Slavery Issue in Uncle Toms Cabin And The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Men or Martyrs

When Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin debuted in 1853, slavery remained a heated political concern and a day-to-day reality for millions. The novel all but promises an honest and unflinching look at slavery. It doubles as an abolitionist piece, aiming to expose the injustice of said institution. That same intent lay behind many of the novel's contemporaries, including the autobiographical slave narrative Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published a few years earlier by a fellow abolitionist.

Both of these novels depict horrific consequences of slavery, but differ greatly in the telling, and analyzing their respective protagonists – docile Tom and tenacious Douglass – exposes much of the divide.

Stowe finds an exceedingly pious and pliant main character in Uncle Tom, creating a tragic figure whose circumstances aim to rouse pity and avoid criticism from a predominantly white, Christian readership. Readers first meet Tom as he sits with his bible, his children, and his cabin, which one might easily take to represent three major facets of his character – piety, innocence, and domestic docility.

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"Nothing could exceed...the childlike earnestness of his prayer, enriched with the language of Scripture, which seemed so entirely to have wrought itself into his being," the narration asserts as he prays before fellow slaves. His prayer not only shows his dedication to the holy book of much of his audience, which he sustains throughout the novel, but also that "childlike" quality associated with Jesus, often called "the Christ-child." Perhaps most vitally, the docility described in Tom's introduction counters the stereotype common in his day of the black man as a brute, a softening with special appeal to white readers who may well have feared overthrow by slaves of their own.

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Tom may be "large" and "powerfully-made," but also lacks the dull ruthlessness of the character type with his "steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence." Stowe turns an unsympathetic threat into a contented serve as likely to be "Mr. Shelby's most faithful slave" as, one assumes, the most faithful slave of any reader. Even before Tom's master sells him downriver, separating him from all that he cherished and ultimately dooming him to an unjust death, the narrative has primed readers to harbor pity for him as a character too "good" for this world.

If Uncle Tom takes strength from obedience and childlike innocence, Douglass' springs from self-reliance and "manhood." These qualities come to light in his fight with the "slave breaker" Mr. Covey, a pivotal moment in the narrative which, he writes, "revived within me a sense of my own manhood. When Douglass feels too sick to continue field-work, he riles Mr. Covey, who, as punishment, "[gives Douglass] a heavy blow upon the head." He then orders him to stand, but, as Douglass recalls, "I made no effort to comply, having made up my mind to let him do his worst." Here he shows a willful defiance toward the man who at that time was his master, a defiance foreign to Uncle Tom and problematic to contemporary white readers, many of whom believed that even mistreated slaves should show reverence toward their masters. Still, this daring comes to propel him on his quest to become a freeman. The trial of endurance that follows – a two-day trek "through bogs and briars, barefooted and bareheaded" on little food, water, or strength – shows the sort of strength calmed by Tom and feared by the stereotypical brute. However, Douglass' self-portrayal neither falls into the stereotype nor softens it, with muddled effects on reader sympathy. Douglass makes no attempt to hide his fury when he meets Mr. Covey for their final confrontation, and his move to fight comes almost out of the blue; he writes, "[A]t this moment – from whence came the spirit I don't know – I resolved to fight..." Despite a bloody and furious fight, Douglass still depicts himself as a person motivated by a sense of reason far beyond unbridled passion. "[Mr. Covey] asked if I meant to persist in my resistance. I told him I did...that he had used me like a brute...and that I was determined to be used no longer," declares Douglass. Both Tom and Douglass, as characters, refute threatening stereotypes of the day in part, but precisely which part changes their audience appeal significantly. Douglass paints a more complicated picture in this regard. While white audiences could find appeal in his nobility, he does not "know his place" like Uncle Tom. However, his struggles and yearning for freedom, expressed in these scenes and continued throughout his narrative, paint Douglass as more relatable and human, if less easy to pity, than Tom.

Each author writes with clear sympathy for slaves, but whether or not each author experienced their struggles informs their protagonists. The fact that Stowe, a white woman, could only write from an outsider's perspective colors her depiction of Uncle Tom, as well as of slaves on the whole. She sees no way of allowing readers to "appreciate the suffering of the negroes sold south" except by revealing an essential difference that she sees between black and white people. As she explains, "all the instinctive affections of that race are peculiarly strong... They are not naturally daring and enterprising, but home-loving and affectionate." In struggling to decipher the feelings of a slave sold downriver – which describes Uncle Tom's fate succinctly – Stowe creates a fundamental "natural" divide which suggests that a white reader can never truly comprehend how Tom feels. If Stove cannot use reader empathy as a reliable tool, she can instead use sympathy to the utmost, even if the price is relatability. Douglass relies more on what commonality he can find. He acknowledges that most cannot fully grasp his circumstances, as shown when, for instance, after the battle with Mr. Covey, he claims that "[h]e only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery." However, he also, by using his own grit to attain freedom, strives for an American value in an American way, relying in part on an assumption that most readers hold similar heroes and ideals dear. By being so "daring and enterprising," Douglass becomes a sort of "self-made man" not out of place in the myth of the American dream. While in execution Douglass may fall below straightforward heroism to contemporary audiences, the relatability inherent in the myth that in America "anyone can become someone," even someone as low as a slave, the text suggests, has as much a chance as anyone.

Uncle Tom and Douglass' self-depiction arise from markedly different people, though with similar goals. Though both strove to stir change in their era, the power of Uncle Tom's Cabin, at least as intended to proclaim the rights of black people, wanes with time. American values have changed, and while the "unruly black" in many cases still finds less leeway than white counterparts, few would wish to be likened to the pathetic, white-ingratiating Uncle Tom. Douglass' autobiographical account remains critical, his character strong, as Tom becomes an impossible cartoon.

Updated: Feb 29, 2024
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Slavery Issue in Uncle Toms Cabin And The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. (2024, Feb 29). Retrieved from

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