Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Themes and Colors
Slavery and Race Theme Icon
Christianity and Christian Charity Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Slavery and Race Theme Icon

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in order to demonstrate the “living dramatic reality” of slavery. The novel protests the horrors of this institution: the way it degrades black men and women and gives absolute power to slaveowners and thereby corrupts them. The novel portrays and explores various “kinds” of slavery. The Shelbys treat Uncle Tom and other slaves as part of a separate, “childlike” addition to the family. Augustine St. Clare allows his slaves the run of the household, understands the evil of the institution, but feels he cannot stop it—until it’s too late. Simon Legree, the cruelest of all of the slave masters depicted, works his slaves as hard as possible, dominating them so fully that he often kills them. Miss Ophelia, who does not own slaves and represents Northern anti-slavery abolitionist views, has trouble even touching the black girl Topsy, whom she tutors. Through these various depictions, Beecher Stowe argues that all forms of slavery, “benevolent” or not, lead to immorality among blacks and whites, and an unchristian life, and further points out that slavery is a complex system, involving Northern business interests as well as Southern ownership.

At the same time, Stowe's conception of race can feel out of sync with contemporary values, and, at its worst, racist itself. In particular, Uncle Tom's love of his masters has been interpreted, by some, as a misplaced loyalty to a dominant white culture. An understanding of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin requires at least some separation of the author's anti-slavery message from the attitudes and language of her time and place. But it is certainly not incorrect to argue that while Beecher Stowe was strongly anti-slavery she did not in fact believe that the races were created equal.

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Slavery and Race Quotes in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Below you will find the important quotes in Uncle Tom's Cabin related to the theme of Slavery and Race.
Chapter 1: A Man of Humanity Quotes

Lor bless ye, yes! These critters an’t like white folks, you know; they gets over things, only manage right.

Related Characters: Haley (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Shelby owes Haley money, and Shelby, considering himself a gentleman, feels he must repay that debt. Shelby does not wish to give up Uncle Tom and Eliza, whom he considers to be his best slaves. But neither Shelby nor Haley considers that Tom and Eliza themselves might not want to leave the Shelby plantation in Kentucky - that, for them, that place is home, and they, like anyone else, would be reluctant to leave their families behind.

Thus Haley argues, for his part, that no African American is capable of this kind of human feeling. Shelby's attitudes are more moderate than Haley's, but Shelby nonetheless feels that, in a slave system as practiced in the South, there is nothing inherently wrong with owning slaves and putting them to work, so long as the master is somewhat kind to them, and treats them nicely (if paternalistically). Shelby is an example in the novel of the "good" slave-owner who, all the same, participates in an unjust system of human ownership.

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Chapter 2: The Mother Quotes

O yes!—a machine for saving work, is it? He’d invent that, I’ll be bound; let a nigger alone for that, any time.

Related Characters: George Harris
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

George's master will use any excuse possible to find a way to denigrate George and limit his freedom. George is a gifted engineer and inventor, and his machine really does save people time - enormous amounts of time. But George's owner (who is clearly jealous of his slave's intelligence) makes it seem that this invention is only created so that George can be "lazier." Of course, this discounts the ingenuity and work that goes into making machines like this. Here, the narrator makes clear that slave ownership is often predicated on a total lack of logic - on a system that supports itself by asserting that African Americans are inherently less valuable, intelligent, and even human than white Americans, even though there is no evidence to support this contention at all.

Slavery is therefore a system that sustains itself and perpetuates itself according to a code followed by white slave-owners, even by the "kind" ones. This system does not allow African Americans to express human emotions or aspirations, and denies that these emotions or aspirations are possible for them - even when African American characters clearly demonstrate a full range of human experience and creativity. 

Chapter 4: An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Quotes

How easy white folks al’us does things!

