About the religious-philosophical problem of selflessness and bearing in Uncle Tom´s Cabin
Reaching for Christianity is one, maybe the most central theme in Uncle Tom´s Cabin. Stowe uses her view on religion as her main instrument to abolish slavery. The textual construction of Christian values throws up questions about their persuasiveness to a modern reader. To find answers to such questions it is necessary to itemize Stowe´s schema in order to question them from a modern point of view.
Harriet Beecher Stowe originates from a strongly Christian affected background. Her father, brother, and husband were all theologians. Stowe liked to say God inspired her to write Uncle Tom´s Cabin and that he even dictated her (Railton 1984: 130). It also must be mentioned, that most of her female readership also had a Christian background. This was not only based on the long American tradition of Christianity, but also on the idea of being the chosen country, pronounced in the Manifest Destiny. A whole country built itself upon the idea of a self given authority, which the white America saw as God given. This supported the common understanding of a new American race, which white America saw superior to the Afro-American population. White America not only thought of itself as more knowledgeable, but also as dominant rulers in the name of Christianity. But how is this evident in Uncle Tom´s Cabin ? Which religious aspects need to be reviewed and which deserve critic?
Tom, as Stowe´s religiously most pronounced figure, decides to die because of a certain Christian value, which is selfless bearing and suffering in the name of God. Tom never contrasts his passive attitude by any opposition against his slave destiny. Even in his darkest hours during his time with the most crucial slaveholder in the novel, Simon Legree, Tom sticks to his method of passive devotion:
`Mas´r Legree, as ye bought me, I´ll be a true faithful servant to ye. I´ll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength; but my soul I won´t give up to a mortal man. I will hold on to the Lord, and put his commands before all, die or live; you may be sure on´t. Mas´r Legree, I an´t a grain afeard to die. I´d as soon die as not. Ye may whip me, starve me, burn me – it´ll only send me sooner where I want to go.´ (Stowe 1995: 353)
Tom clearly distinguishes between his body and soul. And he only claims his soul to be his own, which he wants the Lord to send to Heaven once he passes. His earthly life does not matter to him. Based on that, it can be seen that Stowe creates two dimensions: Heaven and earth. Heaven is desirable, while common life nothing but a crossover, in which Tom has to prove himself as a bearing and selfless man.
This distinction between two worlds, one desirable and one that Tom only has to physically bear, not only contradicts with the rational, modern view of Stowe´s present-day readership, but it also puts the white, unmoral man, namely Legree, in a position of a godlike figure, which he willingly accepts. When Tom is still new at Legree´s plantation, Legree tells him: “`I´ m your church now! You understand – you´ve got to be as I say´” (Stowe 1995: 313). At this point Legree wants to break the psyche of his property. Combined with Tom´s passive bearing it furthermore implies that Legree becomes Tom´s God on earth. Here a reader may ask with good reason, if Tom´s way is a potential solution to slavery. Stowe´s ideology of selfless bearing indirectly implied white domination, which the African American population was not allowed to change, if they were willing to get to Heaven.
Even though Tom has moments of doubt, he never actively tries to gain a good fortune. He always accepts his doom. Tom follows the course of bearing and of Christian charity, which is supposed to get him where he wants to go: Heaven. One might argue that he becomes active when he helps Eliza, Cassy, and Emmeline to escape, but this is only necessary for him to reside as a good Christian. It is therefore possible to attest Tom a pure egotistical motivation, founded in his wish for salvation. Tom, idealist and egoist at the same time, is first of all focused on his redemption and for this reason he is immune to a wider range of philosophies, unreceptive to earthly logic. I will later argue, that Tom, and therefore Stowe, who uses her characters to convey certain values, betrays her idealistic motivation with self restricting egotism.
During his time at Legree´s plantation Tom faces his strongest doubts about God´s existence:
Is it strange that the religious peace and trust which had upborne him hitherto. The gloomiest problem of this mysterious life was constantly before his eyes: souls crushed and ruined, evil triumphant, and God silent. It was weeks and months that Tom wrestled, in his own soul, in darkness and sorrow (Stowe 1995: 361).
The first time in the novel the reader is confronted with the problem of God being silent and inactive, who is still supposed to save his believers. Tom´s wish for a more active God moves his religious belief to another level: Do we need God to actively participate in our lives to believe in him? Stowe´s philosophy contradicts at this point. On the one hand she offers her readers her Christian values, which, accurately achieved, don´t need an active God to avoid an “evil triumphant”. But shortly after his strong doubts Tom has a vision, which lets him overcome all “darkness and sorrow”. The incarnated Jesus tells him: “`He that overcometh shall sit down with me on my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father on his throne.´” (Stowe 1995: 362). Thus on the other hand it is actually necessary, that God provides Tom with active support to make him bear Legree´s cruelties. Could Stowe´s readership consequently expect to have such a vision each time they doubt God´s existence? And what does such a vision look like? Tom´s vision not only leads to an uncertainty of God´s participation in Stowe´s philosophy, but the reader is also confronted with the impossibility of a rational explanation for Tom´s motivation to overcome his doubts. His exclusive experience is incommunicable (De Canio 1990: 591). It is not really imaginable and therefore implausible.
