Black and White Masculinity in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Its Representation in Various Characters

Elaboration 2014 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Black Masculinity in Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin
2.1 The Character of Uncle Tom
2.2 The Character of George Harris

3 White Masculinity in Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin
3.1 The Characters of Mr. Shelby and Mr. Augustine St. Clare
3.2 The Character of Mr. Legree

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin is the most influential literary work with regard to the discussion of slavery of the 18th and 19th century America. In her novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe aims to draw society’s attention to the inhumanity of its system with the help of the novel’s protagonist, Uncle Tom, and various other characters, both black and white. In so doing, she presents different types of femininity and masculinity which help to point out the nature of the system of slavery. Generally speaking, women in Beecher Stowe’s work present abolitionist ideas stating the evil of the system whereas the depiction of male characters is more complex. This paper seeks to examine the types of masculinity in Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin, distinguishing between good and bad, black and white masculinity embodied in the characterization of the characters.

Masculinity has always been associated with physical strength and muscles, toughness and power but most of all courage. This paper, however, will not only address masculinity as such but will also show that masculinity is courage by softness and religious faith. Harriet Beecher Stowe disguises variations of masculinity in her characters: Bad white masculinity is depicted in the behavior of the plantation owner Simon Legree in contrast to the Kentuckian Mr. Shelby and Mr. Augustine St. Clare from New Orleans who imply good white masculinity. The latter two may depict an intermediate position between bad white and black masculinity presented by the slaves Uncle Tom and George Harris. Since Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin is considered to be a novel in favor of the abolition of slavery, black masculinity is unlikely to be presented badly. This paper therefore focuses on the above-mentioned characters and how they present different types of masculinity, also in relation to how they treat other human beings.

2 Black Masculinity in Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin

In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, black masculinity is presented as goodness and fortitude rather than bodily strength. Although the latter is not to be excluded from the characters, the slaves Uncle Tom and George Harris are characterized as good- natured, loving men who mainly define their manhood through God. Prior to what usually marks physical strength are freedom and belief, which represent the core values of black masculinity in Uncle Tom ’ s Cabin. Furthermore, black masculinity implies innocence and the avoidance of violence. Black men only want to apply violence against those who harm them or other innocent individuals. They are hardworking and portrayed as loyal to their masters, as long as the latter are kind. Finally, Uncle Tom, as well as George Harris to some extent, are religious characters who have the courage to follow a higher law, God’s law, risking punishment and death instead of obeying their masters and the Slave Codes of the United States. Their masculinity, or courage, hence manifests itself in goodness and the belief in God and freedom.

2.1 The Character of Uncle Tom

The protagonist, a slave named Uncle Tom, is introduced as a “steady, honest, [and] capable [man]. . .” (Beecher Stowe 4), who manages his master’s whole farm, and who is good and loyal as well as pious (4). Further, he is described as humble and simple with “much kindliness and benevolence” (21). In addition to these characteristics, the fact that Tom is called “Uncle” may not match the picture of a strong, masculine man. The term rather creates the picture of an old, small and good-hearted man. Although the latter is indeed true, Uncle Tom is anything but small and feeble. “He [is] a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of full glossy black” (21). Thus, his physical appearance and his character may not agree with each other. The former fits the general definition of masculinity as a strong, severe looking man but in fact, it is his soft character that this paper will be focusing on in the following. Uncle Tom’s masculinity manifests itself in his character and his consequential actions, which are guided by his faith.

Against all expectations, Tom does not blame Mr. Shelby for selling him due to his master’s debts, although the latter had promised Tom his freedom (37). Tom believes that there is a good reason why Mr. Shelby sold him to the slave trader Haley because Tom knows that otherwise, it would not have happened. He is just thankful for the good time he has had at the Shelby estate and that it is him who is sold instead of his wife or children (88-89). So Tom seems to be more concerned with the fate of the other slaves than with his own future, which shows his benevolence. This benevolence makes Tom the man he is: Even on the boat bringing him to deep south where he is not obliged to work, he is “more than ready to lend a hand in every emergency” (134) and later, on Legree’s plantation, he puts all his cotton in a woman’s basket to save her from punishment, being sure to bear strokes better than that poor, feeble woman (327).

