Modern Criticism of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
It is extremely difficult for the modern reader to understand and appreciate Uncle Tom’s Cabin because Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing for an audience very different from us. We don’t share the cultural values and myths of Stowe’s time, so her novel doesn’t affect us the way it affected its original readers. For this reason, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been heavily scrutinized by the modern critic. However, the aspects of the novel that are criticized now are the same aspects that held so much appeal for its original audience.
Many people condemn Uncle Tom’s Cabin simply because it is a sentimental novel. This genre appeals to the reader’s emotions in order to enact social change. While popular during Stowe’s time, the sentimental novel is now scorned by many members of the academy, such as Baldwin: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women” (496). Some modern readers are repulsed by Stowe’s desire to reform society, but that is because in our times the purpose of literature is to represent the world, not change it. Because the modern critic finds it hard to identify with Stowe’s genuine desire to improve society, he sees it as an example of her self-righteousness.
Because the sentimental novel appeals to the reader’s emotions, many of its scenes may strike the modern reader as overly dramatic. Baldwin claims "the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty" (496). Baldwin doesn’t elaborate on this point, so it is hard to determine if the latter part of this statement has any basis in the text or if it is just a result of his blatant prejudice against sentimentalism. Tompkins argues that “the tears and gestures of Stowe’s characters are not in excess of what they feel; if anything, they fall short of expressing the experiences they point to—salvation, communion, reconciliation” (510). The heart-wrenching scenes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin may strike some critics as overdone, but this is only when the reader refuses to consider the magnitude of the experiences these scenes illustrate.
A prominent figure in the sentimental novel is that of the martyr. Nineteenth-century literature abounds with stories in which the “pure and powerless die to save the powerful and corrupt, and thereby show themselves more powerful than those they save” (Tompkins 507). These martyrs were almost always females or minorities. The modern reader tends to be annoyed by these figures, seeing them as evidence of the stereotypical view that females and minorities are weaker than white males. What the modern reader often fails to comprehend is that death was the only avenue through...