Related Characters: Aunt Chloe (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Aunt Chloe, who is married to Uncle Tom, marvels as young George Shelby, the son of the owner of the farm, tutors some of their children. Chloe is remarking here that certain things, especially reading and writing and mathematics, seem to come easier to white students than to black ones. It is this logic - which would seem to play into the idea that whites are intellectually superior to African Americans, and which is of course not the case at all - that many now find offensive in the novel. This logic, though well intended, can be seen as "paternalistic" on the part of the author - as part of a system that believes slavery is wrong because African Americans ought to be supported by society, rather than recognized fully as equals of all other persons.

Although Beecher Stowe by no means intended to be racist, and indeed believed her novel to be an important forum for social change in the United States, these components of the novel nowadays read as, at best, dated, and, at worst, as indicators of the blinkered nature of even the best intentions of many white abolitionists. 

Uncle Tom was a sort of patriarch in religious matters . . . . Having, naturally, an organization in which the morale was strongly predominant, together with a greater breadth and cultivation of mind than obtained among his companions . . . .

Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene of the novel, Uncle Tom is shown to be not only the center of authority in his family (a very kind-hearted authority indeed), but also a source for religious teaching and wisdom. Uncle Tom, as the narrator states, has read a great deal of the Bible, and has committed much of it to memory. Further, he abides by these teachings - he does not merely espouse them but works, day in and day out, to live by them to put them into practice.

This will become important later in the novel, when Tom has his faith tested by many people and in many ways. Some, like Legree, will even try to make Tom abandon his faith - they will tempt him, they will beat him, and wonder whether his Christian God can save him. Even in these moments, however, Tom's faith, as evident in this passage, remains strong and unbroken. 

Chapter 5: Showing the Feelings of Living Property on Changing Owners Quotes

This is God’s curse on slavery!—a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!—a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil.

Related Characters: Mrs. Shelby (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

An important scene in the novel. Mrs. Shelby did not, until this point, know that Eliza and Tom were to be sold - and, indeed, when Shelby later admits to the size of his debt, Mrs. Shelby realizes that the farm itself was in jeopardy, and that Shelby has done what he had to do, although it is a bitter thing. Mrs. Shelby has a more emotional and honest response to the loss of Eliza and Tom - a humane response, one that Shelby might also feel, deep down, but one that he is not willing to share.

Mrs. Shelby is indeed the first person in the novel to mention the idea that slavery itself is an "evil," rather than simply a "custom" or a way of life in that part of the country. Mr. Shelby, though he doesn't articulate it explicitly, seems to think the latter to be the case - that slavery is simply a component of the Southern way of life, as it has been for many, many decades. 

Chapter 7: The Mother’s Struggle Quotes

Besides, I don’t see no kind of ‘casion for me to be hunter and catcher for other folks, neither.

Related Characters: Mr. Symmes (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Symmes is a neighbor of the Shelby family. He lives close to the Ohio River, and is on the Ohio side, the "free" side, as Ohio does not participate in the slave economy. Symmes behaves here in a manner that, importantly, is in violation of one of the primary laws of the time - the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced any person to return an escaped slave to the South, if confronted with that escapee (since slaves were, in the eyes of the courts at that time, "property"). Thus, by this brutal and inhumane logic, any person helping an escaped slave was helping in the "theft of property."

Symmes, of course, does not ascribe to this logic. He feels that Eliza wishes to be free, along with her child - and he is not going to return them to a man, Haley, whom he knows to be a brutal and overbearing master. Thus Symmes' act is one of heroism, and a notable one in the novel. 

Chapter 8: Eliza’s Escape Quotes

Run up a bill with the devil all your life, and then sneak out when pay time comes! Boh!

Related Characters: Tom Loker (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Loker, speaking to his friend Marks, who also looks for escaped slaves (like Loker does), argues an interesting and perhaps nonsensical view of human morality here. Loker believes that slavery is, of itself, not a moral thing. It is a system, instead, that relies on human cruelty and violence. It is one where humans own and exploit other human beings. Thus, catching escaped slaves is another brutal part of a brutal business. If Loker doesn't believe that his job is just or right, he also doesn't believe that it's any worse than any other aspect of the slave trade. It is simply one more component in a world that is far from any Christian ideal.