Tom´s vision carries him to total devotion and finally to death. According to Stowe´s religious philosophy Railton perceives Tom´s death as a happy ending (Railton 1984: 134). Despite all his obstacles and detachments Tom stays steady and dies in the name of the Lord. Thereby he becomes some kind of Afro-American Jesus, crucified by his white oppressor. In addition Tom forgives Legree all his sins: “I forgive you with all my soul!´” (Stowe 1995: 383). On an allegorical basis Tom hence spiritually reaches heaven, which is all he ever wanted. He is awarded with an immortal, Christian soul (Railton 1984: 135). Besides he stands as Stowe´s ultimate role model referring to complete self-abandonment. Thus the good Christian suffers his way to Heaven.
Stowe is right when she offers Tom´s selfless Christian love as a solution. Slavery would be impossible, if each and everyone would act this way and Tom´s death never would have happened. But is it realistic to hope that a character like Legree, fictional or not, becomes a selfless Christian? The modern reader knows that a war, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, was necessary to abolish slavery. To some extent this contrasts directly to the belief of Christianity. But what is most striking, is Stowe´s requested passive bearing. This interpretation of Christianity only privileged the white population of America. Their average sufferings were in no comparison to the whippings, the raping, and detachments of families, which all the unchristian white men did to the African American population. And they were simply supposed to wait until their owners would make up their minds and become moral people?
But the Bible also offers its interpreters this common known ideology: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21: 22-25). George Harris, the most rebellious character in Uncle Tom´s Cabin, makes use of it and stands in contrast to Tom´s passive attitude. He flees to Canada and on his way even wounds one of his persecutors. The modern, rational reader experiences his happy ending much more positive, because George actively changes his destiny. One may even see the wounding of his persecutors as justifiable revenge. For Stowe George is just not a good Christian until his wife Eliza converts him to Christianity at the end of the novel. His as a reader we are way more satisfied with George´s getaway, than with Tom´s self-abandonment, even if it might be more Christian.
Styron´s Nat Turner also tries to turn his fade around. He is, like Tom, a very religious man. Furthermore he even has a vision of Christ. Turner´s very exclusive interpretation of the Bible and his vision motivate him to organize a rebellion, which leads to the massacre of 55 people. Therefore Turner takes his faith actively into his own hands, religiously motivated. But the result is on a rational basis even more unsatisfying than Tom´s passive resistance.
Compared to the fictional Characters of Tom, George, and Turner (even though his character is based on a historical figure), Frederick Douglass´s course is, on an intellectual basis, the most persuasive example for a way out of slavery. Douglass was, like Tom and Turner, a religious man, which did not prevent him from taking his destiny into his own hands, like Turner and George do. Frederick´s active religiousness could be used against Stowe´s passive construction of Tom. It is interesting - as an aside - that the Douglass stands in total contrast to Styron´s blood spilling Nat Turner because both were not only religious, but also literate.
In comparison to those characters, one of which Stowe created herself, namely George Harris, Tom´s religiously motivated passive resistance, which leads to his death, is rather implausible and unsatisfying to a modern readership. Furthermore Stowe´s religious approach to abolish slavery is not convincing. The pious African American would have been at the total mercy of the white American population, waiting for them to become selfless people. The active approaches of George, Douglass, and to some extent Turner are self-dependent and earthly motivated.
Stowe was completely right, when she mirrored lost Christianity in her country. And she was also right, when she called for new moral values. But an ideology of selflessness and bearing not only prefers the white American population, but moreover is a way too finite schema to solve a problem as big as slavery. Christianity didn´t prevent a violent human history. Did Stowe really expect to carry her mindset into the required number of white people to abolish slavery?
I suggest that Stowe, consciously or subconsciously, first of all had an egotistical motivation, which she shared with thousands of religious white women in America. She wished to be a good Christian, but could not because of an institution such as slavery in combination with the Fugitive Slave Act. She furthermore hoped for forgiveness, like the forgiveness Legree receives from Tom. Her idealism was to some extent egotistically motivated and lead to a very restricted view on things. Her ideology might have been helpful, if achieved by the white population. However, for the Afro-Americans it was vital that they took their destiny into their own hands. Stowe´s creation of the humble Tom is no alternative to self-determination and lead to a negative stereotype of African-Americans.
One has to remember that Stowe was a child of her time. Her ideology was based on ideas of white supremacy, which placed the white population in a dominant role. Despite of this, by writing this novel, she at least attempted to bring the reader´s attention to the crime of slavery.
- Quote paper
- Jens Stuhlemer (Author), 2012, About the religious-philosophical problem of selflessness and bearing in "Uncle Tom´s Cabin", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/379467