Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Stowe’s Paradoxical Christian MessagePerhaps the greatest criticism levied against Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that it comprises of nothing more than Victorian sentimentality, and that the death of its two moral exemplars, Tom and Little Eva, do little which actually remedies the injustices of slavery. Critic Ann Douglas sees the novel as emblematic of the “feminization of American culture,” which in religious terms figures as “a move away from the morally forceful Calvinism to the sloppiness of the humanistic cult of gentle Jesus” (Rachel Bowlby’s paraphrase, 205). In order to recoup the novel from such charges, critics such as Jane Tompkins have attempted to demonstrate that the novel’s coupling of sentimentality and Christianity results in far more than a luxuriating in lachrymose emotions. For Tompkins, the force behind the novel’s sentimental Christianity is its subversion of the power hierarchy. Incidents like the deaths of Tom and Little Eva enact a “theory of power” in which “the powerless die to save the powerful and corrupt, and thereby show themselves more powerful than those they save” (128). Thus, the traditional locus of power, is in effect, decentered, and religious faith gives marginalized figures like slaves, children, and women a power, to which in strictly secular terms, they have no access.
One problem with readings which stress the salvific function of the deaths of Tom and Little Eva is their failure to account for the novel’s self-conscious acknowledgment of the social forces which constantly challenge the brand of Christianity which it advocates. The Christian message of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is ultimately paradoxical. On the one hand, the examples of Tom and Little Eva demonstrate …
…f sustaining one’s Christianity within the context of slavery, as well as the limitations of the individual’s power to challenge such a large institution. George, in deferring his acceptance of Christianity until he reaches a place of freedom, ultimately comes closest to Stowe’s agenda of establishing a true Christian nation, uncorrupted by slavery, on earth.Works Cited:
Bowlby, Rachel. “Breakfast in America–Uncle Tom’s Cultural Histories.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. New York, NY: Routledge Press, 1990, 197-212.
O’Connel, Catherine E. “`The Magic of the Real Presence of Distress’: Sentimentality and Competing Rhetorics of Authority.” The Stowe Debate. Eds. Mason I. Lowance, Jr., Ellen E Westbrook, R.C. De Prospo. Amherst, MA: U. Massachusetts Press, 1994, 13-36.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs. New York, NY: Oxford U. Press, 1985.