Melodrama is defined by Merriam-Webster as
a work characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization.
By creating a world with both excessively good characters and excessively evil characters, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel about the horrors of slavery is certainly melodramatic.
Yet, given her intended audience and the era in which she was writing, she could not have had the impact she had in Uncle Tom’s Cabin without the melodrama. Although Ms Stowe wrote a rather didactic novel about the evils of slavery and the true meaning of “Christian”, the stereotyped characters became beloved friends to the reader, and the continued action kept the reader engaged. There was nothing remarkable about the writing – and I personally tired quickly of the novel’s style.
Nevertheless, it is clear Ms Stowe created a masterful classic of historical importance by her techniques in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin (first published 1852). Reading the novel helps one better understand the difficulties of slavery in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, particularly because the arguments against slavery Ms Stowe makes are so emotional and realistic.
This post contains spoilers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The main thread of the novel is Uncle Tom himself. Although he comes across as a rather flat stereotype, that of the devout Christian, he’s not the fawning black man that tradition suggests1. Rather, he’s a deeply motivated Christian hoping to do what he considers his religious duty. He doesn’t always submit to whites: he refuses to whip other slaves, and he encourages other slaves, like Eliza, to run for their freedom. He, however, serves and lives by Christian principles, and these morals guide his life. As such, he submits to slavery as a martyr, confident in his faith of a better world after this life. Ms Stowe gives him an unshakeable faith that may resonate with her own Christian readers.
In contrast, many of the others in the novel struggle with Christianity, both the slaves coming to terms with their captivity (such as George), and the slave owners who are preached to every Sunday about the rightness of slavery. Even the abolitionist in the novel struggles with some issues. Ms Stowe very cleverly inserted her own audience, Northern abolitionists, into the novel in the form of Miss Ophelia, a Northern woman who must come to understand the effects of slavery. Miss Ophelia has a deep aversion to associating with black people, yet she preaches abolition. (“Send missionaries to teach them,” she suggests.) Her relationship with Topsy showed a progression in her thought simply by association with a black child, and I loved the emphasis on love as the bridge to helping the downtrodden.
Ms Stowe formatted the plot of the novel wonderfully: by introducing three different slave masters, she portrayed both the cruelty of slavery and the realistic problems that arise even for slaves under a “good” master. Slavery is never good for the slaves, for they still have no freedom. Simon Legree, the personification of an evil slave master in the novel, was not introduced until more than two-thirds of the way through the book; the reader was by that point engaged in what would happen. Had Ms Stowe introduced Simon Legree earlier, I suspect many would have discounted the book as an exaggeration of the evils of slavery. The structure, as it was, provided a more emotionally believable story.
Even though Simon Legree was a stereotype, Ms Stowe introduced a little bit of humanity into him by giving him some background. He dreamt of his angelic mother; he felt internally conflicted with his Northern Christian upbringing and his current way of domination of his slaves. I doubt readers pitied him, but there was an attempted to give him psychological depth. Uncle Tom’s Cabin seems to question “how” slavery could be perpetuated. Ms Stowe attempted to answer the question in Simon Legree’s inner conflict, as well as in the discussions of Mr. St. Clare, the senator and his wife, and others. It was not so simple to resolve.
Little Eva St. Clare was the opposite of Simon Legree; she was an angelic personification of innocence in the midst of the racial disparity of slavery. She provided the conscience for the characters in the novel. I personally found Eva the most exaggerated Christ symbol of the novel. While Uncle Tom went through a trial of faith and came out conqueror, Eva seemed perfect from start to finish. She never questioned or doubted, and the exaggeration of her angelic death made me roll my eyes. As someone in my book group pointed out, she was 5 going on 50. Certainly, she was necessary to the novel, because her presence caused her father and Miss Ophelia to finally act (albeit a bit too late). By including an “innocent” child to be the spokesperson for the black people, Ms Stowe provided an impetuous for change.
There’s more to discuss in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: early feminism, the escape of Eliza and Harry, the conveniences of resolution, the actual horrors of slavery. It is an issue-filled book. Some of the people in my book group said the book was the “greatest book they’ve ever read,” and it changed the way they thought about slavery. Others, like me, found it a bit heavy handed.
Some critics take exception to the excessive melodrama in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and I would probably be one of them. It is simply not my cup of tea. I did not shed tears as I read, and actually rolled my eyes in some places of melodrama. Yet, I’m immensely glad I read it, and I probably will read it again some time. It’s a monumental classic for a reason.
- Merriam-Webster defines an “Uncle Tom” as a “black who is overeager to win the approval of whites. ↩