Pain is inevitable within a society struggling for and against power. This is a central theme running throughout nineteenth-century American literature, especially in work written during the latter part of the century. The causes and consequences, as well as the very nature of the American body and soul in trauma paints a poignant picture of the problems and social changes America faced both during slavery as well as after its abolition.
This is evident in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition where the wounding of both the physical body and emotional soul features strongly throughout both texts. Published in 1853 after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, Uncle Tom's Cabin tells of the circumstances of various slaves as they encounter different owners. Tom, the novel's protagonist, is a devout Christian slave who is ultimately beaten to death by his owner, thus embodying the many injustices and pain slavery produces. Written almost half a decade after Stowe and in the immediate wake of emancipation, Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition explicitly alludes to the 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina race riots in which mobs of white people terrorized freed blacks, resulting in the deaths of eleven black people. The novel is a fictionalized account of the black-dominated town and depicts the actual lack of power freed slaves held as well as the insecurities of the whites who struggled to reaffirm their own identity beside freed blacks.
In a lucid account of life under slavery in the South, Stowe utilizes the trope of the American body under physical and emotional trauma as an agency to reflect the sufferings the slaves had to endure, in turn imposing upon readers the immediate nature of the abolitionist cause. Chesnutt, in depicting the literal sufferings of the American body and soul, effectively addresses the concerns surrounding the ever-present tension between blacks and whites in post-civil war America.
While many have criticized Stowe for an overindulgence in her use of sentimentality in Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is clear that the vivid depiction of the pain and suffering of the slaves in the novel functions as an indicting social critique of life under slavery. ."..I've seen `em as would pull a woman's child out of her arms, and set him up to sell, and she screechin' like mad all the time;-very bad policy- damages the article-makes `em quite unfit for service sometimes. I knew a real handsome gal
once...was entirely ruined by this sort o' handling...she jest went ravin' mad and died in a week. Clear waste, sir." Haley's tone of nonchalance in describing one particular type of pain slaves felt when their families are torn apart contrasts strongly with the agonizing emotions of the slaves. The two slaves driven to madness presents a powerful picture of the extent of the suffering the slaves are subjected to. Yet, perhaps what is more painful is the...