Uncle Tom's Calling. On Stowe's Gospel of Love and Practical Holiness

Seminar Paper, 1998

30 Pages, Grade: very good



1 The Spell of Martyrdom

2 Stowe’s Literary Technique
2.1 Narrating -- The Storyteller’s Voice
2.2 Preaching -- The Christian’s Voice
2.3 Teaching -- The Moralist’s Voice
2.4 Touching -- The Emotionalist’s Voice

3 The Holy Bible, A Primary Source
3.1 “For if not true, how could I live?“ (p.125)
3.2 “For he hath prepared for us a city.“ (p.101)

4 Ev angel ine, A Divine Manifestation
4.1 Gospel of Love
4.2 “I long to go.“

5 Tom, A True Christian
5.1 Uncle Tom
5.2 Father Tom

6 Stowe’s Muse? Thomas C. Upham
6.1 Purgation
6.2 Illumination
6.3 Union

7 Résumé

8 Works Cited

1 The Spell of Martydom

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s widely acknowledged novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) in two volumes has been subjected to much controversy as regards its protagonist’s role as a Christian martyr. I found critics to hold the assumption that as Tom does not assume an active role against slavery but practices non-aggression according to the biblical Gospel of Love including love of one’s enemy, he does nothing, really, to change the slaves’ condition.

However, passive resistance is unanimously agreed to be an effective form of resistance, thus I venture to propose that saints and martyrs do in fact bring about a change by their incomprehensible consent to sacrifice for others or for a higher ideal. Tom does startle, irritate, penetrate, and shake up the people he comes into contact with: Significantly, all of them are reminded of their childhood, when the gospel was still close to their hearts, and they realize the wish to believe in God is preserved, ready to surface if permitted to. Tom’s sermon-like evocation of the universal love Jesus taught and incorporated, together with the promise of a destination in heaven has a subliminal effect on the white people, who need to interrelate their religious morality with the unjust social system they tolerate. Equality before God and man as well as a distinct discrimination between right and wrong are items that early religious education plants in each and every American, I should think.

The least effect thus achieved is a characteristic uneasiness, the urge to redefine one’s attitude towards the prevalent system of slavery, and the inescapable realization of the individual duty to use one´s position and personal strength for the sake of the oppressed. Tom’s style is that of Jesus and not of the violent revolutionaries that America would have dreamed to come and install true democracy. Stowe knows that to change the political and social conditions in the country would be far easier than to teach the people’s hearts not tolerance, not acceptance but love. Love of the simple race as it is often called and love of the oppressors. That is, in my estimation, Stowe’s incessant plea.

Sigmund Freud would identify religion as a common obsessional neurosis and religious teachings to as illusions that stand in opposition to the intellect. Here one could be reminded of Stowe’s frequent allusions to the Africans exceptional receptiveness for religious ideas, which would now seem to be based on their lack of intellect, compensated by sensual and moral capacities. I have the impression that both Freud and Stowe hold the opinion that very intelligent people are more skeptical as regards religion whereas simple minds never reflect, doubt, and question but believe straightaway.

How would Freud characterize a martyr’s attitude? Though he never gave any attention to such questions, according to his theory, religious zeal is based on self denial and love directed to an illusory parental institution. Instead of using their emotive potential on human relationships, exceptionally religious people concentrate all their positive emotion on the ideal, impersonated by a divine father figure, God, in the Christian context. In martyrs, this results in such an unusually complete identification with the object of love, God, that the survival instincts are superimposed by the Thanatos drive: Death is the only means to become one with God, probably a yearning in reminiscence of the early unity with the mother and in parallel to the unity that the sexual act can temporarily create.

As circumstances turn hostile against a subject in a community that does not exchange affections at all but focuses on an illusion and would not even answer with aggression to the aggressive blows the community may direct against it, it soon faces ample hateful opponents who volunteer to extinguish it, trying to find out how strong the love of that illusion really is.

Religious teachings not infrequently culminate in the request to give up the self and enter a union with God as the original unit where there is perfection and harmony[1]. Tom and Eva are doing exactly this. While Eaves divine heavenly origin is emphasized again and again and her way seems to necessarily and easily lead back there again, Tom reaches his heavenly destination only under inhumane toil and sorrow. During my research I happened to come across Thomas Upham’s theory of a strenuous three-step-journey to heaven that finds a remarkable literary translation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Of all the characters I would choose only two, Tom and Eva, for a close analysis of their practical holiness. But also Augustine St.Clare holds a characteristic position between ideal and animal nature; in spite of his affinity to religious concerns, he gets stuck in ordinariness and can not really take the attempted upward step, inspired by Tom and Eva, before he dies. A few notes only on Simon Legree, undoubtedly the most evil force in the plot, who will briefly be integrated into the world of martyrs, angels, and ordinary people.

