Uncle Tom's Cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is a novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 – 1896). Initially published as a serial story in the newspaper The National Era, the novel captured the attention of the American public, putting center stage the cruelty and inhumanity of the institution of slavery. The anti-slavery novel was controversial for its sympathetic portrayal of enslaved people and their struggle for freedom.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Uncle Tom's Cabin

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Table of contents

    Author of Uncle Tom's Cabin: Harriet Beecher Stowe

    The daughter of a clergyman, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an ardent abolitionist. She attended Hartford Female Seminary, run by her older sister Catherine. Some of her siblings became ministers and abolitionists. Stowe's travels with her father as he taught as a professor exposed her to abolitionist discussions and protests.

    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 inspired Beecher Stowe to pen the novel. She incorporated anecdotal stories from friends and family to inspire the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She intended the novel for a Christian audience and is explicit about her faith being incompatible with the institution of slavery. The novel is very much a product of its time, and despite its antislavery sentiment, still relies on racist stereotypes to portray its characters.

    The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 sought to redress the controversial issue of runaway slaves as the American territories expanded westward. It made illegal any assistance given to runaway slaves and defined slaves as property to be returned to their rightful owners. Northern states claimed it was an infringement on their sovereignty. Southern states contributed the law as part of the Compromise of 1850 that allowed new states to decide for themselves to be free or slave states. The act further contributed to the tensions that led to the American Civil War.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin: Characters

    The main plot follows Uncle Tom through other social circles of other characters navigating the complicated system of slavery. The four major characters of Uncle Tom's Cabin are Uncle Tom, Eliza, Evangeline St. Clare, and Simon Legree.

    The Shelby Plantation

    The Shelby Plantation is presented as a benevolent slave estate in Kentucky.

    Uncle Tom

    The Christlike protagonist of the story, Uncle Tom, is unwavering in his compassion for others and the Christian faith.

    Aunt Chloe

    The loyal wife of Uncle Tom, Chloe is the matriarch of the enslaved community, willing to sacrifice her labor to buy back Tom.

    Mr. Shelby

    The benevolent slave master of the Kentucky estate, Shelby reluctantly sells Tom, Eliza, and Harry, to pay off debts.


    A light-skinned enslaved woman, she decides to escape with her son Harry after learning about his sale.

    HaleyA slave trader, Haley is motivated by profit to treat slaves kindly.
    GeorgeThe husband of Eliza and father of Harry, George is a talented, light-skinned enslaved black man, who endeavors to escape after his jealous master deprives him of valuable work.
    HarryThe handsome son of Eliza, Harry is an innocent boy caught up in the evils of the slave trade.
    Mrs. ShelbyThe kind wife of George Shelby, Mrs. Shelby, offers to work to pay off the debt instead of selling any slaves.
    Tom LokerInitially, a slave catcher, Loker becomes repentant after experiencing the kindness of the Quakers

    The St. Clare Plantation

    The St. Clare plantation is less safe and harmonious than the Shelby's.

    Augustine St. Clare

    A benevolent, free-spirited slave owner, Augustine disapproves of slavery, but feels the least he can do is show compassion towards his slaves by providing an unconventionally generous and gracious slave-run estate.

    Marie St. Clare

    The self-absorbed wife of Augustine. She believes enslaved Blacks are an inferior race and endeavors to help no one while complaining about her own imagined neglect.

    Evangeline St. Clare

    The saintly and eventually sickly daughter of Augustine. Eva is a pious Christian whose behavior inspires others to universal love and compassion.

    Miss OpheliaA cousin of Augustine, Ophelia embodies the staid nature of Northerners, who, politically, oppose slavery, but personally have no direct contact with the institution and are complicit in its perpetuation.

    A young enslaved girl who is bought by Augustine for instruction by Miss Ophelia.

    The Legree Plantation

    Owned by Simon Legree, the plantation symbolizes slavery in its worst and most prevalent form.

    Simon Legree

    The cruelest type of slave owner, Legree delights in tormenting and torturing his slaves while displaying an overt opposition to Christianity’s compassion and faith.


    Legree’s enslaved mistress, Cassy lives a hopeless life being a lover to one white man after another for survival. She regains hope after witnessing Tom’s unwavering faith.


