Uncle Tom's Cabin


Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin: Allusions 4 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 1: A Man of Humanity
Explanation and Analysis—A Second Wilberforce:

In Chapter 1, the narrator uses an allusion to describe and ultimately poke fun at Haley as he discusses enslavement: 

It's always best to do the humane thing, sir; that's been my experience. The trader leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms, with an air of virtuous decision, apparently considering himself a second Wilberforce.

Haley ironically justifies his slave trading—which involves separating children from their mothers---by telling George his form of trading is humane, a statement that is inherently contradictory. Haley's statement becomes all the more ironic when the narrator compares Haley to William Wilberforce, a British politician and prominent leader of the abolitionist movement.  This comparison is not literal and is an instance of verbal irony. Readers at the time would have been well aware of Wilberforce's political beliefs and stance on slavery. In describing Haley as a "second Wilberforce," Beecher Stowe highlights just how self-important and morally deluded Haley is. Just like Mr. Shelby, Haley is complicit in a system that dehumanizes his fellow human beings. Although Haley isn't as explicitly cruel as some of the slave masters he sells to and claims the practice is "just business," Beecher Stowe makes it clear that his participation in and tolerance for slavery is wrong. 

Beecher Stowe wanted to depict the many sides of slavery; the novel's various settings (notably plantations) and characters reflect just how complex and layered the system was. Through characters like George Shelby Sr, Augustine St. Clare, Miss Ophelia, and Simon Legree (who all treat the people they have enslaved differently), Beecher Stowe offers various viewpoints on the institution, allowing readers to see the issue from many perspectives. In doing so, Stowe was also making an appeal to as many kinds of readers as possible.

Chapter 7: The Mother’s Struggle
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions:

Uncle Tom's Cabin is full of biblical references, as Beecher Stowe explicitly wrote the novel with a Christian audience in mind. In the below passage from Chapter 4, for example, the narrator makes multiple allusions to the Bible when describing a group of slaves: 

There were others, which made incessant mention of “Jordan’s banks,” and “Canaan’s fields,” and the “New Jerusalem;” for the negro-mind, impassioned and imaginative, always attaches itself to hymns and expressions of a vivid and pictorial nature; and, as they sang, some laughed, and some cried, and some clapped hands, or shook hands rejoicingly with each other, as if they had fairly gained the other side of the river. 

The phrases "Jordan's banks," "Canaan's fields," and "New Jerusalem" all refer to the idea of redemption that appears throughout the Bible. The banks of the Jordan River, which the Israelites cross to reach Canaan, symbolize a transition from a state of suffering to one of grace, and "New Jerusalem" is a city that represents heaven. This idea is repeated at the end of Chapter 4, when a group of enslaved people sing “O Canaan, bright Canaan, I’m bound for the land of Canaan" after a sermon in Uncle Tom's cabin. The reference to Canaan, Jordan, and New Jerusalem all reflect a Christian belief in redemption after death, which is a source of comfort for many of the enslaved people in the novel. 

In Chapter 22, Eva is described in Christ-like terms by the narrator: 

[Tom] loved her as something frail and earthly, yet almost worshipped her as something heavenly and divine. He gazed on her as the Italian sailor gazes on his image of the child Jesus—with a mixture of reverence and tenderness; and to humor her graceful fancies, and meet those thousand simple wants which invest childhood like a many-colored rainbow, was Tom’s chief delight. 

Note how Eva is associated with religious words: "worshipped," "heavenly, "divine," and "reverence." The narrator even goes as so far as to liken Eva to Jesus Christ, the ultimate martyr. This allusion to Christ underscores Eva's extreme goodness. Like Christ, she is a divine figure of innocence and represents Christian values.

Beecher Stowe also cites specific verses in the Bible to make a moral argument for slavery's wrongs. As a result, many of the novel's chapters are preceded by Bible verses. Uncle Tom and Eva read the Bible fervently, which offers moral instruction and encouragement.

