Silence In Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
"Out of silence," said the Unitarian theologian Carlyle, "comes thy strength." I believe Carlyle is describing one of two kinds of silence. On one side, silence can be negative and harmful. This is the silence of oppression, a controlling force which leaves victims voiceless and the needy helpless. This is not what Carlyle means by his silence. He is invoking a different force. His silence has agency; it is the silence of resistance, of overcoming, and of strength. Today I will examine the sophisticated silence of which Carlyle writes and, contradictory to the dominant archetype, show how silence can become our strength. Many of the characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin are supported by a silence which becomes their strength. Tom, the protagonist in the novel, and several other characters use silence as a tool to firmly uphold and protect their sense of pride, dignity, and self- respect even in the face of immense oppression which tugs at their very sense of individuality. In explicating this silence, the issue of faith moves into the foreground. A Christian text through and through, Uncle Tom's Cabin resembles instances in the Bible, the theological writings of Carlyle, aspects of Buddhist and Quaker religion, and contemporary Unitarian sermons.
In search of silence we pick up Stowe's novel in chapter twelve with Mr. Haley and Tom driving southward "in their wagon, each, for a time, absorbed in his own reflections." The audience is privileged to hear what both are privately thinking. Haley ponders how much he can get for selling Tom while Tom ponders his fate, his family, and the bible. Finally, Haley, "for want of somebody else to talk to," breaks into conversation and verbally forwards his evil plans. Tom remains silent. In this one- sided conversation, the contrast between spoken and silent evokes powerful sentiments. Two factors contribute to Tom's silence being positive. That we know Tom's thoughts is crucial in this scene. His silence is not empty; there are substantial and honorable thoughts that he holds within. If Tom did not have those potentially expressible thoughts, there would be no contrast. Secondly, it is possible for Tom to speak to Haley, but he chooses not to. He does not lower himself by begging for the freedom he knows he could never be granted nor does he grant Haley's desire for dialogue to break the uneasy quiet. Under this awkward surface silence, only Tom is comforted by religious words which "stir up the soul from its depths, and rouse, as with trumpet call, courage, energy, and enthusiasm."
Ken Sawyer, a contemporary Unitarian minister, addresses a silence which stirs the soul in his sermon "And in the Stillness, a Light." Sawyer's arguments for a "greater freedom and ability to be still, to maintain silence, (and) to wait," stress the same kind of stillness and patience to wait for heaven that get played out in Tom's actions. In...