    A young enslaved girl bought by Legree to eventually replace Cassy, Emmeline plots with Cassy to escape the plantation.

    Sambo and Quimbo

    The lead slaves under Legree who carry out the brutality of Legree's orders unquestionably, but ultimately are touched by Tom’s Christian faith.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin: Summary

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin comprises 45 chapters, but we have presented a summary of sections for you to revise.

    Chapters 1 – 9

    Mr. Shelby, a benevolent slave owner, has to settle a debt and haggles with Haley, a slave trader. He reluctantly considers selling Uncle Tom, and Harry, the son of Eliza. She worries about her son to Mrs. Shelby, who naively waves off the potential separation as impossible. Eliza’s husband, George, has been discharged from his factory work by his master, jealous of his productivity and ingenuity. He visits Eliza, expressing his struggle with his Christian faith, while he is treated cruelly by his master. She encourages him to persevere but he decides to flee to Canada.

    At Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a community center and home for the slaves, Aunt Chloe prepares food for George Shelby Jr, and Uncle Tom. He is teaching Tom to read and write while Tom and Chloe’s three children play. Chloe encourages George to read a passage as the rest of the slaves congregate and sing.

    Mr. Shelby and Haley finalize the deal to sell Tom and Harry. Mrs. Shelby is distraught and offers to work to pay off the debt. Mr. Shelby refuses, insisting on his place as the man of the house. Eliza learns the news and resolves to escape with Harry to Canada, telling Aunt Chloe on her way out. Uncle Tom stays and cries, insisting on his Christian duty to honor his bondage with his master. When Haley tries to arrange a search party thanks to two slaves, they secretly sabotage and delay the search.

    uncle toms cabin kentucky pasture studysmarterFig 1 - Rural Kentucky is the setting of the Shelby estate.

    Eliza and Harry travel safely, light-skinned enough to pose as white people. Back at the Shelby estate, Uncle Tom dutifully prepares to be sold and scolds his children for calling slavery evil, insisting on God’s Grace and compassion even towards evildoers. Eliza and Harry are almost caught, but escape across the Ohio River, dangerously hopping across floating pieces of ice. In a nearby tavern, Haley cuts a deal with slave catchers Loker and Mark to find Eliza and Harry. Back at the Shelby estate, the slaves decided that it was God’s grace that aided Eliza and Harry’s escape.

    Ohio Senator Bird and his wife discuss the recent passage of a law that criminalizes the helping of runaway slaves. Eliza and Harry arrive, and he willingly takes them in. They bring them to a safe haven run by former slave owner John Von Trompe, who has renounced slavery.

    Chapters 11 – 29

    Aunt Chloe weeps as she shares a last meal with Tom, who is resigned and quiet. Haley shackles Tom and takes him away. While getting his shackles tightened, the blacksmith warns of the crueler fates for slaves in the South. They come across George Shelby Jr, who insists he will find a way to get Tom back.

    At a hotel, various guests discuss the value of treating slaves kindly. One guest, Mr. Wilson, recognizes another, George, who poses as a Spaniard. In private, they debate the morality of George’s escape. Mr. Wilson gives George money after hearing about his traumatic childhood separation and wishes him luck.

    Haley travels with Tom and finds an auction. They board a New Orleans-bound boat after buying more slaves, where various passengers debate the morality of slavery. Overnight, an enslaved mother drowns herself after her child is sold. George, Harry, and Eliza are reunited at a Quaker’s home, a family that practices nonviolent protest of slavery by helping runaways to Canada. Back on the boat, Augustine St. Clare buys Tom after Tom saves his daughter Eva from drowning.

    uncle toms cabin riverboat studysmarterFig 2 - Many characters take trips North or South by riverboat.

    St. Clare shares his family history, his reluctant marriage to Marie, and his love of Eva, for whom he was traveling to fetch Miss Ophelia as her nanny. Marie insists that slaves are ungrateful but inferior. Ophelia believes they should be educated. St. Clare believes the institution is unfortunately tolerated because it serves an economic purpose. Eva shares her love for Tom, who prays for St. Clare’s Christian conversion.

