Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
When Uncle Tom is carried off by the slave trader Haley, young Master George Shelby runs after him and gives him his dollar – clearly the savings of quite a bit of pocket money for the boy. George’s gift shows us several things. First of all, George doesn’t really understand that Tom can’t legally own property or have money of his own. Anything Tom has belongs to his owner. But George, as a somewhat innocent youth, instinctively thinks of Tom as a legal subject – someone with rights, including the ability to own property. This clues the 19th century reader in to the fact that maybe the kid is on to something: maybe slaves should have the legal status of people, not chattel.
George’s gift of the dollar also reminds us that the boy considers his interaction with the slaves as a sort of childish game, something without serious consequences. Can’t Tom’s problems be fixed with a dollar? We’ll remember this later, when George writes Tom a letter "in a good, round, school-boy hand" (22.3). It’s not Mr. or Mrs. Shelby who writes to Tom, but their child.
George’s letter explains details important to Tom’s life – that Chloe is working for a confectioner and trying to earn money to buy him back – along with details only important to a kid – "a list of George’s school studies, each one headed by a flourishing capital" and "the names of four new colts that had appeared on the premises since Tom left" (22.5). Neither George nor his parents seem to understand that Tom being sold downriver isn’t the same kind of news as "I’m studying French this semester." So George’s dollar comes to represent the failure of the Shelbys to correctly estimate the importance of abolition.