Saturday, March 3, 2012

Uncle Tom's Cabin

When I started Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was not impressed, to say the least. If I hadn't had a few people tell me to keep reading and read Jean's post on it, I may have given up. I'm happy to say that I finished it - and ended up liking it.

All of the things I complained about were still issues throughout, although her writing is definitely better in some sections than others. It's like she has all of Dickens' faults magnified by 10 - out of nowhere coincidences, extreme overuse of adjectives, inserting herself into the narrative, bad pacing, caricatured characters, and endless preaching. Don't get me wrong, I love Dickens and while he does those things to a small extent, it's nowhere near as bad as Stowe and his works are strong enough in other areas to compensate. I know the book did astonishingly well, but I still think it would have been better if she'd written more like Dickens and toned down some of the faults a bit or had a better editor. It definitely felt more like a propaganda piece thinly disguised as a novel than a novel with a moral and call to action.

That said, this is still a work worth reading for its historical significance. It heated up the debate about slavery and surely opened many people's eyes - in both the North and the South. She lays into both sides. Southerners, more obviously, for their continued use of slavery, no matter how kind the masters may be. For the North, she lays into them for not doing enough to fight slavery or to help free men. What is the purpose of freeing the slaves if they can't find jobs, go to school, vote, or anything else? Racism was just making it easier for the South to cling to slavery by arguing that their slaves would be better off as slaves than free men in the North, which on a physical comfort level, was true in some cases.

Stowe particularly lays into Christians for standing by and doing nothing, or talking about ending slavery but not being willing to welcome a black person into their homes or educate them or hire them. Christians would send money off to fund missionaries to Africa, but wouldn't help the blacks in their own cities.

One thing Stowe obviously does well is stir up emotion. You can't read this and not react, not feel for these people and their real-life counterparts. The break up of families is especially heartbreaking. I can't imagine being ripped away from Ryan that way and sold off, possibly being forced to take another husband or fulfill the desires of my master. I just realized the next book I'm planning on reading is The Handmaid's Tale, which is sort of about the same thing in a completely different society. That should make for an interesting comparison.

One of the many problems I had with the book was that I loved Eliza, and we go so long without finding out what happens to her! That was so frustrating, because poor Tom just wasn't as interesting to read about, not until the very end. I think he was just too good - rebellion is more entertaining to read about I suppose. Don't get me wrong - I felt horrible for him and would have loved to have rescued him or just given him a hug, but the other characters were more alive in a sense than he, or maybe they were just more relatable.

I also loved dear little Eva and the younger Master George. Stowe does a good job of portraying the issue through the eyes of innocent children, who see right and wrong much more clearly than most of the adults. The story also did pick up and made me want to see what happens to everyone, and I managed to finish it quickly despite all of the sermons she injects.

I don't want to harp too much more on the writing style problems, but my edition has a few excerpts from reviews at the time and I thought this part from North American Review was quite funny: "Whatever may be the literary merits of Uncle Tom, they do not account for its success. It exhibits by no means the highest order of genius or skill. It is not to be named in comparison with the novels of Scott or Dickens; and in regard to variety of knowledge, eloquence, imaginative power, and spirited deleations of life and character, manners and events, it is inferior even to those of Bulwer, or Currer Bell, or Hawthorne."

How hilarious is it that this reviewer says it's inferior even to Charlotte Bronte or Nathaniel Hawthorne! As though they are rather inferior writers to begin with, and Stowe is so bad she can't even compare to them! I couldn't help but laugh. It's also funny that he ranks Scott above them as well, and I think most people today would rate Bronte and Hawthorne above him. How tastes and standards change!

There is also a bit from Dickens himself, saying how much he liked the work, but feels she went a bit too far and tries to prove too much, which sort of sums up my own feelings. I would recommend the book to other people though, and think it is an important book to read solely for its history.

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