Uncle Tom is notable for his superhuman religious faith, his gentle nature, and his unfailing honesty. But he’s also notable for being a stereotype – a childlike "noble savage," an idealized figure in sentimental fiction, whose finer emotions have not been destroyed by the negative influences of civilization. Bear in mind that one tenet of sentimentalism is that we are all born good, and human society makes us evil. While it may seem like a compliment that Uncle Tom is worthier than the free people around him, it can also be seen as incredibly patronizing to claim that the reason that he’s so great is that he is somehow "closer to nature," almost animal-like in his simple loyalty and innocence.
Before we can even think about the character of Uncle Tom in this novel, we’ve got to discuss what "Uncle Tom" has come to mean as a catchphrase in America today. Calling a black American an "Uncle Tom" is a serious insult, usually meaning that the person is subservient to whites or has betrayed other blacks. It sometimes means that the person is complicit in his own suffering and subjection. It’s also become a general term for anyone who is submissive toward their enemies and a traitor to their friends.
In literary circles, there’s major debate about whether or not the character of Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin deserves this reputation. In 1949, critic James Baldwin wrote a famous essay that rejected Stowe’s novel, pointing out its use of racist stereotypes especially in relation to Uncle Tom as a character. For decades, literary scholars followed his lead. In recent years, however, several major critics, including Jane Tompkins and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., have sought to put Uncle Tom’s Cabin – and Uncle Tom himself – back into the American literary canon. To understand why, we have to examine Tom as a character.
While it’s true that Uncle Tom is subservient – he is, after all, a slave who faces dire consequences for rebellion – he is loyal, not just to his white masters, but to his fellow slaves. He helps them when they’re hurting. He tries to share his religious faith with them. He protects them from their masters when he can.
As St. Clare’s slave, Tom carries Prue’s basket for her when she doesn’t have the strength to do it herself. On Legree’s plantation, he puts some of his cotton into Lucy’s bag because she is struggling to fill hers, and then he refuses to follow Legree’s order to whip her. He won’t betray Cassy and Emmeline after they hide in the garret even though he knows Legree will kill him for refusings. As a Christian, Stowe pays Tom a high compliment by making his sacrifice Biblical: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
Still, even though Tom is strong and principled when it comes to his fellow slaves, there are definitely moments when his loyalty to his white masters makes 21st century readers cringe. After all, Tom tells St. Clare that he’s ready to "stay with Mas’r as long as he wants me, – so as I can be any use," even if he receives the freedom he desperately desires (28.15).
Later, he tells the brutal Simon Legree, "I’d give ye my heart’s blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ’em freely, as the Lord gave his for me" (40.43). These are moments where Stowe means us to see how Christ-like and self-sacrificing Tom is, but we also notice that Tom goes to extreme lengths to help the people who are oppressing him and his family.
Modern readers might find Tom more believable if he was occasionally angry and bitter about his lot in life. We might find him more heroic if he tried to escape to Canada, like George Harris. When Tom refuses to help Cassy kill the unconscious Legree, many a reader might wonder if he’s taking nonviolent resistance a bit far – couldn’t Tom be justified in killing a psychopath in defense of himself and his fellow slaves?
After all, Legree is a murderer, rapist, and torturer who will never be brought to justice under American law. Killing Legree could save a lot of slaves from misery and death. But Tom always sticks to his principles: he believes that murder is murder under any circumstances and would thus harm his or Cassy’s immortal soul. This is Christ-like, but it also reminds us of a modern nonviolent resistor, Gandhi, whose methods were equally radical, but equally peaceful.
Maybe the real question is not whether Tom is loyal to his fellow black slaves or to his white masters – clearly, he demonstrates loyalty to both. But his real loyalty is to Christ, whom he believes to be the only true "Master." In every situation, Tom tries to follow the principles of the gospel: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). What we’re saying is that, if they’d had "W.W.J.D." bracelets in 1852, Tom would definitely have been wearing one.
Does all this sometimes make Tom seem disturbingly submissive? Yes. Does he often seem like a passive sufferer rather than an active resistor? Yes. Does he sometimes seem like a racial stereotype – the noble, patient, quiet, loyal, childish black man who loves his white masters? Yes. Are those big ideological problems? Yes. There’s no denying any of these things; there are major problems with the way Stowe depicts black characters, especially Uncle Tom. But Tom is also an incredibly good person whose suffering illustrates the evils of slavery – and, in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s opinion, he’s the ideal Christian.
