Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The North and The South
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
We’ve got to say a few words about these contrasting regions in the novel; any 19th century book about slavery has to set up a dichotomy between the North and the South. Stowe deals with this binary in a complex way, showing us the differences between various southern states and even households, and reminding us of the ways that the North might be kidding itself about its own moral purity. It’s not just that the North represents ethicality and freedom while the South represents slavery and decadence. Northerners are complicit in southern slavery, and southerners are shown to be incredibly variable in their treatment of slaves.
The North may be the bastion of hardworking, pious, stoic people like Miss Ophelia’s circle of friends – people who maybe seem a bit like Harriet Beecher Stowe herself – but it’s also part of the problem. The economic and legal relationships between the North and the South make it clear that the North benefits from slavery even though there aren’t any slaves in the northern states. Stowe gives us several clear-cut examples of this – we’ll describe three.
- First, Stowe also shows us the legal ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Kind, moral northerners like Senator and Mrs. Bird or the Quakers help escaped slaves at the risk of being fined or jailed.
- Second, using Augustine St. Clare’s perspective on Miss Ophelia, Stowe skewers the North once more. Ophelia is anti-slavery and believes that blacks have souls, but she doesn’t want to touch them herself because of her own subtle racism. She must overcome her dislike of touching Topsy, both literally and figuratively, in order to give the black girl true, Christian love.
- Third, there’s the situation of Emmeline and her mother, who are being sold off to pay the debts that a southerner owes to a northern Christian. This northern churchgoer claims to be anti-slavery, but he’s willing to accept money made from the sale of slaves as long as he doesn’t have to see them.
While the North is complicit in the evils of slavery, it’s the South where those evils actually happen. Stowe tries to give a "fair and balanced" picture of southern slavery, showing the comparatively good conditions on St. Clare’s estate and the horrible ones on Legree’s plantation. Some southerners are genteel and treat their slaves well; others abuse, rape, and murder with impunity. But one of Stowe’s main points is that the entire institution is corrupt, even when it looks rosy. Relatively humane slave owners, like Mr. Shelby or Mr. St. Clare, allow utterly inhumane ones, like Haley and Legree, to exist.
Upper-class southern gentlemen buy and sell from the brutal, low slave traders, and they make slavery look acceptable, even when it isn’t. It’s important that Stowe describes Tom’s life on the St. Clare estate as "a sunny island, where generous hands concealed his chains with flowers" (40.1). Life as St. Clare’s slave might look OK on the surface, but it’s still utter degradation – the chains of bondage.