Gender in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe achieved what is, clearly, her greatest notoriety for writing the
novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin between 1851 and 1852. She was radically inspired by the
passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and managed to write one of the most successful works
(if not the most successful work) of abolitionist literature. It is even said that Abraham Lincoln
described her as the “little woman” who started the “great war.” Though this presidential
endorsement might be entirely one of legend, it is still worth noting that Stowe has become
linked in the historical eye with the causes of the Civil War.
This meeting, of course, with Abraham Lincoln also serves to illustrate a greater
point: nobody can be sure of whether anything along those lines was actually spoken to
the “little woman.” Yet it has become a part of our collective historical memory, and has
become as good as fact in its recognizability. This identical situation is one that has befallen
Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself.
There is a public view of Uncle Tom, the character, held by anybody with a well-
tuned social conscience--which of course includes many, many people who have never so
much as opened the book. To a lesser extent, the same can be said for the characters of
Topsy, Eva, and Simon Legree, the latter being as much a staple of the Saturday-morning
cartoon canon as the literary canon.
We remember these characters, most of us without ever having actually met them.
Whether or not Stowe was offered such historical significance by the likes of Abraham
Lincoln takes a back seat to the fact that we remember her being assigned this significance.
Likewise, the many things that Stowe intended her character Uncle Tom to represent are
overridden by what they have actually come to represent in society’s collective memory.
It is important, and interesting, to note the solid distinctions that have arisen between
what Harriet Beecher Stowe actually said, and what readers (and non-readers) have
decided that she meant. With this essay we will discuss the symbols of Uncle Tom’s
Cabin and weigh their societal import, but this will be done with the end in mind of
examining the portrait Stowe has rendered of Uncle Tom himself, and acknowledge that he
may, in fact, be portrayed as more heroine than hero.
This may seem like a bold stance to take, but in fact it is no more bold than asserting
that being called an “Uncle Tom” is an insult when Stowe portrayed him in such a positive
light and with such sympathy. So much sympathy, in fact that we are reminded of the ways
in which various fore-runners in the women’s fiction genre (such as Louisa May Alcott and
Catherine Maria Sedgwick) portrayed their heroines.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was indeed writing her novel (then published serially) during