Term Paper, 2009, 15 Pages
2 Strategies of Characterisation
2.1 In General
2.2 Topsy and Eva St. Clare
2.3 Uncle Tom and George Harris
3 Romantic Racialism
3.1 Social Background: Theories of Race
3.2 Stowe’s Perspective
In the preface to Uncle Tom’s Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe explained the purpose of her antislavery novel. She wanted “to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race […]” (xiii). Stowe is more precise in her preface to A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin where she defines her goal of writing “to bring this subject of slavery, as a moral and religious question, before the minds of all those who profess to be followers of Christ in this country” (Stowe qtd. in Nuernberg 44). Stowe was successful and her sentimental novel reached the hearts of millions of readers and brought “[…] grown men to their emotional knees” (Yarborough 62). The novel did not only touch of the heart of the readers, it had as well political effects which can be underlined by the fact that Abraham Lincoln claimed that Stowe had caused the Civil War. This is one of the reasons why Josephine Donovan describes Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “probably the most influential novel ever written” (Donovan 11).
This paper will deal with another level of the novel’s influence. In the Longman Dictionary the term “Uncle Tom” is defined as “a black person who is too respectful to white person”. This definition is an evidence for the fact that Uncle Tom “entered the stock of American cultural archetypes” (Yarborough 53). The label “Uncle Tom” has even become “an index for racial degradation” (Railton 104). This paper focuses on the contradiction between Stowe’s antislavery conviction and “her tendency to see characters as representatives types” (Donovan 49) of different races.
The first part of this term paper provides a detailed analysis of four central characters. In order to investigate which character traits Stowe ascribed to the white or black race it is useful to compare the representatives of the different races. The second part of the term paper concentrates on the theoretical background of the topic. The close examination of the social background of Stowe’s lifetime makes it possible to understand the conception of the novel’s characters.
This chapter investigates Stowe’s conception of characters in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first part of this chapter deals with the portrayal of the different characters in general. Due to the novel’s popularity, its cultural influence can not be negated. In fact, many critics are of the opinion that it was Stowe “who invented American Blacks for the imagination of the whole world” (Leslie Fiedler qtd. in Yarborough 47). In order to understand the construction of racial stereotypes, it is first of all necessary to examine the traits of the most important characters. That is why, the second part of the chapter is concentrated on the characterisation of four central characters.
Stowe created over a hundred different characters and by this, representatives of different social strata. The various characters represent diverse responses to the issue of slavery (Donovan 12). That is the reason why for instance the standpoints of Augustine St. Clare and Marie St. Clare differ significantly. Stowe’s goal is it to point out these disagreements about slavery like for example between Northern and Southern whites. Stephen Railton states that Miss Ophelia represents Stowe’s own opinion and can be described as a “surrogate” (Railton 105) for Stowe. Miss Ophelia embodies Stowe’s Christian virtues and defends her abolitionist views against St. Clare’s utterances. And yet, Miss Ophelia confesses that she has prejudices: “I’ve always had a prejudice against negroes … I never could bear to have that child [Topsy] touch me … ” (246). By adopting Topsy, Miss Ophelia overcomes her fear of contact and begins to “treat Topsy with a love that is both Christlike and democratic” (Railton 105).
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is arranged in an antithetical structure. The plot is subdivided into two contrasting strands. Tom’s plot, for example, moves southward into slavery and death. In contrast to that, Eliza’s plot describes a northward journey into freedom. The conception of characters is comparable to the structure. Numerous constellations, like for instance Mr. Shelby versus Dan Haley or the Christ Uncle Tom versus the Antichrist Simon Legree, prove this assumption. A factor which connects many characters is their “state of homelessness” (Donovan 14). All central characters seem to be restless and they move from on place to another. Some travel voluntarily, like Augustine St. Clare or Miss Ophelia, others are forced to leave, like Uncle Tom, Eliza and George Harris. Because of that, Stowe is able to outline many representatives of the American society. Stowe formulates one of her goals in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “My vocation is simply that of a painter, and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible…” (Stowe qtd. in Cantave 94). In order to draw a realistic picture of the American society and its different reaction to slavery Stowe uses different form of dialects. Educated characters speak generally correct, like for instance Mr. Shelby, George Harris or Senator Bird. On the contrary, Uncle Tom and other rather uneducated slaves speak in a Negro dialect (Donovan 58). The use of dialect shows that Stowe wants to create a certain authenticity. In this case, the novel exhibits correspondences with the Local Color movement which began after the Civil War.
Stowe’s strength as an author shows in her ability to create different kinds of characters (Donovan 13). In this respect, it is not possible to make generalisations about certain character traits. They, for instance, cannot be described to be generally flat or static. Whereas Tom is a static character who sticks to his Christian rules and changes the people around him, George Harris’ character is dynamic as he finds his faith in the course of the novel. In the same way, it appears that George Harris is a fully developed, round character. On the contrary, his wife Eliza has a rather flat personality and embodies the stereotypical “…devoted mother and kindly Christian” (Donovan 52). Stowe tends to present the characters as representatives of the different social strata and races (Donovan 49). That point can be exemplified by the introduction of Mrs. Shelby: “Mrs. Shelby was a woman of a high class… To that magnanimity and generosity of mind which one often marks as characteristics of the women of Kentucky … ” (Stowe 9). The observation that Stowe’s characters can be defined as “examples of types” (Donovan 49) might lead to the conclusion that all characters are to a certain extent flat characters. On the contrary, there are also individualised and well-developed characters like George Harris or Miss Ophelia. In conclusion, the characters can be defined as individualised stereotypes (Donovan 50).
Topsy personifies Stowe’s belief in the “primacy of experience” (Graham 619). She is introduced as “a little negro girl, about eight or nine years” (206). When Miss Ophelia sees the “great welts and calloused spots” (209) on the child’s back and shoulders, she realises that Topsy lived a horrible life as a slave so far. Moreover, Topsy does not know her parents and answers Miss Ophelia’s question whether she knows who made her with “I spect I grow’d” (210). Stowe especially stresses Topsy’s impulsiveness, her inability to accept Miss Ophelia’s rules and her lack of self-control (Yarborough 49). Richard Yarborough gives the explanation that the figure Topsy embodies “the traits the author felt to be endemic to the undomesticated African” (Yarborough 49). This trait becomes particularly evident when St. Clare asks Topsy to sing a song in order to introduce her to Miss Ophelia:
 In fact, there are no clear-cut borders between literary movements.
 The phrase “just grew, like Topsy“ became common to express that something has gradually become very large or that somethings origin is not known (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. 2006 ed.).
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