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Essay: Uncle Tom’s Cabin – controversial in its own time, problematic in ours.

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  • Published: 9 April 2023*
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Question 10- “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a controversial novel in its own time and is a problematic one in ours.” Discuss this statement, referring to the novel in your answer.

In this essay I will discuss the reasons why I believe that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a controversial novel in its own time and why it is still seen as problematic in our time. I will do this by examining the authors use of race relations between the African American slaves and their Caucasian masters. I will also analyse the authors use of racial stereotypes towards the black characters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1852. The novel predates the American civil war and the abolition of slavery therefore it was extremely controversial as it criticised the institution of slavery. As a christian abolitionist, Stowe sought to promote anti- slavery through christianity. At the time of its release Uncle Tom’s Cabin was widely disputed as it exposed the harsh reality of the lives of slaves and cruelty of the slave owners. The novel was banned in the southern states of the U.S because it was anti- slavery and was seen as a threat to the institution.

Stowe highlights the cruelty of slave owners throughout the novel as seen in the savage and barbaric slave owner, Simon Legree, who buys Tom and eventually ends his life by beating him to death. The white slave owner is portrayed as beastly as he seeks to use Emmeline as a sex slave, flirting with her and telling her “You’ll have fine times with me, and live like a lady,- only be a good girl.” Legree’s cruel nature is displayed to the full extent when he kills Tom for not telling him where Cassy and Emmeline are. The cold blooded murder of Tom makes him a martyr and the hero of the story as he gives his own life rather than giving up the locations of the girls. This narrative was widely criticised as it made the reader see Tom as a human being and feel empathy for his struggle while the Caucasian master was seen as heartless.

The character of Eliza plays a crucial role in the novel. She is forced to flee north to save her son from being sold by Mr. Shelby to a slave trader. The mothers reading the novel could understand with Eliza’s desire to flee and risk persecution or death rather than allow her son to be taken from her. Eliza even says to her son “mother can’t eat till you are safe!” This line emphasises the drive and maternal instinct that Eliza has to make sure her son survives. The bond between mother and child humanises and unifies the black characters, allowing white readers to empathise with slaves. This was also controversial because those who promoted slavery saw the children of their slaves as property and were furious that Stowe would criticise a slave owners right to sell the children of their slaves.

In modern times, the book is seen as extremely problematic because of Stowe’s use of racial stereotypes to portray the African American characters. For example, Aunt Chloe fulfils the typical “mammy” stereotype of an enslaved black woman who does domestic chores and cares for her masters children. When referring to Aunt Chloe, Stowe writes “a black, round, shining face is hers” this description is clearly not that of a beautiful woman. Stowe furthers her description of Aunt Chloe’s unfavourable appearance when she writes “she would shake her fat sides with honest pride and merriment.” Old Dinah and Aunt Chloe are given the roles of cooking because cooking is “an indigenous talent of the African race”. This reinforces the racist idea that different races posses separate talents or inherited skills which is very problematic.

Racial issues are also seen in the authors descriptions of two young girls in the novel. Stowe describes the young slave girl, Topsy, as possessing an unfavourable appearance – “Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction.” This illustration of Topsy presents her as uncivilised with unkept hair while the description of the young white girl Eva details her as almost angelic- “Her form was the perfection of childish beauty without its usual chubbiness or squareness of outline.” This is questionable as the author describes a black child as unkempt and a white child as perfect.

In conclusion, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was very controversial at the time of its release because it humanised the slaves such as Tom and Eliza and made the reader empathise with their struggle and also criticised the behaviour of the white slave owners such as Simon Legree. Today, the book is still viewed as problematic because of its use of racial stereotypes and the underlying sentiment that while all races are human, they are still different and possess different skills.


Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. London: J Cassell, 1852


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