Situational Irony

Uncle Tom's Cabin


Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin: Situational Irony 1 key example

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.