Chapter 41 & 42: Comment by Beth Lueck

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is filled with separations and losses because of slavery:  husbands and wives separated, mothers and children torn from each other, families irretrievably broken.  As a mother herself, one who had lost a much loved baby, Charley, Harriet Beecher Stowe sympathized with the losses wrought by slavery.  “It was at his dying bed & at his grave,” she recalled, “that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.”  She prayed that “such anguish” on her own part “might not be suffered in vain!”  Stowe was especially sensitive to slavery’s destruction of the family, and her novel offers one heartbreaking example after another of these separations.  In the early chapters, Eliza’s son, Harry, is sold, compelling her to run away in an effort to save him.  Uncle Tom, of course, is also sold; headed south, he doubts that he will ever see his wife or children again.

The last chapters of the book, however, reverse this movement.  Although many of the characters will never see their loved ones again—most notably, Uncle Tom himself—others are reunited.  George Harris and his wife, Eliza, are already reunited, but George is also reunited with his sister, Emily, now Madame de Thoux.  Cassy, whose older children were sold and who killed her infant son rather than let him grow up to be sold,[1] is finally reunited with her lost daughter, Eliza, and introduced to her granddaughter.  In chapter 42 Stowe describes the tender reunion of the two families:  “the new-found family embraced each other, with a holy trust in Him who from such peril and dangers, and by such unknown ways, had brought them together.”  She underscores the truthfulness of such stories “when a system prevails which whirls families and scatters their members, as the wind whirls and scatters the leaves of autumn.  These shores of refuge [Canada], like the eternal shore, often unite again, in glad communion, hearts that for long years have mourned each other as lost.”

In the Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe offers evidence to support her depiction of these separations:  “The worst abuse of the system of slavery is its outrage upon the family; and, as the writer views the subject, it is one which is more notorious and undeniable than any other.”  She reprints dozens of advertisements that list “likely young Negroes” for sale, none of them promising to keep families together.[2]  In chapter 44, Concluding Remarks, Stowe addresses her readers directly, something she does throughout the novel.  Beginning broadly with “men and women of America,” she asks whether they can ignore the “thousands of families” shattered by slavery.  In a narrative strategy Robyn Warhol calls the engaging narrator,[3] Stowe speaks to mothers in particular: “You, mothers of America,—you who have learned, by the cradles of your own children, to love and feel for all mankind.” “By the sacred love you bear your child,” she begs, “. . . pity the mother who has all your affections, and not one legal right to protect, guide, or educate, the child of her bosom!”  Although the author employs this narrative strategy elsewhere in the novel, it is especially effective here, near the end of the book; this is where Stowe wants not just to move her audience to tears, but also to prod them into action to abolish slavery.  At last, speaking directly to the reader, Stowe pleads, “I beseech you, pity those mothers that are constantly made childless by the American slave-trade! And say, mothers of America, is this a thing to be defended, sympathized with, passed over in silence?”

If readers, mothers or otherwise, can resist the images of the teenage Emmeline sold away from her mother, or four-year-old Harry sold to pay his master’s debts, how can the sympathetic reader ignore this direct address?  If Stowe wrote the novel in part because she was motivated by her own loss, in hopes of moving her readers to act to abolish slavery, she certainly expects her readers—mothers in particular—to be spurred to action by her forthright questions and her direct requests for their involvement in abolition work.  While earlier in her novel she had shown families riven and hearts broken by slavery, near the end the author offers some hope.  After all, chapters 41 and 42 follow soon after the scene of Uncle Tom’s martyrdom.  Nearing the book’s conclusion, Stowe depicts these reunions as imaginable, though not attainable for everyone, and she challenges her readers to act to end slavery once and for all.

 

 


[1] Stowe attests to the truthfulness of this in the last chapter, Concluding Remarks:  “There are those living who know the mothers whom this accursed traffic has driven to the murder of their children; and themselves seeking in death a shelter from woes more dreaded than death.”

[2] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853; reprint, Bedford, MA:

 

Applewood Books, 1998), 133-34.

 

[3] See Robyn R. Warhol, Gendered Interventions: Narrative Discourse in the Victorian Novel (New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1989), 31, 41.


4 responses to “Chapter 41 & 42: Comment by Beth Lueck

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