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... despite the influence of the women's movement, despite the explosion of work in nineteenth century American social history, and despite the new historicism that is infiltrating literary studies, the women, like Stowe, whose names were household words in the nineteenth century ... remain excluded from the literary canon. And while it has recently become fashionable to study their works as examples of cultural deformation, even critics who declare themselves feminists still refer to their novels as trash. (Tompkins 123)
In a chapter of her book Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860 dedicated exclusively to Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling sentimental novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jane Tompkins argues against the prevailing critical opinion that Stowe's novel is an unsophisticated, abortive attempt to write meaningfully about the "peculiar institution" which divided American culture in the mid-nineteenth century. Tompkins suggests that the novel's popularity, long considered a reason for "suspicion bordering on disgust, is [actually] a reason for paying close attention" to it (Tompkins 124). Tompkins makes a good point; perhaps Uncle Tom's Cabin makes sense outside of the bounds of the conventional critical approaches which can only view Stowe's novel as an example of "cultural deformation." In this essay, I want to discuss the ways in which Stowe's protagonist Tom manipulates and exemplifies the theory of feminine "influence" (as discussed in Ann Douglas' analysis of nineteenth century women's writings) which moderate white women advocated as means for reforming (and eventually subverting) the prevailing patriarchal social system in response to the Industrial Revolution; far from deforming its culture, Uncle Tom's Cabin actually reflects the rhetoric which the women of the nineteenth century used to redefine their position in a new, industrialist economy.
In her short story "Woman's Rights," published in the April 1850 issue of the popular Godey's Lady's Book, Haddie Lane explores and defines the concept of women's rights through the example of her Aunt Debbie. Aunt Debbie, exasperated by Haddie's sauciness and its rationalization as "woman's rights," takes Haddie on a tour of her daily rounds to teach her the true meaning of womanhood. As we accompany them along their charitable visits to the sick, the impoverished, and other unfortunates, Aunt Debbie's definition of women's rights is explicitly articulated as Haddie "realizes" the moral meaning of each successive stop. After visiting a once-gay schoolmate who now staggers under the weight of her infirm (and abusive) elderly father, Haddie voices her revelation:
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"Can this be one of woman's rights, Aunt Debbie?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, Haddie. Fanny is learning a lesson of self-denial, of patience; and though it may seem an unenviable right to you to be able to 'bless them that curse you,' we must think of 'the great reward' which Fanny will obtain in heaven."
As this example shows, Haddie's insights about the rights of women borrow extensively from Christian rhetoric and dogma. Women's rights, according to Aunt Debbie, are as follows: to aid the sick and dying, to help the poor through charity, to teach children, to be a peace-maker, to deny oneself for the sake of others, to meet poverty (even at the hands of an intemperate husband) bravely, and to be a mother.
In her book The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas discusses the ideals of womanhood in the popular culture of the nineteenth century through her contextualization of its popular literature. As industrialization eroded the home-based economy of "the age of homespun" (simultaneously destroying women's previous role as the rulers of this economy, as well as the respect awarded them from this position), middle-class women self-consciously tried to invent a new ideal of womanhood in order to restore their position in American culture. While extremists argued for women's equality, "the self-designated spokeswoman for the cautious among their discontented middle-class sisters [like Sarah Hale, the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, and her contributors] were intensely absorbed in trying to manufacture and defend a kind of pseudo-profession through the enunciation of a theory of female 'influence'" (Douglas 45).
As illustrated by Haddie Lane's submission to Godey's, this theory of women's "influence" self-consciously united inextricably with the rhetoric of Christianity. Although, as Douglas correctly critiques, this theory explicitly means that the ideal woman should "prompt others rather than assert herself ... [and] persuade passively by personal example" (Douglas 45), through this adroit marriage of politics and religion, moderate women found a means -- almost unassailable by virtue of its Christian rhetoric -- to nonetheless assert themselves under the guise of submissiveness. While Douglas' discussion of the women writers of the nineteenth century focuses primarily on the female characters and the underlying strategy of "influence" which both the authors and their creations manipulate for self-assertion, the theory of "influence" also provides a means for other out-groups, especially slaves, to assert themselves -- however apparently meekly. In this context, we can understand Harriet Beecher Stowe's best-selling novel Uncle Tom's Cabin as an extension of this theory of "influence;" through her protagonist Tom, Stowe uses the dialogue of "influence" to articulate an argument for the abolition of slavery.
Like Lane's Aunt Debbie character, Stowe's Uncle Tom is the embodiment of Christian virtue and piety. Although it is seen by slave traders as a purely economic asset -- a slave who has "got religion" is more obedient and docile than one who hasn't (Stowe 4)-- Tom's identity as a Christian nonetheless grants him some of the humanity which the institution of slavery inevitably takes away: at the Shelbys' and St. Claires', masters and slaves alike respect and trust him "as a Christian" (4, 187). Moreover, through this identity and its rhetoric, Tom asserts a subtle yet undeniable "influence" over his masters.