It is on this very plantation that Tom’s true greatness becomes visible: Not his bodily strength or appearance impress Legree and everybody else on the plantation but his faith and nobleness. Tom always has “a commiseration for his fellow-sufferers” (325), no matter how hard he suffers himself because “[h]e [is] an expert and efficient workman in whatever he [undertakes]; and [is], both from habit and principle, prompt and faithful” (325). Even though he can only commit small good deeds, Tom tries to alleviate the others’ suffering. He therefore, as well as because of his belief, is unwilling to flog Lucy, another of Legree’s slaves, after she did not pick enough cotton (330). Tom is too good-hearted and too humane to cause someone else’s suffering. Additionally, he affronts his master and bravely states, “Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but as to my raising my hand agin anyone here, I never shall - I’ll die first!” (331). Here, Tom shows real courage and manhood as he would give his life to save another, something Legree would never think of himself.

Tom’s faith in Jesus and in God helps him to endure the endless suffering that follows from now on. Neither taunts, and threats, nor cruelties can disturb him or shake his faith (365): He will never subject to Legree’s rule! Tom even forgives and prays for the poor souls of the two overseers, who beat him after he refused to whip Lucy (384). He feels absolutely certain about God’s love for him and his fellow-sufferers because the slaves’ misery resembles the sufferings of the Lord’s own son, Jesus, and yet, he was redeemed. Tom believes that, although it might seem as if God has forgotten his people, the Lord will save them from their agony (335). Tom’s agony, caused by his brutal owner in the attempt to subject him, finally ends with the faithful, fearless protagonist’s death. Nevertheless, Tom is not afraid of dying; rather, he feels relieved to be allowed to go to paradise, to end his suffering and to give his life for other poor souls (364, 381). Like Jesus Christ, Uncle Tom does not feel revengeful but “overflowed with compassion and sympathy for the poor wretches [the overseers and Legree] by whom he was surrounded” (365). Tom loves every creature in the world and forgives his tormentors, giving his life for their redemption, “as the Lord gave his for [him]” (382). Thus, his victory over Legree is not a bodily but a spiritual one and implies the victory of black masculinity over white masculinity. Victory comes not through physical strength but through love and prayers (368).

By presenting Tom as a noble-hearted, benevolent and faithful character, Harriet Beecher Stowe created a black Jesus Christ. On the one hand she emphasizes that black masculinity is purer than white masculinity, indeed a spiritual masculinity because it is based on religious faith. On the other hand she might have wanted to emphasize the equal status of all men by ranging Tom on the same level as the Lord, a comparison which southern (Christian) supremacists of the 19th century would never have thought of. Summarizing, Tom was willing to “give . . . all the work of [his] hands, all [his] time, all [his] strength; but [his] soul [he would not] give up to mortal man,” (353) as it only belongs to the Lord. Tom’s attitude clearly presents a form of masculinity which chooses goodness and benevolence over physical power. Concluding, Tom introduces a type of black masculinity which is based on his belief in God and brotherly love. He is thus following a higher law. Augustine St. Clare simply summarizes the character of Uncle Tom saying, “[He] is as moral miracle!” (198) Instead of bodily strength, the protagonist depicts masculinity and courage as goodness, fortitude and love.

2.2 The Character of George Harris

The character of George Harris, in his fundamental structure, is very similar to the one of Uncle Tom, even though his faith is not as firm as Tom’s; he could not bear any difficulties for the men who oppress him (132). In the first place, George’s masculinity is based on his desire for freedom. His character clearly demonstrates that “the man [cannot] become a thing” (14). Bondage and punishment cannot tame him since he is unwilling to accept his fate and sufferings any longer, especially the separation from his wife and son (17).

The law denies him his masculinity: His marriage and family have no legal status as he is not a free man. After running away, he accidently meets Mr. Wilson, the factory owner he used to work for before his master forbid so, and asks, “Why am I not a man, as much as anybody?” (104). George seeks an answer to why he is not accepted as a full member of society and thus, why he is denied his masculinity. In fact, George’s appearance is indeed very manly. He is “a bright and talented young mulatto man,” (12) with erectness and courage that his master had felt “an uneasy consciousness of inferiority” (13) because George is so masculine in his appearance that he impresses his master.

George’s unwillingness to accept his life as it is hustles him to the decision to go to Canada with his wife Eliza and son Harry where he can achieve everything he is longing for: legal marriage and, most of all, freedom. Yet “what is freedom to George



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University of Mannheim – Anglistisches Seminar, International Cultural Studies
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Title: Black and White Masculinity in Uncle Tom's Cabin