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Themes

It’s hard to imagine a more complex topic than the theme of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On the one hand, Stowe wrote this novel in order to demonstrate the moral imperative of abolition. The novel shows that slavery is utterly immoral and the domination of one group of people by another based on race is unacceptable. Blacks are depicted as having the same kind of souls and the same claims on God’s love that whites have. Our hero, a black slave, is nobler than any of the whites he meets. However, on the other hand, Stowe uses many 19th century racial stereotypes. Black characters are depicted in racist terms as childlike, attracted to gaudy ornamentation, and inherently emotional. The novel invokes and reinforces racial stereotypes – such as the "Uncle Tom," the "Mammy," and the "pickaninny" – so heavily that it reinforced them in American culture for decades to come. Stowe explicitly states that she believes the "Anglo-Saxon" and African races have different characters and different destinies.

What was revolutionary about this novel in 1852 is that it suggests black people have substantive contributions to make to society and an equal stake in a Christian afterlife. But what’s very dated is its 19th century vision of racial identity. This novel is an interesting and important milestone in the history of race relations in America – but we’re glad that we’re looking at it in the rear-view mirror.

Questions About Race

  1. Which characters articulate the idea that blacks are an inferior race? In what context do they express this idea and why?
  2. Do any characters express the idea that African-Americans might be equal to whites? In what context do they express this idea and why?
  3. The very end of the book suggests Liberia might be a solution to the problem of prejudice in the United States. Why was Liberia considered a good solution? What do you think about the idea of ex-slaves colonizing a nation in west Africa?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Though people in the North wanted abolition, Uncle Tom’s Cabin suggests that they were hypocrites. They wanted abolition but they didn’t actually want to have to deal with black people.

Though Stowe was ahead of her time by pointing out that people in the North are racist, she used several symbols that indicate her own paternalism, such as comparing African-American slaves to "pets" or suggesting that they were like "children" that needed to be educated by white folks.

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