St. Claire's conversion to Christianity is, in this light, perhaps the most impressive example of Tom's "influence" over a representative of patriarchal authority. After Eva's death, Tom's expressions of sympathy and faith, as well as his earnest desire for St. Claire's conversion, manage to temporarily overcome St. Claire's characteristic skepticism; as Tom prays (at St. Claire's request), "St. Claire felt himself borne, on the tide of [Tom's] faith and feeling, almost to the gates of that heaven he seemed so vividly to conceive" (304). Tom's Christian sentiments, spoken aloud, thus act as a vehicle to renew St. Claire's faith "on the tide" of his own. And although Tom's prayer only assuages his master's doubts temporarily, St. Claire keeps company with Tom frequently (306). Stowe tells us that Tom's relationship with his master produces a lasting effect on St. Claire's character: "St. Claire was, in many respects, another man. He read his little Eva's Bible seriously and honestly; he thought more soberly and practically of his relations to his servants, -- enough to make him extremely dissatisfied with both his past and present course" (306). The culmination of Tom's "influence" comes when the dying St. Claire finally accepts Christianity: he is again lifted by Tom's faith and prayer -- this time all the way to Heaven (318).
At Legree's plantation, however, the benevolent "influence" which Tom has been able to exert upon his previous masters through appealing to their innate sense of morality is ineffective; Legree's morality is not simply slumbering -- it is willfully repressed. He knows of Christianity, but seemingly only in order to reject it. In the pivotal chapter "The Victory," Legree succeeds in making Tom begin to doubt his faith by condemning Christianity as "a mess of lying trumpery" -- mere sophistry (393). Tom's faith is reaffirmed by a revelatory vision of Christ, neatly sparing him from questioning (as I am doing) if his faith and its rhetoric are being manipulated for purely worldly interests. Interestingly, Tom's timely vision marks a transition in his use of Christian principles and rhetoric: Christianity rises from the ashes, re-emerging not, as before, as the rhetoric of reform through "influence," but rather as the rhetoric of subversion. Instead of defining a place for him within the patriarchal system of slavery, Tom's Christianity now undermines this system implicitly under the guise of outward submissiveness.
This new doctrine of insubordination is stated explicitly through Stowe's narrative as well as in the words of her protagonist; one day later, as Legree mercilessly beats Tom, Stowe comments, the blows fell now only on the outer man, and not, as before, on the heart. Tom stood perfectly submissive; and yet Legree could not hide from himself that his power over his bondslave was somehow gone. And, as Tom disappeared in his cabin, and [Legree] wheeled his horse suddenly round, there passed through his mind one of those vivid flashes that often send the lightening of conscience across the dark and wicked soul. He understood full well that it was GOD who was standing between him and his victim, and he blasphemed him. (396)
In this passage, Legree has a revelation which counterpoints Tom's vision of Christ; he "understands full well" that Tom is an instrument of God. Legree's reaction, however, is markedly different than Tom's: instead of rejoicing in (and uniting with) God, Legree "blasphemes him," refusing to be reformed through the "influence" of his mortal instrument. In the face of evil -- one who knows God, but rejects him -- Tom's previous strategy of "influence" as a mediatory tool cannot work.
As Douglas discusses the nineteenth century theory of feminine "influence," she critiques the limitations dictated by its passivity: "its proponents avoided testing their grandiloquent claims on occasions where protest, not mediation, was unmistakably called for ... their `influence' was most potent in persuading people to go in the direction they were already heading" (68). I suggest, however, that of the writers she discusses, at least Stowe was not as naive as Douglas' analysis would suggest. After his confrontation with Legree, Tom realizes the futility of the strategy of "influence" upon this master (whether by the grace of God or through his own reasoning). Stowe's position on the fundamental irreconcilability of Legree's system of slavery and Tom's strategy of "influence" is adamant: Legree and Tom part ways at this point in the novel, each (both literally and figuratively) turning away from the other -- one to his cabin and God, the other to his house and evil.
