Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Eliza Harris, wife of George Harris, is a relatively privileged slave of the Shelbys and a devout Christian. Although her life has been one of bondage, her mistress has been kind to her, her marriage has been pleasant, and she trusts that God will take care of her if she obeys her master. But when she discovers that, contrary to his promises and the demands of human decency, her master is going to sell her young son Harry to the unscrupulous slave trader Mr. Haley, she immediately decides to run away. Gathering a few possessions, she disappears one night and heads for the Ohio River, hoping to make it across the border from Kentucky into Ohio – the South to the North – slavery to freedom.
Due to the stalling tactics of the other Shelby slaves and Mrs. Shelby herself, Eliza just barely makes it across the river with her child before she can be recaptured. Because there aren’t any ferries during the winter, she actually leaps and runs across a dangerous ice floe, cutting her feet to shreds, in order to escape. (See "Eliza’s Leap" in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.)
Unfortunately, however, the Fugitive Slave Act makes it just as dangerous for her to be at liberty in the North as in the South. Any citizen who finds her is legally obligated to return her to her master. Luckily, Eliza finds people who are sympathetic to her plight and willing to practice civil disobedience in secret to help her.
Among the anti-slavery Quakers, Eliza is miraculously reunited with her husband, and together they cross Lake Erie and make it to Canada, where they’re actually safe. In an unrealistic but sentimental twist, she even finds her mother, Cassy, at the end of the novel.
Eliza’s most important characteristic is that she’s a devoted, selfless mother who will take any risks to protect her son. One of Stowe’s reasons for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the fact that one of her own sons died in childhood. This experience made her realize how painful it would be for a slave mother to have a child sold away from her. Thus, Stowe uses Eliza to appeal to the large number of her readers who were white, northern mothers. By creating a bond of sympathetic maternal feeling between white readers and a black slave, Stowe hopes to catalyze women’s support of the abolitionist movement.
As scholar Gillian Brown has argued, Stowe is as much pro-domesticity as she is anti-slavery. In other words, the antidote to the patriarchal, paternalistic system of slavery is maternal affection. (We talk about this more under the heading "Mothers" in the section on "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory.")
Though we sympathize with Eliza as readers of the novel, she’s also a little too saccharine for us, honestly. She rarely complains about her lot in life, she always considers herself second to her child, and she always trusts in God. When her husband expresses his doubt in the truth of Christianity, she never fails to reassure him that God is looking out for both of them, despite appearances. Like Uncle Tom, Eliza is more of an ideal type than a rounded character.