An old copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Life Among the Lowly) by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Pictures: Wikimedia Commons)
When most people think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, they automatically think of slavery, which may lead them to think this book has lost its relevancy in the 21st century. But, after reading this timeless novel, I wholeheartedly believe it still holds an important place in American literature today.
First published as complete novel in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin chronicles the lives of slaves on the Shelby plantation and their encounters with the brutal system of slavery. The story’s main character, Tom, faces many hardships, including being sold away from his family, losing those he holds dear, and finally encountering the supreme cruelties of Southern plantation slavery. As a side note, the reader is introduced to the struggles of Eliza and George Harris as they travel on the Underground Railroad towards their freedom in Canada.
Of all the writing techniques used in this book, Stowe’s use of irony is probably the most effective. Ms. Stowe is constantly exposing the hypocrisy of “Christian” slave holders through the characters’ speech, actions, and moral convictions. Although the reader may laugh at the obvious two-faced nature of some of these dignified characters, he soon realizes the gravity and danger in such a hypocritical mindset. I think Stowe used such a blunt technique in order to really cut through to the hearts of Americans and expose to them the foolishness they used to justify such atrocities.
The characters in this book can only be described as timeless. The reader will feel sympathy and love towards such characters as Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Eva; undoubtedly, such warm feelings will be countered by supreme dislike of such scum-of-the-earth characters like Mr. Haley and Simon Legree.
Taking a moment to pause on the subject of characters, I would like to discuss Uncle Tom. Some people may think Uncle Tom is too humble, that he lets people walk all over him without even trying to make them treat him like a human. But, through his extreme humility, Tom demonstrates a pure, unadulterated heart, one that reflects the love of his Savior. Reading through this book, I felt like Tom has a better grasp on what it really means to be a Christian than a lot of people do today. While his character may be fictitious, Uncle Tom challenges all Christians to really “walk-the-walk.”
Moving onto themes: This book is crammed full of quality messages that continue to be relevant in the 21st century. Stowe addresses issues like slavery, the family unit, and faith through the lives and struggles of the slaves, but she does this without being too “preachy.” Even though a lot of the social/political issues addressed in this book have been resolved, the themes continue to remind readers that all humans are created equal, that God is no respecter of persons, and that true love surpasses all barriers.
“Family-Friendliness Factor:” While this is a classic novel that discusses Christian values, a few instances of offensive content do surface. Since this book deals with the issue of slavery in America, the “n-word” is thrown around quite liberally. Although not explicitly stated, the reader infers that Legree is not treating the pretty, young female slaves in his house with a gentlemanly decorum. So, for younger readers (10 or less) or for a family read-a-loud, parents may want to do a light screening. However, these negative factors are highly outweighed by the positive elements of this book. Readers get a glimpse of what true Christianity looks like through the characters of Eva and Tom. Additionally, Stowe shows as opposed to tells why slavery is wrong, making the book’s abolitionist message even more powerful. On my Family Friendly Five Star Scale, Uncle Tom’s Cabin gets 4.5 stars. Even if you have to delay this read a few years until the kiddos mature a bit, definitely make Uncle Tom’s Cabin a part of your family’s bookshelf!