Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Analysis: What’s Up with the Ending?
There are lots of different ways to talk about the ending of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because there are lots of different endings. First, there’s what happens to Uncle Tom himself – the outcome of the main plot. Second, there’s what happens to George and Eliza and basically everyone else, the combined result of all the subplots. And third, there’s the actual last chapter of the book, "Concluding Remarks," in which Stowe throws off the mask of her narrator and comments directly on her own novel.
It's not over until it's over
Obviously, before we even start think about what these different endings mean for the book, we’re struck by how many different times it has to end before it’s really over. And the reason for that is obvious, if you think about it: it’s not over. The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have a last chapter and a last page, but slavery in 1852 in America isn’t over by a long shot.
The real ending of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the Civil War and the emancipation of Southern slaves. Or perhaps the real real last chapter is the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, when black Americans finally start to get their rights in practice as well as in law. And you could even say that we still haven’t "written" the ending of this book into history, because we still have racism and racial conflict in our society.
What happens to Tom: martyrdom
OK, so that’s one argument: that this book was written as a beginning and Stowe meant for history itself to be the end. But what about the actual end of the book on the page? Well, there’s Tom’s tragic fate: his Christ-like suffering and death at the hands of the vicious Simon Legree.
In the structure of the novel, Tom’s death is inevitable: in the system of slavery, a selfless, hardworking, good-tempered Christian man is doomed because evil, vicious, brutal men around him are allowed to control his every move.
The point here is not that every slave is (or should be) as self-sacrificing as Tom. (Although Stowe does think he’s pretty great because he’s such a good Christian.) And Stowe isn’t claiming that every master is like Legree. The point is that, under the laws of the United States in the 1850s, it’s possible for someone like Simon Legree to torture and murder someone like Tom. And that’s completely unacceptable. Laws that allow murder to go unpunished simply can’t stand.
What happens to George and Eliza: colonization
But what about slaves who aren’t murdered or worked to death on the plantations? What happens to the survivors, the escapees, and the freedmen? And what happens if and when America does finally enact universal emancipation? Stowe addresses these questions with the fate of her other characters, especially George and Eliza. (And all the other characters who turn out to be part of their extended family, like Cassy.)
George’s desire for education and his decision to immigrate to Liberia are keystones of Stowe’s plan for the rehabilitation of slaves. First, she knows that the slaves must be educated, because freeing them and turning them out into the world without substantial knowledge and skills would be setting them up for failure. (Plus, she wants everyone to be able to read the Bible.) Second, Stowe believes in colonization – sending groups of freed slaves as colonists to the new African nation of Liberia – to build their own country.
Colonization was a popular idea in Stowe’s time, supported by some abolitionists and by some southern slave owners, and opposed by others. Colonization as a solution for former slaves is a complex issue and we can’t explore all of it here – see Shmoop’s modules on the Causes of the Civil War for more about it. But we’ll point out one thing: sending all the freed slaves back to Africa to make their own country is, among other things, a way of getting rid of them instead of integrating them into the United States as equal citizens. It’s a new kind of segregation. Stowe considers the problems of colonization near the end of the novel in George Harris’s letter:
"But, you will tell me, our race have equal rights to mingle in the American republic as the Irishman, the German, the Swede. Granted, they have. We ought to be free to meet and mingle, – to rise by our individual worth, without any consideration of caste or color; and they who deny us this right are false to their own professed principles of human equality. We ought, in particular, to be allowed here. We have more than the rights of common men; – we have the claim of an injured race for reparation. But, then, I do not want it; I want a country, a nation, of my own." (43.43)
The emigration of George and Eliza is a strange ending to a novel that tries to rethink race relations within America. After all, George is educated, and he and Eliza have built a hard-working, principled family that seems just like any other good solid American family. Yet Stowe sends George to Liberia to succeed in a different country.
How are we supposed to take this? Many readers, including Frederick Douglass, felt that the novel cops out at the end by relying on colonization even while arguing that blacks should be able to attain full civil rights in America.
What happens to the reader: a call to feeling
After working out the fates of Tom, George, and Eliza, Stowe steps in and speaks directly to the reader in the last chapter, titled "Concluding Remarks." We won’t go over everything she says here, since it’s pretty clear. But you should notice that this novel is, once again, more than a good read with enough drama, romance, and tragedy to keep us hooked from beginning to end.
After the plot is over and we’re done with the fictional characters, Stowe reminds us that there’s a real problem out in the world that we should address – slavery. (That’s "we," the readers of the novel in 1852.) She appeals to the reader to take action:
But what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do, – they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. (45.21)
This is pure 19th century sentimentalism: feeling itself becomes an important course of action. While this might seem strange, if you think about it, it’s the root of today’s "awareness" campaigns for important issues. Of course, "feeling" isn’t all Stowe wants. She has plenty of concrete social and political plans to end slavery that she wants to put into practice. But changing the way the nation feels about slavery is at the center of all of them.