Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe
Rating: 5+ Stars
Publishers: Wordsworth Classic Series
Cost: Rs. 100
Undoubtedly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (UTC), by Harriet Beecher Stowe, is the best book I have read so far. This book deals with slavery as its central theme. Wiki tells me that UTC is the second most selling book of the nineteenth century after the Holy Bible (and deservingly so). The book can keep you engrossed for a long time. I have tried to minimize the spoilers in this review. I can assure you that no matter how many spoilers any post can reveal, it simply can’t ruin the fun of reading the book by yourself.
The story presents itself in the house of gracious host to enslaved African Americans. Arthur Shelby, a kind hearted gentleman, is the ‘owner’ of several slaves including the protagonist Tom. Being under terrible debt, Shelby decides to do away with some of his slaves. The first chapter, ‘in which the reader is introduced to humility’, is one of the most powerful pieces of writing on human values. The fact that being a ‘Christian’ means possessing sublime virtues which often lack in common people is well reflected. Tom is described as a true Christian for his sheer diligence, dedication to work and for his humility. He is respected by his ‘owner’ to a great extent. Reading first few pages leave you feeling bitter about the fact that Blacks were looked upon as mere objects that could perform work mechanically and that a few of them who had innate qualities were looked upon as ‘features’ that made them sell for a better price.
The language in the book is highly complicated because of the relatively longer sentences used. The innocuous looking 300-350 page book cannot be finished in a hurry. The archaic language also holds the book to high standards of English writing. The language demands reverence. With some effort, if one is able to get through first three chapters where Black pronunciations, like ‘tis’ for ‘this’, ‘tat’ for ‘that’, are extensively used, the readers can look forward to an amazing experience.
In an effort to pull himself together economically, despite great opposition from Mrs. Shelby, who is as warm hearted, Arthur decides to part himself from Tom. Around the same time, George decides to flee to Canada so as to escape from the hand of a new owner who is not at all likely to be as noble as Arthur Shelby promising his wife Eliza (and their baby boy, Harry) to take her back once he finds freedom.
The story progresses of these two fronts. The story of Tom’s fate of being transferred from place to place subdues the other front of the family’s quest for much sought after independence in Canada. The family’s struggle against their trader’s relentless effort to capture them is plotted extremely well. The trickery, deception and self-centered nature of the trader have been stereotyped, but the build-up is enticing nevertheless. Tom, meanwhile, is passed on from trader to trader, until bought by another Shelby-like host Augustine St. Clare.
The author hasn’t left any stoned unturned when it comes to introducing characters in the novel. Every character has at least a paragraph dedicated to exploring his past to boast about. All relevant aspects of their lives are brought forward by the author. This has paved way for more insightful observations in the novel for common reader like you and me.
The book also illustrates how callous the slave traders have grown owing to the fact that the New England’s society expected them to be so. Incidents of death of a slave or any other major loss to them would not touch the cold-hearted traders emotionally. The description of how carelessly the mothers are separated from son and daughters, husband from wives, brothers from sisters, etc is rich with emotion. Again, the past of the slaves involved has been looked into with a great detail.
Tom lives a relatively easy life for a slave under Augustine. The novel is blessed by the presence of Angelic little girl, Augustine’s Daughter, Eva (Evangeline St. Clare). It was because of her persistent begging to her dad that Tom was bought by him. Eva manages to bond with every one in her house including the slaves insisting on the fact that all of them deserve to be loved. Her mere presence captures the attention of the readers. Augustine’s cousin, Ophelia, who is prejudiced against black, is bought a slave girl named Topsy by Augustine just to show the blacks also have emotions holding them together. Six year old Eva teaches a lesson or two to all in her family about treating slaves a people who need to be understood and loved. Everyone, including her father, is moved by her cherubic nature.
The book is also a grim reminder of the fact that religion is contorted to every possible extent in order to suit the selfish motives. A priest justifies slavery by quoting from bible that things are meant to be the way they are. Africans are meant to be slaves, Whites are meant to rule over them. And that is the word of the lord. After a couple of confrontations between Augustine and his cousin Ophelia, Augustine gave a huge and immensely powerful monologue on Christianity being misrepresented, manipulated by masses and appalling disregard to human values by the so called priests. In my opinion, the monologue was a little too long.
Contrary to expectation that a slave warehouse filthy, crowded little place for slaves to stay temporarily before being sold, the writer has described the place to very luxurious. The intention was, however, to make slaves cheerful so that they can be sold at a higher price. Of course, slaves were given no choice but to indulge themselves in parties and celebration that happen despite their vehement refusal. The author has made painstaking effort to bring out the real truth and motives behind every action taken during slave trade.
By bizarre twist of fate, Tom is sold to merciless plantation owner Simon Legree before spending many days in a slave warehouse. Legree despises the very fact that Tom reads Bible and has a firm faith in Christianity. He is ill-treated in the plantation for helping fellow slaves, and also for not renouncing Christianity. He helps Cassy and Emmeline, two sex slaves owned by Legree. This causes Tom to be further looked down upon by his owner. The book ends on semi-happy and semi-tragic note with some reunions and some sorrow (which I don’t want to reveal).
All in all, it’s a great book. I am compelled to give 5+ stars for it. At Rs. 100 – Rs 130 under different “classic editions”, this book comes dirt-cheap. It’s worth a lot more. And also, I would like to thank Venkat (aka Tak) for suggesting the book in the first place. The e-book is also available here.