the countryside during the hunt for Eliza. Sam mentions a second road leading to the river and muses that Eliza would probably want to stay off the main one. Haley immediately refuses the idea and Sam and Andy launch into rambling speeches about how right he is to choose the main road. Haley falls for it and thinks they must be protecting her real route at that point, and they waste half a day's pursuit going down a dead end and having to back-track.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Stowe wrote the story in installments and many elements were taken from real events happening at the time (see Very Loosely Based on a True Story, below), but also from the tragically common personal ads in Southern newspapers saying something like, "$5 reward for escaped slave. Probably headed for Atlanta, where wife and children were sold to." Hence inciting the incident of Eliza fearing to lose her son Harry in exactly that fashion.
  • Royal Brat: St. Clare's nephew Henrique, though he gets better after Eva gives him a What the Hell, Hero?.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Cassie's ingenious plan to escape relies on an elaborate ghost hoax. She encourages a preexisting legend about a ghost in the garret and starts making odd and frightening things happen until even Simon is afraid to go near the place. On the night she and Em "escape", they double back to the house and hide comfortably in the tower until the search for them is called off. They even emerge at night to steal necessities and torment Simon in white sheets.
  • Sheltered Aristocrat: George and Alfred. St. Clare is a more cynical version.
  • Sinister Schnoz: Marks the bounty hunter.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Several slave parents are put to the horrendous situation of seeing their children or other relatives being sold away from them into slavery or prositution and presumably never see them again. The planned sale of Eliza's son Harry away from her kicks off the plot of the book. Stowe repeatedly asks her readers what they would do if their children were threatened with a fate like this.
  • The Sociopath: Simon Legree has zero empathy, and has set himself up as a tinpot tyrant. He regards other people as things to be used (and unfortunately, the law gives him a group of people to use). It is also heavily implied that he sometimes rapes and tortures slaves to death For the Evulz.
  • Southern Gentleman: Augustine St. Clare, who represents the slave-owning class at its best. Tom nevertheless makes it clear to him that slavery is wrong even under the most benign circumstances.
  • Stepford Smiler: Lampshaded when Legree is taking his new slaves to his plantation.
    It was sung very boisterously, and with a forced attempt at merriment; but no wail of despair, no words of impassioned prayer, could have had such a depth of woe in them as the wild notes of the chorus. As if the poor, dumb heart, threatened,—prisoned,—took refuge in that inarticulate sanctuary of music, and found there a language in which to breathe its prayer to God! There was a prayer in it, which Simon could not hear.
  • Straw Hypocrite: Senator Bird vehemently defends his political support of slave catching laws to his wife, who is astonished at his casual cruelty. She berates him for it and he steadfastly insists he would follow the law and turn in any fugitive who came to his door, no matter how wretched, cold, or hungry they may be. Then Eliza shows up with her son in her arms, begging for help. The senator immediately folds and does all in his power to help her.
  • Stupid Evil: Legree tries to mock Tom when he's at a low point. It makes Tom even more determined to stay strong and Legree has to back off for a while.
  • Stylistic Suck: "Mas'r Seed me Cotch a Coon".
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: To escape to Canada with her family without being noticed, Eliza must cut her long hair and crossdress at some point. Reversely, little Harry becomes a pint-sized Wholesome Crossdresser and dress up like a little girl.
  • Sympathetic Slave Owner: Deconstructed. While some slaveholders are shown to be genuinely nice people, the fact remains that their slaves are still slaves, which inherently enables terrible abuse. The Shelbys may treat their slaves well enough, but as soon as finances oblige Mr. Shelby to sell Tom and Harry, all the Shelbys' previous kindness is basically moot.
  • Talk to the Fist: After Simon Legree presses George Shelby's Berserk Button by mocking Shelby for "all this fuss, about" Tom's murder.
  • Team Dad: Tom takes up this role pretty much towards everyone in the places he works at. Yes, even at Legree's horrible manse, where he helps the other slaves and they call him "Father Tom".
  • Team Mom:
    • Tom's wife Chloe.
    • Arguably, also Miss Ophelia. Eva tries to be this, though she's obviously too young and sickly for it.
  • Tender Tears: Tom cries often, and so does George Shelby.
  • Token Good Teammate: Though the story is about the evils of the slave trade, and it's heavily implied the more evil masters are more typical, Messrs. Shelby and St. Clare aren't so bad, as far as slave owners go. However, the author uses this to show that even "good" masters aren't good — they may die or become impoverished, leaving the slaves to a cruel master; and even the slaves of a good master would rather be free employees.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Topsy and Eva.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Tom and little Evangeline.
  • Truth in Television: Simon Legree can come off as cartoonishly villainous to modern readers…
  • Uncle Tomfoolery: This book inspired the name of the trope, but this was due to a case of "complaining about novels you haven't read". Tom actually remains subservient because of his strong Christian values, but he was still a strong, respected figure — in fact, a Doomed Moral Victor. It was the plays and movies that came out during the Jim Crow / segregation years that edited Tom to be less "threatening" to white audiences, making him older and turning his Christian meekness into outright groveling.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: Little Eva eventually succumbs to this. Based on her symptoms, it's probably tuberculosis.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Stowe got the inspiration for Eliza's flight across the icy Ohio River from an incident her abolition friend John Rankin told her on one of her visits to his home (and Underground Railroad hot-spot) along the river.

Tropes unique to the 1914 film:

  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Eva's soul is shown leaving her body and floating up to angels in Heaven. It's actually more like Winged Soul Flies Off at Death, except she doesn't have wings. At the end, Jim's soul ascends to meet Eva.
  • Blackface: Played straight with Boots Wall and the character of Topsy, maybe because she is the most unpleasant stereotype. Averted with all the other slaves. Sam Lucas, who played Uncle Tom, is believed to be the first black actor to star in a film aimed at white audiences.
  • Ceiling Cling: In a tree rather than a ceiling. Escaped slave Jim Vance hides in the branches of a tree while a slave-catcher posse nails a notice offering a reward for him to the trunk of said tree.
  • The Film of the Book: Follows the novel pretty closely, minus all the parts that had to be left out when making a 45-minute film.
  • Free-Range Children: Eva is skipping along on the edge of a boat when, not surprisingly, she falls off into the river. In the novel, she was rushing to the pier to meet her father.
  • Time Skip: Several, since the movie covers a couple of decades, but one is announced by a title card as two years later.

Tropes unique to the 1927 film:

  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: As in the 1914 version, Eva's soul is shown leaving her body when she dies, and an angel carries her up into the clouds.
  • Blackface: Tom is the only major black character to be played by a black actor.
  • Composite Character: Instead of escaping to Canada, the Harris family is captured and sold down the river. This leads to Eliza taking the place of Emmeline.
  • Setting Update: Since it was written before the Civil War, the novel obviously takes place entirely during the antebellum era. In this version, the Civil War starts midway through the story, allowing the Union Army to serve as The Cavalry at the end.

Tropes unique to the 1987 film:

  • Not His Sled: The iconic scene of Eliza crossing the Ohio River on ice floes is not included. Instead, the scene takes place in spring and she crosses on a raft. Apparently, the change was made out of consideration of the fact that the actress was pregnant at the time.

Alternative Title(s): Uncle Toms Cabin