    Back up north, Loker and Mark close in on George, Eliza, and Harry, their escape aided by Phineas. A violent confrontation ensues. They narrowly escape, while Mark abandons the injured Loker, who is helped by Phineas and the Quakers.

    At the St. Clare estate, Tom takes over finances while Ophelia takes care of general management. They meet Prue, a depressed drunken enslaved woman who had all her children taken from her. This prompts St. Clare to share his complicated history with slavery. He disapproves of it, is empathetic and kind to slaves, but feels helpless in dismantling the system. He buys Topsy, a young black girl for Ophelia to mentor in the hope that she becomes more compassionate.

    The Shelby estate receives a letter from Tom for Chloe, written with the help of Eva and St. Clare. Mr. Shelby still refuses to let Mrs. Shelby work to buy back Tom. Chloe looks into extra work as a cook in Louisville, as George Shelby Jr. eagerly writes back to Tom. Two years later, Tom learns Eva is ill. St. Clare’s brother Alfred and son Henrique visit. While the son courts Eva on a horse ride, St. Clare and Alfred debate the politics of slavery and potential rebellion, and how freed slaves would live. Eva reprimands her cousin for his cruel treatment of slaves.

    Eva's illness worsens, and she believes she is destined for heaven. She asks her father, St. Clare, to free their slaves when she dies, and he promises he will. Eva speaks with Topsy, who feels she cannot be loved because she is black. Eva tells her she loves her, and Miss Ophelia, secretly witnessing this exchange, vows to be a better Christian. On her deathbed, Eva gives away the locks of her hair, gracefully accepting her fate. Her unwavering faith confounds her father, St. Clare.

    Chapters 30 – 45

    St. Clare resolves to be a better Christian, signing over custody of Topsy to Ophelia, and promising to free his slaves in his will. However, he dies in an incident before he can. Marie sells Tom, who meets Susan and her daughter Emmeline in a slave warehouse that is financed by a New York firm. He and Emmeline are sold to Simon Legree, who swears to dominate and destroy Tom. While heading back to his plantation on a boat, a passenger condemns Legree’s cruelty, while admitting that benevolent slaveholders perpetuate the institution.

    Legree’s plantation is barely kept together as he prioritizes profit. His two main overseers, Sambo and Quimbo, are rivals who cruelly compete for power. Tom tries in vain to preach to the slaves, exhausted from the backbreaking labor of cotton picking. Legree conspires to dishearten Tom, who refuses to whip another slave and is badly beaten by Legree for it. While Cassy, Legree’s slave mistress, tends to Tom’s wound, she shares her cruel, hopeless life story, but is inspired by Tom’s stubborn faith.

    Cassy visits Legree, who is frustrated with Tom’s disobedience. She claims to be possessed by the devil, triggering Legree’s superstitions. Sambo has found Eva’s lock of hair in Tom’s possession, and Legree orders them to burn it. Legree is haunted by the memory of his mom’s lock of hair and believes it to be the result of witchcraft. Scared, he orders Sambo and Quimbo to drink with him. Cassy and the hair appear in his dreams, deepening his superstitious fears.

    Up north, Loker has lived with the Quakers, showing a change in heart from their compassion. Eliza, George, and Harry make it across to Canada.

    Back at Legree’s plantation, Legree continues to torment the unwavering Tom. While he is whipped, Tom thinks of the other slaves which make explicit his Jesus-like martyrdom. He even refuses to escape with Cassy, who has temporarily subdued Legree with drugged brandy. Cassy and Emmeline hide in the attic that Legree believes is haunted while they search for them elsewhere. Tom is nearly beaten to death by Sambo and Quimbo. Afterwards, they repent to Tom, impressed by his saintliness.

    George Shelby Jr. arrives looking for Tom, while his mother manages the estate in his late father’s absence. He spends Tom’s last moments alongside the repentant Sambo and Quimbo. Cassy and Emmeline escape, while Legree lies on his alcohol-induced deathbed. Taking a steamship upriver, they meet George Shelby and Madame de Thoux. Hearing their stories, Eliza is revealed to be Cassy’s long-lost daughter, and the Madame the sister of George.

