Is there a tension between politics and sentimentalism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on the surface is a very sentimental novel due to the prevalence of tragedy and sadness, evoking strong emotional responses from its readers. But, it is more than just a sentimental novel because it also holds important insights about the morality underlying the institution of slavery in 19th century America. The sentimental stories therefore draw attention to the political issues, one such being its violation of human rights. Sentimentalism is developed via the role of women and the influence they exert on their male companions. Stowe’s interpretation of Christianity furthermore is used to highlight the incompatibility of its moral codes and the institution of slavery as a whole. Humanization of slaves in her writing in addition reinforces Stowe’s view that the political system that supports slavery is morally wrong in that slaves are not physically inferior to white people, however merely politically subordinated.
Stowe uses different genders in her book to represent different and conflicting moral codes regarding the issue of slavery. For example, female characters such as Mrs. Bird and Mrs. Shelby represent the sentimental side of a domestic household. They both share different views to their husbands regarding the status of slaves and their subsequent treatment. Both women hope to exert some sort of moral influence on their politically driven husbands. However, it is largely male characters such as Senator Bird and Mr. Shelby that are depicted to represent economic and largely political constraints of the time. A clear example of this is shown in the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bird in which Mr. Bird (Senator of Ohio) announces to his wife that he has voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). This act enforces that citizens of non-slave holding states are required to aid the capture and return of runaway slaves back to the slave state from which they came. Mrs. Bird expresses her clear discontent with her husband’s actions. “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; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do!” Mrs. Bird dictates that she would follow her moral inner conscience (sentiment) than submit to legislation she sees as immoral. Mrs. Bird’s moral diction is symbolic to her view on slavery. Words such as ‘wicked’ and ‘shameful’ are used against a man who effectively represents the relentless economic pursuits of the slave economy. In addition, the use of ‘creatures’ to describe slaves represents the vulnerability of the politically subordinated. Thus, a clear tension between the political decision of Mr. Shelby and the moral, sentimental view of his wife. Duvall dwells on the senator’s predicament “Senator Bird of Ohio, sworn to uphold the Fugitive Slave Law, is caught between abstract legal duty and sympathy for Eliza…each man capitulates to humanity.” It is soon after in the novel that the sentimental side of Mr Bird is shown to be stronger than his political stance when he aids Eliza the runaway slave; a significantly important aspect of the book considering his political position as a senator. Overall, Stowe’s representation of the conflict of opinion clearly advocates that the moral, sentimental argument is one of great conflict to political objectives.
In Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she references to the deep political forces that legalise and strengthen slavery for it is this political stance that arouses sentimentalism. In the conversation between Mr Bird and his wife on the issue of the Fugitive Slave Act, Mr bird pleas to his wife “you must consider it’s not a matter of private feeling,—there are great public interests involved,—there is a state of public agitation rising, that we must put aside our private feelings” ....
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