Although Loker's arguments are brutal, there is a simplicity and a clarity to them also. He does not make any claims for the moral high ground, as some defenders of slavery in the South did at the time. For this, in a very small way, Loker's views are at least comprehensible, even if they are also certainly reprehensible.

Chapter 9: In Which It Appears That a Senator is but a Man Quotes

You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance . . . .

Related Characters: Senator and Mrs. Bird (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 90
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another instance of well-intentioned and impassioned argument by white Americans, wondering what is ethical and right in the face of human bondage occurring in the South. Mrs. Bird, whose husband is a Senator, believes that any law preventing people from helping fugitive slaves, in a free state like Ohio or in any state, is deeply immoral. But the Senator argues, for his part, that though he also feels this way, he has other obligations as a Senator. One of them is to preserve the balance of power between states in the United States - it is, in short, to avoid war.

Of course, the reader today understands that war could not be avoided, and that Senator Bird's theory, in this case, proved incorrect. For there was no amount of moderation that could prevent the conflict between free and slave states from spilling over. There could be no ultimate compromise on the issue of human freedom and inequality. And this latter position seems to align more closely with Mrs. Bird's -- another example of a woman taking a more sympathetic view on slavery than the novel's men. 

Chapter 14: Evangeline Quotes

And you shall have good times . . . . Papa is very good to everybody, only he always will laugh at them.

Related Characters: Eva St. Clare (speaker), Uncle Tom, Augustine St. Clare
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Evangeline (Eva) and Augustine are two of the more interesting characters in the novel. Augustine has married a woman who does not love him, and who is cruel and harsh to their slaves. Eva is the apple of Augustine's eye - he will do anything to please her, and she is an extremely well-behaved and kind child. She is, in this sense, her father's daughter, and not her mother's.

Eva notes to Tom that Augustine is a man who wishes to treat his slaves well, who believes that they are his equals, but who also believes in social conventions to the extent that he will not free his slaves right away. Indeed, Augustine's moral evolution over the course of the middle of the novel is one of the book's most important dramatic arcs. For, though in the beginning he maintains his position in the slave system, by the end of the book he no longer believes this to be the ethical or Christian thing to do.

Chapter 16: Tom’s Mistress and Her Opinions Quotes

It’s we mistresses that are the slaves, down here.

Related Characters: Marie St. Clare (speaker)
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is an indication of just how out-of-touch Marie St. Claire is - how little she recognizes the plight of the slaves her family owns. Marie genuinely believes that her own physical ailments (whose exact nature is never described; they might very well be imaginary) to be far more difficult to manage than any problem encountered by Mammy or the other slaves in the house. Marie must know that there is a difference between being a free person and being enslaved - thus, it might be inferred, and is later demonstrated in this chapter, that Marie simply believes white people to be morally and intellectually superior to black people.

As with Loker in the previous chapters, Marie seems all too ready to embrace the underlying cruelty of a slave system. The system is hard to defend if one resorts to moral arguments about "protecting" slaves. But if, like Marie, one believes slaves to be naturally inferior to whites, then this cruel and inhumane standpoint at least makes the idea of slavery a workable one. 

Chapter 17: The Free Man’s Defense Quotes

But you haven’t got us. We don’t own your laws; we don’t own your country; we stand here as free, under God’s sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we’ll fight for our liberty till we die.

Related Characters: George Harris (speaker), Tom Loker, Marks
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

George delivers this speech from a mountain-top to Loker, Marks, and the very idea of a "slave-catcher" attempting to hunt down and return a human being. George has learned a great deal from the Quakers, and he has also seen awakened within him his natural inclinations and passions - George knew all along that he was more than the equal of those around him, and his engineering skill and efforts around the farm demonstrated to him that he could do, think, and say whatever he pleased.

Thus George fights back against the notion that African Americans are in any way inferior to white Americans. This chapter, coming as it does on the heels of Marie's description of African American inferiority, serves as an important juxtaposition - a reminder of the slaves and former slaves who find occupations in the North and in Canada, and who move beyond the yoke of slavery into more fulfilling lives. 