    Years later, Madame de Thoux, Cassy, Emmeline, George, Eliza, and Harry are reunited in Montreal. De Thoux moves everyone to France with money from an inheritance. George goes to university and writes back home about the possibility of an African-free state. After moving to Vermont with Ophelia, Topsy becomes a Christian missionary in Africa. Shelby Jr. returns home, mourns Tom’s death with Mrs. Shelby and Chloe, and frees all their slaves. He instructs them to remember Tom when they pass by his cabin.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin: Analysis of Themes

    The main idea of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that slavery is an immoral institution and goes against Christian principles. In Beecher Stowe’s time, America was a majority Christian-country, with Christian ideals built into the very fabric of society.

    While different denominations focused on certain key principles (such as Quakers and nonviolence) most Americans understood that personal sacrifice for the common good was an important value to work towards.

    Beecher Stowe appealed to this commonly held belief. Even where citizens felt less pious, the concept of civil liberties, such as freedom and the pursuit of happiness, were understood as God-given.

    There are three recurring themes in Uncle Tom's Cabin that explore the immorality of slavery:

    • slavery and dehumanization
    • Christian love and redemption
    • emancipation and freedom

    Slavery and Dehumanization

    Characters are constantly presented with choices that challenge their empathy towards other human beings. Some of the most unfortunate cases are slaves competing against themselves for power. Sambo and Quimbo choose to be right-hand men to Legree because they can exert more control over their living conditions. As a consequence, they reduce their fellow slaves to property like their white masters.

    Southern plantations relied on agricultural labor, and it was hard to deny the excruciating demands on the bodies of slaves. This reduced slaves to machines. Northern slavery appeared more benign but was just as reliant on the system. Enslaved people such as Uncle Tom, or Eliza, could not exercise rights seen as essential by white people. Their freedom was controlled by white masters.

    In the world of slavery, often characters must choose an unsavory profession to make a living. Haley and Loker work as slave traders and slave catchers, respectively. Haley is motivated to treat slaves kindly because it makes him more money. Loker needs to make a living and initially tries to catch the escaping slaves only to be shown compassion and experience a change of heart. Beecher Stowe shows that the best-case scenario is Loker, but that most people go on living by their profession, like Haley.

    Christian Love and Redemption

    Many characters experience a change of heart in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by being shown compassion, regardless of whether they initially showed any themselves.

    Loker, originally a slave catcher, decides to quit his profession because the Quakers tended to his injuries, despite his attack in catching Eliza and Harry. Miss Ophelia initially demands and expects obedience from Topsy. She is inspired to be more kind and patient with Topsy’s bad behavior when she sees Eva show Topsy compassion and love, understanding it comes from a lack of love in her life. Eva’s graceful acceptance of her death inspires her father, Augustine, to take up reading the Bible when previously he resisted Christianity.

    Uncle Tom embodies the epitome of a Christ-like character and forms the moral grounding of the story. He accepts every slight and abuse against him graciously and without contempt. He is not upset with Mr. Shelby when he is sold despite his years of loyal servitude. His unwavering faith inspires others. Quimbo and Sambo want to redeem themselves after Tom still shows them love after beating him mercilessly.

    Beecher Stowe thus wants to impress that no one is beyond redemption. It is there waiting for them when they are ready to renounce their immoral behavior.

    Emancipation and Freedom

    Throughout the story, enslaved people grapple with the ramifications of freedom.

    While white people enjoy freedom as a right, slaves are at the whims of masters who choose the amount of freedom they grant them. Beecher Stowe shows there is a spectrum of freedom, even within slavery. Slaves live much more comfortable, autonomous lives on estates and plantations like those owned by the Shelby's or St. Clare's. However, basic human rights, such as making a living and raising a family, can be denied at any moment.

    • George loses his job because he overperforms and makes his master jealous.
    • Eliza runs away with Harry because Shelby needs to settle debts and selling slaves is his most lucrative option.

    Outside of slavery, Beecher Stowe shows freedom is not as simple for emancipated slaves as for white people born free. Many white people had access to education when often slaves cannot read or write.

    • Tom is still learning to read as a middle-aged man.
    • Beecher Stowe shows the importance of education, with characters such as Miss Ophelia and George Shelby Jr. acting as tutors for enslaved black people.
    • Yet even if they have basic education, there are no institutions in place for Black education.
    • George travels to France to receive a degree and is the only Black character to receive secondary education.