Uncle Tom is really my primary concern, because his development is sketched most dramatically, his trials are the most horrid, and his victory the most superhuman achievement in the situation of his imminent death. He cannot be understood as a character if the Holy Scripture is not arranged in the background of his spiritual journey.

The religious impact of the novel is said to account for its fame, credit, and discredit. Tom’s and Eve’s course of life touched me most of all despite the novel’s rich facets, since martyrdom in itself is an irrational and thus attractive phenomenon that is spread before the reader in the novel’s apparently weakest characters, who are in the most desperate and pitiful conditions. From my own reading I know that Stowe’s heroes are by far not as ineffective as critics suggest; the strategies of that effectiveness are what I am going to approach in the following. First, I will trace the structural and moral techniques employed to make the readers souls throb, their hearts protest, and their minds wake to responsibility:

2 Stowe’s Literary Technique

To begin with, the author’s literary style was overtly influenced by her family and upbringing in the sense that she was raised with a Congregational minister for a father, all eight brothers became preachers, and she chose a clergyman to be her husband. She necessarily felt at home with the Bible and having heard sermons from early childhood, it seems inevitable that the sermonic style would not fail to leave its mark on the novel.

Another conspicuous stylistic peculiarity is the sentimental string that is vastly used, the characters shed tears as paralleled in no other novel I have ever come across. Yet, the scenes that are dominated by dry-eyed helplessness and desperation affect one most severely. Whether the technique in itself is approved of or not, Stowe is mistress of the subject and skillful enough to make readers of later centuries cry.

The political implication of the novel is mainly transported via the general human moral discourse. That is to say that Stowe’s criticism of the system of slavery is not exclusively voiced through religion but extensively on an ethical level that cannot fail to reach atheists, too. In an uncommonly artful manner, all the grave political, religious, ethical and social concerns are enveloped in an absorbing story that makes the basically painful book bearable since it presents grave messages bit by bit and lets cheerful scenes follow the more strenuous passages. It will be my task to intimate how Stowe succeeds in placing slavery in the national conscience as a principal moral concern when so many other efforts failed.

2.1 Narrating -- The Storyteller’s Voice

The various life stories that constitute Uncle Tom’s Cabin lead to the effect that the reader successively becomes conscious of the distinct facets that slavery has in a single moment of time. With Tom we encounter life under good (St. Clare), medium (Shelby), and evil (Legree) masters as we encounter the work of a highly esteemed private servant and confidant, a manager on a plantation, and finally that of a dehumanized, crushed, and tortured plantation hand. Additionally, we experience the emotional impact of slavery on a father of many children and husband to a cherished wife when he is forced to abandon the people most dear to him with no hope at all to ever return to see his children grow up. Finally, Tom reveals the inner struggle of a man with perfect faith in God who has to integrate the most despairing cases of increasing misery into his system of belief.

Tom’s wife, Aunt Chloe, has to watch her beloved husband, educator of a large number of children, go away leaving her unprotected and with no prospect that the family will be reunited. Tom does not share her fury about this, but he comforts her with soft and loving encouragement. Clearly, he is her religious advisor and tutor in the storms of life that she is from then on required to overcome alone. When she hires herself out in the hope of becoming capable of buying her husband back, the toil makes her step into space at last because Tom is dead when she is finally ready to buy him. Chloe’s torrents of words express incredulity and resistance to the situations that leave slaves without a single choice; she may curse and get worked up, revealing the strongest sense of justice and most helpless vulnerability, yet still the system of slavery leaves her no choice but to try to get along.

Eliza and George represent a younger generation with an irresistible urge for freedom that makes them take the smallest chances of escape in desperation. Stowe rewards their uncompromising strive with a life in freedom; but outside American: they flee to Canada. The couple’s escape shows the intensity of slavery as a push factor and at the same time the slaves’ intelligence and power of endurance.

The case of Shelby, who has to let a slave trader pick from among his most valuable servants, demonstrates that it is not exclusively for the masters to direct the course of things. Shelby is himself a victim of the system of slavery. Money rules. The profit seeking subjects in the system will have the power, not the man of white noble race who resides on a large plantation and assumes a high social and political position. All the separate incidents at slave auctions or in the private trading charge the economic issue to be of superior power.