Chapter 19: Miss Ophelia’s Experience and Opinions (Continued) Quotes

On this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it—clergymen, who have planters to please—politicians, who want to rule by it—may warp and bend language . . . they can press nature and the Bible . . . into their service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more.

Related Characters: Augustine St. Clare (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

Augustine makes plain exactly the intellectual system that allows people in the South to defend the practice of slavery. For Augustine, the system is not a "natural" one, and it does not derive from any inferiority of African Americans to white Americans. Instead, slavery is a business system, an interaction of those who own land and capital (the plantation owners) and those who would, under different circumstances, sell their labor to the farms (the slaves). Under the system, as Augustine notes, owners have taken away the workers ability to work where they please - they have established instead a system of rules that prevent the recognition even of the humanity of the workers. This has not been done in accordance with any universal principle, and it is by no means the only way for the world to work. It is, instead, the way the South works at this moment - and all the moral or religious arguments defending slavery come after this economic reality, not before. Though Augustine sees the truth of his society, he despairs at the thought of the Southern system changing any time soon. 

Chapter 20: Topsy Quotes

But, of course, I didn’t want you to confess things you didn’t do . . . that’s telling a lie, just as much as the other.

Related Characters: Miss Ophelia (speaker), Topsy
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

A complicated section in the novel. Miss Ophelia says that she will go about "civilizing" Topsy, attempting to make her less of a "heathen" and more of a "good Christian girl." This teaching, of course, requires a great many assumptions on Miss Ophelia's part. She believes that Topsy is naturally inclined to evil or wickedness, just as Eva is naturally inclined to goodness. And it is hard to read those "natural" inclinations as anything other than outgrowths, for Miss Ophelia, of the skin color of those two girls. Thus, although Miss Ophelia seems genuinely to want to help Topsy, her teaching is also inflected with the idea that white Americans are superior to African Americans, and that it is the duty of white Americans to "help" slaves whenever they can.

This notion of beneficent teaching, as above, is an aspect of the novel that has not aged well over the years - that is now seen as a paternalistic or condescending view of the relationship between black and white Americans. 

Laws, now, is it?

Related Characters: Topsy (speaker)
Page Number: 279
Explanation and Analysis:

The story is here told from Topsy's perspective. In the narrative Topsy appears to have a more fluid relationship to the truth, but there is a reason for this - as Topsy argues, she merely wants to say or do the thing that will make Miss Ophelia happy, because, at root, Topsy really does want Miss Ophelia to like her. What is exasperating to her teacher, of course, is Topsy's willingness to bend the truth in order to say the thing that Miss Ophelia might want to hear. Topsy's response in this section, then - "Laws, now, is it?" - is a coy one, indicating that Topsy has known all along she hasn't been truthful - but that being truthful, for Topsy, is not the most important thing.

Again, this section seems to validate a preconception about African Americans, common even to abolitionists of the time - that black people were more inclined to bend the truth to appease people in power. This, of course, is not true - and even if in particular instances that might occur, it is, as in Topsy's case, an indicator of wanting to please a person in a position of authority, as opposed to any inherent "wickedness."

Chapter 29: The Unprotected Quotes

Now, I’m principled against emancipating, in any case. Keep a Negro under the care of a master, and he does well enough . . . but set them free, and they get lazy, and won’t work, and take to drinking . . . .

Related Characters: Marie St. Clare (speaker)
Page Number: 369
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene is part of one of the great tragedies of the novel. St. Claire had vowed, at his saintly daughter's urging, to release those slaves of his he had owned. In other words, before his own untimely death he had committed to becoming a better person, and to doing right to those who lived under his roof. But Marie has made no such conversion. And because after Augustine's death Marie now controls the house, she sees to it that no slave will ever be released from there.

What is most upsetting about this resolve is the explanation Marie provides. She says that she does not wish to harm any of the African Americans under her "care," and she wants them to work rather than to "be lazy," which she believes is the natural state of any black person who is not living within a slave system. The blatant cruelty and falsity of these statements does nothing to keep Marie from wielding absolute power, unfortunately, and so her slaves realize they will not be freed after all. 

