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Uncle Tom's Cabin: Feminine Virtues, Domesticity, and Masculinity

Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.

Painting of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Painting of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Introduction

Throughout Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the author attempts to demonstrate the moral superiority of women over men through the female characters presented in the story. Often equating women with “Christ-like” personalities, Stowe attempts to demonstrate how morally superior women could bring about an end to slavery through pressure, and support to their male counterparts who are often portrayed as un-Godly, sinful beings that lack principles. Stowe showcases feminine virtues, the rising “cult of domesticity,” and problems associated with masculinity through nearly every character in her novel. This moral superiority can be seen abundantly through Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, Eva, Eliza, Ophelia, Cassy, as well as Emmeline.

Early cover page for Uncle Tom's Cabin

Early cover page for Uncle Tom's Cabin

Mrs. Shelby and Eliza

Throughout the beginning of the novel, Stowe’s use of Mrs. Shelby and Eliza demonstrates the notion of feminine virtues exceptionally well. For one, Mrs. Shelby is often portrayed as one who significantly understands underlying moral issues above her husband. When Tom is to be sold to the slave trader, Mrs. Shelby is one of the first to object. Whereas Mr. Shelby seems to be primarily concerned only with paying off his debts, Mrs. Shelby, in turn, is only concerned about Tom’s family, as well as the injustices presented by selling him. As she states, “I’ll be in no sense accomplice or help in this cruel business…I’ll go and see poor old Tom, God help him, in his distress” (Pg. 86, Stowe).

Additionally, Eliza demonstrates superior feminine virtues with her escape from the Shelby plantation with her son, Henry. Unwilling to allow her son to be sold to the slave trader, Haley, Eliza flees with her son and undergoes numerous ordeals to save Henry from a future of pain and suffering. In her desire to escape, Eliza even crosses the frozen Ohio River in order to escape the clutches of Haley and his men. “The huge green fragment of ice on which the alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it…with wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake; stumbling, leaping, slipping, springing upwards again” (Pg. 118, Stowe). In addition to demonstrating Eliza’s superior feminine virtues, Stowe attempts to also compare Eliza with that of Christ. By crossing the Ohio River, Eliza is literally walking on water. This comparison serves to symbolize women’s moral character, and Christ-like disposition, especially within the household.

Depiction of Eliza and Tom

Depiction of Eliza and Tom

Mrs. Bird

Stowe continues to demonstrate feminine virtues and domesticity through Mrs. Bird, Eva, and Emmeline. Mrs. Bird, a Kentucky senator’s wife, shows compassion and understanding towards the runaway Eliza. Mr. Bird, who had voted in favor of the tough-fugitive law, is placed in a serious predicament upon the arrival of Eliza and Henry. He can either aid the fleeing Eliza, or uphold the law (that he previously voted in favor of) and send her back to her master. Through Mrs. Bird’s insistence, however, Eliza and Henry are saved. “Duty John! Don’t use that word, you know it isn’t a duty—it can’t be a duty…if folks want to keep their slaves from running away, let ‘em treat ‘em well,--that’s my doctrine” (Pg. 145, Stowe). Mr. Bird, therefore, is convinced by his wife to do the morally correct thing. At Mrs. Bird’s insistence, Mr. Bird helps Eliza and Henry escape to a cabin not far from their home. Throughout this section, Stowe once again demonstrates the moral superiority of women, while also demonstrating the problems that men face in trying to do what’s right. Men, in a sense, generally lack compassion and sympathy for others which tends to cloud their judgment in regards to morality. This notion can be clearly seen with both Mr. Shelby and Mr. Bird. With that said, this section, therefore, demonstrates how women are capable of “controlling” their husbands. According to Stowe, this weakness of men could be largely exploited by women. Because of this notion of “controlling” their husbands, Stowe also alludes to the fact that women could help transform society and help eliminate slavery altogether.

"I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did his dictation."

— Harriet Beecher Stowe

Eva St. Clare

In addition to Mrs. Bird, Eva St. Clare demonstrates a sense of moral superiority as well. Eva, above any of the other female characters in the book, understands the wickedness behind slavery and does not make any distinction between white and black. Eva, in turn, views blacks as being equal beings since she believes that everyone is equal in God’s eyes. “I want you to remember that there is a beautiful world where Jesus is…I am going there, and you can go there…it is for you, as much as me” (Pg. 418, Stowe). Moreover, Eva plays a significant role in influencing/controlling her father, Augustine St. Clare as well. While Augustine already demonstrates an admirable stance towards his slaves (a result of his close relationship with his mother), Eva only helps reinforce ideals of equality, love, and compassion into her father. Eva also helps to instill a religious passion within her father as well. Augustine, who is torn between believing and not believing in God, eventually accepts Christ as his Savior upon his deathbed, largely as a result of Eva’s religious devotion. The last image Augustine sees before he dies, ironically enough, is his mother, perhaps another feminist notion expressed by Stowe. Thus, like the other female characters throughout the novel, Stowe’s use of the St. Clare family only serves to symbolize morality, and the wrongness behind slavery even further.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Portrait