Like Eva, our other self-sacrificing angel in this novel, Tom is a Christ figure. He’s generally willing to suffer out of love, and he models all his actions on the Jesus he reads about in the gospels. Tom dies so that Emmeline and Cassy can be saved, and his last encounter with Legree is reminiscent of Jesus' final conversation with Pilate. (See Matthew 27.)
In fact, we’d go so far as to say that Tom is less of a character than an idealization or an allegorical figure – which is why he seems too good to be true. Even though Tom’s not a fully rounded character, we can recognize his virtues: he refuses to let his circumstances make him a cruel man, he offers hope and help to all who need it, and he’s loyal until the day he dies.
Stowe’s decision to make Uncle Tom so strikingly Christ-like is part of the way she indicates that black people have souls just as whites do – something obvious today, but that was, shockingly, a point of debate in 19th century America.
Many 19th century readers, both in the North and in the South, struggled to overcome their racism to believe that a slave as good and honest as Tom could exist. Tom’s goodness (like George Harris’s intelligence) demonstrates to the reader that emancipated slaves would make upright, contributing citizens in a free society.
Tom has the same opportunity that anyone else in the novel does to get close to God, and he makes much better use of it. In fact, despite being one of the lowliest slaves in the novel, Uncle Tom is a better Christian than almost anyone else – especially his genteel white master and mistress, Augustine and Marie St. Clare. Stowe shows both northern and southern readers that a black slave could follow Christian teachings more aptly than they might.
One strange thing about Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that, while there’s plenty of conflict at the beginning, when Tom is torn away from his family, and at the end, when Tom is murdered by his brutal master, the middle of the novel is rather calm.
For a long stretch in the center of the story, the reader watches Tom dwell at St. Clare’s idyllic estate, hanging out with little golden-haired Eva and praising Jesus. Of course, there are some examples of the evils of slavery in this section – such as the suffering and death of Prue – but they take a backseat to Tom’s strange connection to Eva. Why does this novel need to have the friendship of the an adult male black slave and a pre-teen southern belle at its center?
To begin answering that question, we need to go back to the text and think about the way Stowe describes their friendship:
The friendship between Tom and Eva had grown with the child’s growth. It would be hard to say what place she held in the soft, impressible heart of her faithful attendant. He loved her as something frail and earthly, yet almost worshipped her as something heavenly and divine. He gazed on her as the Italian sailor gazes on his image of the child Jesus, – with a mixture of reverence and tenderness; and to humor her graceful fancies, and meet those thousand simple wants which invest childhood like a many-colored rainbow, was Tom’s chief delight. (22.6)
Tom virtually worships Eva, but he also feels protective of her frailty and weakness. He indulges all her whims and likes to give her little presents, and he loves her more and more as she grows up. How to interpret this friendship is a complex question, but there are two ends of the spectrum (and the truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle).
One end of the spectrum is to interpret Tom and Eva as children in Christ together. Remember how Tom is always described as having "touching simplicity" and "child-like earnestness" (4.78)? Well, Eva is a child, and has all those things, too.
In Stowe’s racialized thinking, the childish simplicity of the faithful black slave is analogous to the naive virtue of a little angel like Eva. Tom may be married with kids, but lots of critics have noted how he’s often feminized or de-sexed, and his age and gender seem totally irrelevant to this relationship. Good results of this interpretation: Tom seems to be an angel, just like Eva. Really bad ones: 19th century racist thinking takes over.
Of course, the other end of the spectrum is to read Tom’s relationship with Eva as having all those uncomfortable aspects of sexuality that we just claimed were irrelevant here. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins have pointed out, it’s strange that Tom dreams of Eva’s golden head instead of Chloe’s black one when he’s dying on Legree’s plantation. Women’s hair is often a sexual symbol in literature, and the way Stowe emphasizes Tom’s obsession with Eva’s blonde curls is a little bit suspicious.
We don’t want to over-emphasize this interpretation; it’s beyond Stowe’s intention, and even the freest reading of the text doesn’t suggest anything truly untoward here. And yet, we also know that scholars of African-American literature and culture have called our attention to an ongoing cultural hysteria about the possibility of a black man’s attraction to a white woman. Whether Tom’s attraction to Eva is a subtle version of that fear, or whether it’s a re-writing of that relationship to make it harmless is up to you to decide.