    Emancipated slaves also struggle to build a family, as most have been separated from their parents as children. Tracing back and reconnecting with families is an almost impossible task and a reoccurring theme in literature exploring the topic of slavery. Beecher Stowe uses fortunate happenstance to bring together a happy ending for George, Eliza, Harry, and Cassy.

    However, they are an exception, as most characters end up separated and divided, never to be reunited which reflects the realities of enslaved people before and after Abolition.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin: Quotes

    Much of the dialogue in Uncle Tom's Cabin tells who the characters are, represents local speech, and impress on the reader the typical thinking and treatment towards slavery in their day.

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

    - Haley, Chapter 1.

    Haley is speaking with Shelby as they discuss the potential sale of Tom and Harry, which would separate them from their family. Haley dismisses the pain and suffering of enslaved Black people because he believes them to be fundamentally different. Human beings naturally feel empathy towards each other, but to rationalize such harmful behavior, Haley has to believe that they’re not human like he is.

    “Think of your freedom, every time you see uncle tom’s cabin; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.”

    - George Shelby Jr. Chapter 44.

    George Shelby releases all his slaves at the end of the story. He gives a speech before Uncle Tom’s cabin, as it’s the symbol of safe haven within the enslaved community on the Shelby estate and represents Uncle Tom himself. Tom has died, believing he has suffered for the salvation of others. Beecher Stowe impresses this as Tom dutifully receives punishment, and wishes no ill will on those that harm him. This final speech acts as a moral command to demand that Christians live up to their principles.

    “But, suppose we should rise up to-morrow and emancipate, who would educate these millions, and teach them how to use their freedom?”

    - Augustine St. Clare, Chapter 28.

    Augustine discusses the large-scale ramifications of emancipation with Miss Ophelia. If all the enslaved people were to be set free, who would help them make fully possible the extent of their freedom? If they do not have state institutions in place, is there enough charity among the white community to support them until they can support themselves? These are the questions that Augustine is trying to answer, and he feels painfully aware that those emancipated slaves receive their freedom at a disadvantage that affluent white people, like Miss Ophelia, have not experienced.

    Uncle Tom's Cabin - Key takeaways

    • Uncle Tom's Cabin is a novel published in 1852 and follows Uncle Tom through several plantations as other slaves struggle to escape the brutality of slave life.
    • Harriet Beecher Stowe was an adamant abolitionist and practicing Christian, and uses the themes of abolition and Christianity as a moral message.
    • The four major characters of Uncle Tom's Cabin are Uncle Tom, Eliza, Evangeline St. Clare, and Simon Legree. Tom is the Christlike figure in the story and a model for Christian behavior.
    • While some enslaved experiences were more benevolent than others, ultimately Stowe condemns the entire institution for its complicity in brutality and cruelty and stressed that the system must be dismantled.
    • The three major themes of the novel are slavery and dehumanization, Christian love and redemption, and freedom and emancipation.


    1. Fig. 1 - Kentucky Pasture (https://unsplash.com/photos/slXLvCiqKS4) by Jeff Arnold is licensed by Unsplash License (https://unsplash.com/license)
    2. Fig. 2 - Riverboat (https://unsplash.com/photos/1MLJBD3twCU) by Jennifer Grismer is licensed by Unsplash License (https://unsplash.com/license)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Uncle Tom's Cabin

    What is Uncle Tom's Cabin about?

    Uncle Tom's Cabin follows Uncle Tom and other slaves as they try to escape the brutality of slave life.

    Who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin?

    Uncle Tom's Cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

    Why was Uncle Tom's Cabin important?

    Uncle Tom's Cabin was important because it was the first novel to depict the harsh realities of slavery.

    What is the main idea of Uncle Tom's Cabin?

    The main theme of Uncle Tom's Cabin is that slavery is immoral, and the institution needs to be dismantled.

    What was controversial about Uncle Tom's Cabin?

    Uncle Tom's Cabin was controversial for its sympathetic portrayal of enslaved people and their struggle for freedom.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Harriet Beecher Stowe felt that slavery and Christianity are

    Who are main characters in the Shelby estate?

    Who are characters from the St. Clare estate?


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