Harriet Beecher Stowe Portrait

Ophelia and Marie St. Clare

Building upon issues presented by Eva in regards to racial equality, Stowe goes on to use both Miss Ophelia and Marie St. Clare as models for the hypocritical Christian stances on slavery, as well as the corrupting influence that slavery creates. Miss Ophelia, who is Augustine’s cousin from the North, genuinely detests slavery and desires emancipation for all slaves. While at first glance it would appear as though Ophelia regards blacks as being equal to whites, Ophelia, in turn, believes blacks to be beneath white people in nearly every way. Thus, Ophelia serves to demonstrate the hypocritical notions of the Northern abolitionists, and the two-faced injustices served as a result of Christianity. While Ophelia proclaims to be a devout Christian, Ophelia despises the idea of a mixed society of whites and blacks living and working together. This idea of racial inequality, in turn, goes completely against Bible teachings upon love for one another and equality of all people. To counteract this notion, however, Stowe uses a black slave girl named, Topsy, to demonstrate how easily these hypocritical notions can be dissolved and corrected. By demonstrating patience, and love towards Topsy, Ophelia is able to overcome the child’s wild antics and, in turn, experiences a life-changing moment in which her views towards blacks completely changes for the better. By accepting Topsy as being equal, and by showing love to the little girl, Ophelia is able to change not only herself for the better, but Topsy as well. “Miss Ophelia took Topsy home to Vermont with her…the child rapidly grew in grace and in favor with the family and neighborhood…at the age of womanhood, she was, by her own request, baptized, and became a member of the Christian church” (Pg. 612, Stowe).

Along with Ophelia, Stowe goes on to detail the corrupting influence of slavery upon society with Augustine’s wife, Marie. Marie, who appears as an antithesis to each of the other female characters within the novel, is a self-centered individual who lacks maternal and moral characteristics. When Eva appears to be getting sicker, Marie maintains that she is in far worse condition than little Eva. “I’ve always been subject to a cough, all my days…Oh, Eva’s cough is not anything” (Pg. 398, Stowe). In a sense, it appears as though Stowe uses Marie as a means to demonstrate how even morally superior women can be corrupted by the evils presented by slavery. While her husband, Augustine, treats his slaves with kindness and respect, he still supports slavery, only in a lesser degree. To Stowe, however, even this small support of slavery can have a dehumanizing effect upon the mind. Thus, because of Marie’s staunch support of slavery, she serves as both a symbol and warning to Stowe’s readers on the dangers that lie with supporting such an institution as slavery.

Emmeline and Cassy

In the closing moments of the novel, Stowe continues to instill within the reader a sense of female morality with her use of Emmeline and Cassy. Emmeline, who maintains a strong sense of religious devotion, at first appears as a polar opposite to the largely atheistic Cassy. Cassy, who has been largely devoid of reason to believe in a higher power due to her immense suffering, finally succumbs to the ideals of Christianity by the end of the novel when she is reunited with her daughter Eliza. Stowe’s use of Cassy, however, serves to demonstrate the horrors of slavery and the dehumanizing effects that it inflicts upon society. Cassy, who was once a well-to-do female living in Louisiana, undergoes tremendous suffering under the notorious Simon Legree. Legree, who symbolizes the decaying effects of slavery, is a tyrannical figure who abuses and tortures the slaves under his control. Slavery, which has corrupted Legree substantially, results in a life for Cassy (and her fellow slaves) that is completely devoid of hope, religion, and morality. Without a wife or motherly influence, Legree lives a life of sin and is completely lacking in regards to morality. This concept of the power of female influence can be seen exceptionally well in a letter written by Grace Greenwood in the 1800s. In the letter, Greenwood describes a man named Byron and his relationship to his deceased mother: “Her faith has been the anchor of his soul—her memory is a shape of hope and peace." Thus, without any powerful female influence upon his life, Legree’s farm is a place of immorality, and sin to the highest degree.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Stowe’s use of feminine virtue and moral superiority within Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be seen abundantly throughout much of the novel. By using the female characters as moral anchors within the story, Stowe demonstrated a means in which women could bring about an end to slavery through persuasion and support to their husbands. By describing the horrors associated with suppression of human beings, as well as the dehumanizing effects of slavery, Stowe is able to instill into her reader a far broader view of slavery that demonstrates the negative aspects, and hypocritical notions of such an institution.

Works Cited:

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. New York, New York: Black & White Productions, 2015.

Wikipedia contributors, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Uncle_Tom%27s_Cabin&oldid=886365709 (accessed March 15, 2019).

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