Evangeline’s story is told so sensitively that it seems to be Stowe’s cream topping to the novel. Of all the sacrifices in slavery an angelic white girl, daughter to one of the noblest families, least deserves to sacrifice her life at the stake of that inhumane system. Reconsidering Evangeline’s story, it appears that she is sent from heaven to profoundly move the people with her natural divinity and loving ways for only a short while (six years), before she can endure the inhumanity no more. She is conceptualized as a sign from God, rather than a character that could invite identification, and in that function she can seem to embody the divine judgement of to slavery.

2.2 Preaching -- The Christians’ Voice

As already alluded to, Harriet Beecher Stowe was well acquainted with the style of sermons of which she makes ample use in her novel. She easily relies on Puritan sermon conventions and can retain the Bible as her foundational text for authority. It is obvious that her sermon’s success depends on the audience’s participation and on their reaching the preacher’s intended conclusions. Structurally, I would observe that Stowe deviates from the sermon style in that a narration replaces the biblical text; furthermore she plays with the rhetorical sequence of logic and emotion while the Bible quotations actually are sprinkled in for inspiration, comfort, or conclusion.

A peculiarity of Stowe’s system of belief is that dying is regarded as a supreme form of heroism; not a sign of defeat but a victory. On that basis, Evangeline’s and Tom’s deaths are composed. Tompkins suggests:

Stories like the death of little Eva are compelling for the same reason that the story of Christ is compelling; they enact a philosophy, as much political as religious, in which the pure and powerless die to save the powerful and corrupt, and thereby show themselves more powerful than those they save.[2]

This is the most persuasive interpretation of the martyr’s strategy I could find, and still it is illogical mainly because the life instinct must rebel at the thought of it. Heroism is a related phenomenon, yet more comprehensible because the hero dies for a manifest cause or aim, his death changes the course of things in the material world. The martyr, by contrast, is a deliberate sacrifice unasked for and with no material but a spiritual or emotional impact - as the latter is hard to comprehend and objectionable to the mind, the phenomenon is generally unapproachable if a person does not identify with a martyr's motives. Or, as Tompkins puts it:

the ordinary or ´common sense´ view of what is efficacious and what not [...] is simply reversed, as the very possibility of social action is made dependent on the action taking place in the individual hearts.[3]

Ever since Jesus Christ’s death on the cross for the sins of mankind, Christians have held the ideal of sacrifice for the sake of another person, which would in the most extreme case mean to giving one’s life for one another. Accordingly, Tom is destined to die from torture rather than to abandon his heavenly hopes and the salvation he represents to the black community.

The inherent problem is that one could arrive at the conclusion that “Stowe does not deeply care what happens to Uncle Tom on earth since he is obviously bound for heaven. This emphasis on the ´pearly gates´ [...] nearly cancels out the slavery propaganda“[4]. And especially in the slavery context, a philosophy of a destiny on earth that cannot be influenced much because it is imposed by God is chancy: “a Christian acquiescence to one’s fate is the same thing as a philosophy of hopelessness or of cowardice“[5]. Yet I cannot find a hint in Stowe’s novel which would imply that blacks are predestined for slavery; when she has Tom die from torture, he puts his torturers to shame and leaves Legree without having achieved anything. George and Eliza escape the territory of slavery with their son, yet the system lives on, whereas Tom eludes the brutality of the master by endurance (a superhuman achievement) and gets beyond control of the system with his joy in dying, which is his weapon. “With humility, the self declares itself by denying itself“[6].


[1] compare: a prayer by the Swizz mystic Nikolaus von Flüe: „Nimm mich mir und gib mich ganz zu eigen dir.“ (14th century)

[2] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs. (NY: Oxford UP, 1986.) 127-28.

[3] Tompkins 128

[4] Thomas Gossett, Uncle Tom´s Cabin and the American Culture. (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist

UP, 1985.) 390.

[5] Gossett 395.

[6] G.S. Lewis, Message, Messenger and Response. (Lanhan: UP, 1994.) 60

Excerpt out of 30 pages


Uncle Tom's Calling. On Stowe's Gospel of Love and Practical Holiness
University of Hannover  (English Seminar)
Seminar: The Literature of Slavery - Harriet Beecher-Stowe: Uncle Tom s Cabin
very good
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ISBN (eBook)
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564 KB
martyrdom, religion, literature of slavery, novel, text-interpretation
Quote paper
Diana Wieser (Author), 1998, Uncle Tom's Calling. On Stowe's Gospel of Love and Practical Holiness, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/8943


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