In Chapter 7, Aunt Chloe references a specific Biblical verse in order to suggest that slave trader Haley will ultimately be punished for his sin of selling his fellow human beings: 

"He’s broke many, many, many hearts,—I tell ye all!” she said, stopping, with a fork uplifted in her hands; “it’s like what Mas’r George reads in Revelations,—souls a-callin’ under the altar! and a-callin’ on the Lord for vengeance on sich!—and by and by the Lord he’ll hear ’em—so he will!”

"Souls a callin under the alter" refers to Revelations 6:9, in which the narrator John describes the opening of "the fifth seal" in which he observes "the altar of the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God." The "souls under the altar" refers to those who have died as martyrs. In having Aunt Chloe make this reference, Beecher Stowe underscores the immoral nature of Haley's act to make the claim that his participation in slavery has led to the degradation of his soul. 

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Chapter 15: Of Tom’s New Master, and Various Other Matters
Explanation and Analysis—Literary Allusions:

Beecher Stowe often uses literary allusions to say something about the class, background, and traits of her characters. In the opening of Chapter 15, for example, the narrator makes a few literary allusions when describing the St. Clare home: 

In the family “keeping-room,” as it is termed, he will remember the staid, respectable old book-case, with its glass doors, where Rollin’s History, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Scott’s Family Bible, stand side by side in decorous order, with multitudes of other books, equally solemn and respectable. 

The narrator references John Milton's Paradise Lost, Charles Rollin's The Ancient History, and Thomas Scott's Scott's Family Bible. These titles would have been familiar to Beecher Stowe's intended audience, who were educated and religious women like herself. Beecher Stowe references these specific works to characterize the St. Clare home in a particular way and say something about its inhabitants. These books, all in all, reflect a certain refined, well-educated sensibility. The presence of the Bible, of course, is tied to the fact that the St. Clares are religious, while the inclusion of Milton's epic poem and Rollin's historical text suggest an interest in history and literature. 

The narrator makes another literary allusion when Miss Ophelia describes a visit to her cousin's southern mansion: 

The eldest of a large family, she was still considered by her father and mother as one of “the children,” and the proposal that she should go to Orleans was a most momentous one to the family circle. The old gray-headed father took down Morse’s Atlas out of the bookcase, and looked out the exact latitude and longitude; and read Flint’s Travels in the South and West, to make up his own mind as to the nature of the country.

In the passage above, Beecher Stowe references Sidney Edwards Morse, The Geographic Atlas of the United States and Timothy Flint's Recollections of the Last Ten Years. These books reflect an adventurous, geographically-minded taste and personality. All in all, Beecher Stowe makes these allusions to present her characters and settings to the reader in a memorable way. 

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Chapter 26: Death
Explanation and Analysis—Eva's Locks:

In Chapter 26, Eva uses a metaphor when she jokes with Miss Ophelia and likens her hair to a sheep’s fleece:

 Come, aunty, shear the sheep!

Eva, the St. Clares' daughter, is depicted in the novel as extremely sweet, virtuous, and devoted by all. Although Eva is joking, the association of her with a sheep here emphasizes her Christ-like nature; in the Bible, Jesus is described as a "lamb of God," a comparison that describes something innocent and precious being sacrificed. This religious reference, or allusion, is a form of characterization as well as moral persuasion on the part of Beecher Stowe; in making this allusion, she makes a direct appeal to her Christian audience, who would have been well aware of the phrase's biblical meaning.

Eva's religious nature and friendship with Uncle Tom inspires her father, Miss Ophelia, the other slaves, and also serves as an example to the reader. Beecher Stowe depicts genuine Christians as those who believe in treating all humans equally, a belief that directly opposed the practice of slavery. When Eva dies, it is presented to the reader as a tragic event. Eva's joke thus foreshadows her death, and like Uncle Tom, she becomes a martyr (or Christ-like figure) for readers to draw inspiration from. 

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