Douglas traces the development of the theory of feminine "influence" from a means of reconciliation to one of subversion through her discussion of Harriet Farley's (the editor of the Lowell Offering) editorials:
Farley summed up her doctrine: we must "do good by stealth." On the one hand, in this phrase as everywhere in her editorials, Farley was elaborating on the Christian prescriptions which the proponents of female "influence" so often referred ... On the other hand she was, of course unconsciously, suggesting something faintly subversive in its connotations: "do good by stealth" has implications other than Biblical ones. (71)
In this passage, Douglas indicates the ways in which Farley ("of course unconsciously") changes the purpose of the theory of feminine "influence" from the reform of the patriarchal system to its subversion. Perhaps, however, Douglas underestimates Farley and her sisters in letters: Farley may have consciously chosen the word "stealth" to implicitly suggest that subversion of the male-dominated paradigm (and not its reform) is necessary. Certainly, after his confrontation with Legree, Stowe credits her protagonist with a remarkable degree of stealth as he attempts to convert his fellow slaves:
When the more pressing season was past, and they were allowed again their Sundays for their own use, many would gather together to hear from of Jesus. They would gladly have met, to hear, and pray, and sing, in some place, together; but Legree would not permit it, and more than once broke up such attempts, with oaths and brutal execrations -- so that the blessed news had to circulate from individual to individual. (397)
Stowe continues to describe these exchanges as whispers "breathed into her ear in intervals, as they were going to and returning from work" (397). All of these exchanges depend absolutely upon the slaves' secrecy, as well as Legree's exclusion from their group; rather than "learn[ing] to cajole as well as obey their superiors" (as Douglas argues regarding Farley's message; 71), Stowe's characters learn to ignore and evade Legree.
Thus while Tom still teaches by influence and example, now his reformative efforts are concentrated solely on rehabilitating his fellow slaves:
Gradually and imperceptibly the strange, silent, patient man, who was ready to bear everyone's burden, and sought help from none, - who stood aside for all, and came last, and took last, yet was foremost to share his little all with any who needed... began to have a strange power over them. (397)
As Tom shifts his "influence" away from his master Legree and towards the brutalized slaves, we note their awakening sense of community, their re-humanization. These effects are fundamentally incompatible with slavery as Legree practices it; what we are seeing, then, is an underground rebellion. Far from meekly capitulating to Legree's rule or using the rhetoric of "influence" to negotiate with Legree (an impossibility), Tom defies Legree in both word and deed through his Christian identity.
It is admittedly difficult to reconcile Tom's eventual death at the orders of Legree with the idea of subversion I have presented. Like Little Eva's, Tom's death seems to have no perceptible effect: slavery continues, after all. But perhaps we are missing the point of Uncle Tom's Cabin; if its modern readers consider Stowe's novel disgustingly sentimental and unrealistic, think of how much worse it would be if Uncle Tom suddenly changed Legree's mind, or became a spokesman for the abolitionists. In her essay "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," Jane Tompkins argues that Stowe uses a topological narrative structure to establish a paradigm in which historical change is completely dependent upon individual religions conversion (at which Tom has been remarkably successful; Tompkins 133). Within the paradigm of Christianity, Tom's death as "The Martyr" is in no way a defeat; not only has he literally saved Emmeline and Cassy, he has rehabilitated and converted others, thus figuratively saving them. Thus, as he lies on his death bed, Tom is able to remonstrate George's senseless pity:
"Don't call me poor fellow!" said Tom solemnly. "I have been poor fellow; but that's all past and gone, now. I'm right in the door, going into glory! O, Mas'r George! Heaven has come! I've got victory!" ...[as Tom died,] the expression on his face was that of a conqueror. (421)
Stowe's description of her protagonist's death neatly subverts our definition of victory. Through his martyrdom and self-sacrifice, Tom is able to reaffirm the Christian principles and God for which he has lived, thereby perpetuating the individual conversion experiences necessary for historical change. Tom, like Christ, dies so that we may be redeemed: not only will those who knew him mend their ways, but through the experience of reading, the audience of Uncle Tom's Cabin will realize and correct America's error.
In this way, the rhetoric of "influence" provides a means for marginalized groups to not only reform and subvert the patriarchal status quo, but to ultimately defeat it. Through its affiliation with Christianity, the proponents of "influence" are able to conquer their oppressors -- a sentiment which Haddie Lane expresses at the end of her story for Godey's:
"Aunt Debbie, you did not tell me of woman's rights -- one right you omitted."
"What is it, my darling?"
"The -- the right of conquest, aunty."
"Oh, fie! What a naughty girl!" and Aunt Debbie tripped lightly from the room.
When we approach Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel in this light -- as the expression of nineteenth century women's efforts to redefine and negotiate their role in the midst of emerging industrialism -- its literary value becomes evident. Far from deforming the culture in which it was produced, Uncle Tom's Cabin actually reflects women's reaction to it. Stowe, along with the other women writers of her period, uses the ideology of "influence" to assert marginalized groups' humanity, to reform, subvert, or conquer the oppressive mainstream patriarchal culture, as well as to articulate an effective argument for the abolition of the dehumanizing institution of slavery.