Chapter 33: Cassy Quotes

Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin any one here, I never shall,—I’ll die first!”

Related Characters: Uncle Tom (speaker), Simon Legree
Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 406
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the most important scenes in the novel. This is a moment in which Tom most fully demonstrates his commitment to Christian teachings. It is also the moment when he is most Christ-like - refusing to protect himself in order to protect another person. Tom does not have a violent bone in his body, and it is inconceivable for him to harm another person in order to save his own skin. He cannot do it.

This moment is so affecting because here Tom's commitment to the health and wellbeing of another person is believable - it is an enormous moral burden for him to bear, but it does seem at least plausible that someone in his situation might respond in this way. One need not be a saint to do this - one need only be a committed, emotionally strong, and generous human being. Thus Tom (and Stowe) achieves maximum pathos, or fellow-feeling, in this section. 

Chapter 40: The Martyr Quotes

O, Mas’r! don’t bring this great sin on your soul. It will hurt you more than ‘twill me! Do the worst you can, my troubles’ll be over soon; but, if ye don’t repent, yours won’t never end!

Related Characters: Uncle Tom (speaker), Simon Legree
Page Number: 469
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene further demonstrates Tom's goodness. Even as he is being beaten to death for refusing to tell anything about Emmeline and Cassy, Tom refuses to consider his own plight. Instead, he argues that Legree's beating of Tom will only result in further damnation for Legree. If Legree wishes to protect himself in the afterlife, he will stop what he's doing and repent - even if Tom dies. 

That Tom might find any satisfaction at all in the idea that Legree's eternal soul is protected might be hard to believe, especially after the cruelty that Legree has visited upon Tom. But this belief in fellow-feeling even for those who have wronged us is central to Tom's identity. It is the thing that sets him apart from other slaves, and indeed from all the other characters in the novel, with the exception of Eva. It is the thing that makes Tom an example (if an unrealistic one) for all people to follow. 

Chapter 43: Results Quotes

I trust that the development of Africa is to be essentially a Christian one. If not a dominant and commanding race, they are, at least, an affectionate, magnanimous, and forgiving one.

Related Characters: George Harris (speaker)
Page Number: 494
Explanation and Analysis:

George believes that the best way for his family to grow and prosper is for that family to "give back" to African communities in Africa - to argue for a "Christian" project that helps those living in Africa to live good lives. On the one hand, George believes he is continuing on the mission that helped to save his life - he is following in the footsteps of the Quakers who helped him. 

But, again, viewed according to contemporary ideas, this section is at best problematic, because it shows that, even after escaping slavery, George is more interested in applying Western (and white) thought-systems to black experience in Africa. This does not mean that George willingly goes to Africa to "colonize" it, or to harm anyone - indeed, he only wishes to help. But the nature of his good works, which might have seemed straightforward in Beecher Stowe's time, might today be viewed with suspicion, as though George were going to Africa merely to spread Christian doctrine to a group of people who, largely, did not ask to receive this doctrine or invasive cultural influence. 

Chapter 45: Concluding Remarks Quotes

A day of grace is yet held out to us. Both North and South have been guilty before God; and the Christian church has a heavy account to answer . . . .For, not surer is the eternal law by which the millstone sinks in the ocean, than that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on nations the wrath of Almighty God!

Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 511
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section Beecher Stowe speaks in her own voice, and prophetically, as one who has created in the novel a parable of good and evil in America in the middle of the nineteenth century. Beecher Stowe has attempted to create both a "realistic" and an allegorical work - one that reflects society as it was at the time, and shows the battles of good and evil that existed in that society in symbolic terms.

Beecher Stowe believes that this conflict of slavery vs. freedom can only end in some form of cataclysm. There were increasingly in the 1840s and 1850s those who thought the same way, and were willing, in the North, to take a harder line against slavery in the South. Although there were a great many factors leading to the Civil War (nearly all of which did revolve in one way or another around the issue of enslavement of African Americans), Beecher Stowe's novel, problematic though it might be, is now seen as a spark that presented the issues of slavery to a wide reading public - and helped pave the way for the long struggle of equal rights for all Americans.