Captivity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Tell someone that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is about captivity, and it is unlikely they would bat an eyelash in response. After all, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s seminal novel tells a story of escaped slaves and their struggle to avoid capture, making captivity an obvious theme. However, in addition to its more literal exploration of the concept of captivity, Uncle Tom’s Cabin also examines several types of metaphorical captivity. There is the financial captivity to which those in the slave trade find themselves, forced to make decisions they do not want to because of the economic implications. There is the captivity of Christian doctrine, which many have interpreted as pro-slavery and therefore participate in the institution for what they believe to be humane reasons. There is even the political captivity that, through pro-slavery legislation, holds political legislators captive to supporting slavery even when they are not necessarily in favor. Each of these types of captivities is featured prominently in Uncle Tom’s Cabin; ultimately, just like the more literal form of captivity that Eliza and her family escapes, each type is subverted in various ways over the course of the novel. Of these three types of alternative captivity, financial captivity is the one most immediately apparent. In the novel, this type of captivity is embodied most directly by the character of Mr. Haley, the uncouth slave buyer who forces Mr. Shelby to include Eliza’s son Harry in the transaction that opens the novel. Stowe further removes the character from any trace of humanity with her opening description of him as “[a man] who did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species” (41). His appearance also reinforces his image as one singularly concerned with money; he is “over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors…and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world” (41). Shelby, deeply in debt and facing the loss of his land and property, is the character who is the most directly held in financial captivity; though he is personally unwilling to separate Eliza from her son, he has no choice but to enter into the slave trade under Haley’s terms. As the leader of the household, Shelby’s financial captivity extends to his family as well. Despite his wife’s vocal opposition to slavery, she is forced to comply with her husband’s decisions for the same financial reasons. Through it all, Stowe takes pains to remind her audience of the devastating consequences that this financial captivity holds. She employs irony to underscore the human toll at the mercy of these financial conflicts when she juxtaposes the scene of Shelby reluctantly signing Haley’s agreement with a happy, carefree dinner in Uncle Tom’s cabin, a moment of tranquility before the world of the slaves begins to crumble around them. If Mr. Haley and Shelby’s predicament exemplifies the financial captivity of slavery that is present in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then the ruination of those entities represents financial captivity’s subversion in the novel. Symbolically speaking, the tricks that the slaves play on Mr. Haley when he is trying to go after the escaped Eliza, which include preparing a meal slower than usual and placing a beechnut on the saddle of Haley’s horse so it will throw him off, are significant as attempts to undermine and challenge this type of captivity that Haley represents. At the conclusion of the novel, financial captivity is once again subverted when Mr. Shelby offers freedom to his slaves and even agrees to pay them wages, signifying that the financial picture of the novel has effectively come full circle; whereas Shelby was initially so poor that he was forced to use his slaves as currency in the trade, he is now able to reward them monetarily and set them free at the same time. The announcement of these two things in conjunction symbolically links freedom to money in the context of...
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“Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,” 2011, http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/utc/
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