Rhapsody in Penguins III — Third Movement: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851)
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
edited by Ann Douglas

For those of you not familiar with American lingo (not to be confused with the British Ringo), the term “Uncle Tom” is commonly used to refer to a person of lower status who sells out his race and submits to the enemy — or worse, aligns with them. There are loads of reasons behind this disloyalty: perhaps it’s for personal and monetary gain, perhaps it’s simply because that person was threatened and feared for his life. But the end result is always the same: the Uncle Tom ends up meeting humiliation, or death, or a humiliating death that acts as a lesson to all betrayers.

But it feels kind of weird when you look at where the name came from. The titular character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not any kind of coward who doesn’t own up to his heritage. Yes, he does have an inordinately high tolerance for beatings and a seemingly ridiculous amount of love for his fellow-man (if the hideous bag of flesh and guts named Simon Legree may be called as such). But he’s far from a turncoat or even a submissive person: in fact, he never rats out his fellow man and dies trying to defend them.

And that’s what I wanted to talk about in this admittedly heavier-than-usual thinkpiece. You see, Tom’s final words to his master are

“mas’r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I’d give ye my heart’s blood, and if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ‘em freely, as the Lord gave His for me. O, Mas’r! Don’t bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than ‘t will me!”

Simon Legree, let’s be clear here, is an imbecile. One would be hard-pressed to even save some space for him, let alone save his soul. And yet Tom steadfastly sticks to his principles and readily lays down his life in exchange for this inhuman human. Doesn’t it seem a little strange that Tom, after all that he’s been through, still hopes for Legree’s salvation? (No, it cannot be sarcasm, stop being so cynical.)

First, though, we do have to understand that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s perspective was from that of a completely convinced Christian. We have seen that Tom is a deeply religious person: he preaches the word of salvation and hope to everyone, including his enemies, and he bears all his suffering without even so much as a whimper of complaint. He is so Christian that I cannot help feeling guilty just looking at him. And that’s what Christians are supposed to do: they’re paragons of virtue, spreading the message of love everywhere and giving others a reason to look for hope in this world, putting the welfare of others before their own. It’s not because they’re sickly sweet and stuck in blind ignorance of the sufferings in the world: rather, they see THROUGH these sufferings, looking forward towards the greater prize of heaven. In that case, my brethren, Uncle Tom is the perfect model which all good, loving Christian people should aim to follow. Amen.

Right, that’s the self-righteous defence of Christianity over, now I go to the other side and play the devil’s advocate. Because there’s a lot to question here: not just on the racial issues — which are admittedly plentiful but which I don’t feel qualified to write about — but also on the possibility of such things happening in real life. As most of us will hopefully know, such a person as Uncle Tom doesn’t exist in reality. The common response to being beaten is not to grin and bear it, but to rise up and strike the other person back. Uncle Tom’s response to Simon Legree up there doesn’t make the man immediately drop to his knees and repent. The slavemaster simply gets angrier and kills the slave.

Another problem which one might observe is how Stowe’s rhetoric doesn’t really help things. She either goes on long periods of exposition — which is effective in some cases but just drags on in others — or appeals to the reader, and in the latter instance you can’t help but feel that you’re being preached to in between the lines. And when Stowe abandons all pretence to do so, it’s more than a little jarring…

What needs tell the story, told too oft — every day told — of heartstrings rent and broken, the weak broken and torn for the profit and convenience of the strong! It needs not be told — everyday is telling it, telling it too in the ear of One who is not deaf, though He be long silent.

(In my war against redundant punctuation, I have singled Mrs. Stowe out as the most heinous offender.)

I read in the Introduction that Stowe wrote very quickly for the purposes of serialization, and so plot to her was not as important as the imitation of the black voice: it was her style that endeared many to her words. In using loads of black vernacular (with the accompaniment of a choice selection of oaths unacceptable to nowadays standards) ability to sound like a black person that roused sympathy and made everything believable. Juxtapose that with the very Christian exhortations, and you have a moving narrative that exposed what pre-Civil War American society was like for the slaves — one that admittedly aims for the feels of the reader and not the depth of their experiences, but still undeniably effective.

That worked well in the short term, but reading it now, 160 years after it was first published, it feels like you’re reading a bunch of melodramatic crap. It’s a sob story, all right, but beyond tugging at the heartstrings a little does it accomplish anything else? Since the book came out, we’ve slowly realized that actions speak louder than words — and for all of Stowe’s heartfelt shouting, what we now know of the problems that black people of the time faced seem to make her words look like oversimplifications. (In recent years, Stowe has gotten into trouble for appearing to use stereotypes in her effort to demolish these very stereotypes, which seems to be an endemic problem amongst Caucasian writers, as Joseph Conrad will show…) Appealing to nothing more than the readers’ innate sense of Christian charity, therefore, risks looking more than a little out of touch, as if you’re making the problem (far) less painful than it really was.

So… what should one do, then, if the avenue of forgiveness is so hard to reach? It’s here that I found myself stuck. Over the past fifteen thinkpieces, it’s been pretty easy for me to come up with general conclusions for my thinkpieces, and sometimes they even verge on the simplistic. Write what you can come up with. Let bygones be bygones. Don’t let sensory pleasures rule your artistic judgments. (Picture of Dorian Gray, that one.) And yet for this one I could come up with no easy moral to shoehorn in. This could very easily be a call for repentance and forgiveness. But it’s very hard to say that and just leave it there, not when you find it hard to believe.

Part of my Christian upbringing informs me that to forgive is a virtue, to forget is a direct command from the Lord. And I really do understand how simple and reasonable it would be: forgiveness really contributes to personal happiness. It’s a burden from which you are released, and the feeling is just so damn good when you do decide to forgive. But it’s not easy to not feel even a little bit angry at monsters who are ripping the world apart, who commit heinous crimes without remorse. People who were persecuted under the Nazi regime, for instance, can’t just simply forgive their tormentors at the drop of a hat. The (former?) slaves in the West can’t get over centuries of racial oppression in an instant (in fact, it’d be more likely and understandable if they never did). And yet not doing so feels like an infraction against my own faith. It’s just so hard to choose between the two paths, to me equally inaccessible and equally hard to get over.

So how do we get by, in this wicked world in which we live in? I have no answers. I still have no answers. Perhaps they’ll come to us as we continue to walk through our life and explore avenues of forgiveness further.

I wonder how.

Next time: Monsters come in many forms, and are a common plot element, but it is a testament to how awfully Simon Legree sucks that I actually like him less than the most famous monster in literature — it’s the one created by “Frankenstein”, baby!

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