Places: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1852

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Kentucky

*Kentucky. Uncle Tom’s CabinSouth-central U.S. state that provides the setting for the first third of the novel. Kentucky is an appropriate location for slaves hoping to escape because it is separated from free territory only by the Ohio River. Harriet Beecher Stowe also felt comfortable describing this area since she spent a number of years living in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio.

Shelby farm

Shelby farm. Kentucky farm on which two slaves, Uncle Tom and Eliza Harris, reside. Eliza’s husband, George Harris, also a slave, lives nearby. As the narrative makes clear, Eliza and Tom both enjoy relatively pleasant lives on the Shelby farm; however, when financial problems threaten Mr. Shelby, he makes the decision to sell two of his slaves, Tom and Eliza’s young son, Harry. Mrs. Shelby is the first of many principled women who speak out against the moral evil of slavery in the way that it breaks families apart. Stowe illustrates the perils facing slave families as Eliza decides to run away to protect her child, and Tom opts to stay and be sold, sacrificing himself to protect his family and the other slave families on the Shelby farm from a similar fate.

The narrative returns periodically to the Shelby farm to follow the fate of the Shelby family and of Tom’s wife, Aunt Chloe. By the end of the novel, Mr. Shelby’s son, George, after seeing Tom’s brutal fate, frees all the Shelby slaves; therefore, Tom’s bitter end does effect change, at least in one home.

Uncle Tom’s cabin

Uncle Tom’s cabin. Cabin on the Shelby farm in which the slave known as Uncle Tom lives until he is sold and forced to leave behind his wife and family, demonstrating that slaves can never have a true home.

*Ohio River

*Ohio River. First of several bodies of water that play an important role in the novel. This river forms the border between Kentucky and Ohio, and hence between slavery and freedom. Here, Eliza makes her dramatic journey across ice floes to the free state of Ohio, illustrating the risks that a mother will make for her child and underlining the importance of family; Stowe uses this dramatic scene to engender sympathy for her imperiled slave heroine and to show how motherhood transcends race and social circumstances.

*Ohio

*Ohio. Free state to which Eliza flees from Kentucky. She finds refuge, first at the home of Senator and Mrs. Bird and then at the Quaker settlement, where she is reunited with her husband, George. Both these places represent model homes where family members act on moral principle. Senator Bird, although he has recently voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law, cannot bring himself to turn in Eliza. Instead, his wife persuades him to act not according to political expediency but moral principle, and he furthers Eliza’s escape.

Words and actions are also one at the Quaker settlement, a model of perfect domesticity, both in its actual physical arrangement as well as its moral order. The group’s actions and principles coincide as they harbor and aid fugitive slaves under the moral guidance of another strong woman, Rachel Halliday.

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. Another of the novel’s important rivers, which marks yet another boundary. Aboard the steamship La Belle Rivière (the name of a real steamship on which Stowe’s brother Charles Beecher had traveled when he worked in New Orleans), Tom journeys farther and farther away from his home and family. At the same time, as a novelist, Stowe ventures away from her own firsthand experience. The river also marks the boundary between sections of the novel as Tom gains his second owner, Augustine St. Clare, after rescuing St. Clare’s young daughter Eva from drowning in the river.

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Louisiana city in which the St. Clare family home is located. Stowe describes the house as an ancient mansion, built in a mixture of styles. The St. Clare home’s confusion of styles and exoticism stand in stark contrast to the ordered simplicity of the Quaker settlement in Ohio. The eccentricity and disorder of the place illustrate the disarray in which slavery leaves families, both black and white. Significantly, the St. Clare family also lacks a strong female moral center as Marie St. Clare devotes her attention to her own invalidism. While both Marie’s daughter, Eva, and her cousin-in-law, Miss Ophelia, try to make up for this lack, neither has control over the household.

*Red River

*Red River. Tributary of the Mississippi that forms part of the Texas-Oklahoma border and flows through Arkansas to Louisiana. The third important river in the novel, it marks yet another boundary between Tom’s old life and his new one. After the death of St. Clare, Tom is sold to Simon Legree and transported on a small boat to Legree’s farm.

Legree plantation

Legree plantation. Louisiana cotton plantation on the Red River that becomes Tom’s final home and illustrates how far his lot has fallen since leaving his Kentucky home. It is run-down, with some windows boarded up. At Legree’s home, the veneer is wholly lifted from slavery, and its brutal ugliness stands fully revealed as Tom meets his fate. Significantly, Legree has only the memory of his dead mother to urge him toward better behavior, and another slave, Cassy, manipulates that memory to her advantage.

*Lake Huron

*Lake Huron. Another important body of water that serves as the boundary between freedom and slavery, Canada and the United States, for the Harris family.

*Montreal

*Montreal. Capital of Quebec, Canada, where the Harris family eventually settles, illustrating that the United States is not able to provide a safe and suitable home for escaped slaves.

*Liberia

*Liberia. West African republic settled largely by freed American slaves who began migrating there in the 1820’s. The Harris family eventually migrates there. This final destination for the Harris family seems to suggest that no room remains for former slaves on the American continent. Tom dies in slavery and the other major slave characters settle elsewhere.

Sources for Further StudyAdams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. This work expands Adam’s earlier study, the first and only comprehensive analysis of the life and works of Stowe. Adams discusses recently disclosed biographical information about the Beecher family and numerous critical examinations of Stowe written in the twenty-five years since the early study was published. The author connects Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the religious ideas and personal experiences of Stowe. The volume includes an up-to-date bibliography and chronology.Beach, Seth Curtis. Daughters of the Puritans: A Group of Brief Biographies. 1905. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. This book contains a forty-page introductory biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a background against which to study Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The object of the study is to show the influences that molded Stowe, to present the salient features of her career and her characteristic qualities. The selection is interesting and informative and provides background material for all readers. It can be read by high school students as well as college undergraduates.Crozier, Alice C. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Notes that Stowe was less interested in the novel as art than in the novel as history. Traces the influence of the British writers Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Comments on the cultural context in which the novels were written, which accounts not only for the Victorian sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also for a distinctively American realism that anticipates Mark Twain.Fields, Annie. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898. The second definitive biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe after the book by her son Charles, this sympathetic portrait was written by her personal friend and professional associate who was also a celebrity in her own right. This readable biography contains many now-famous anecdotes about Harriet Beecher Stowe.Foster, Charles H. The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism. New York: Cooper Square, 1970. This study of Stowe’s inner struggle with New England Puritanism identifies what she read and how that affected her life and writings. It shows that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a product of her religious thinking and personal anguish. Stowe projects herself and her own struggles, particularly her attempt to reconcile herself with the death of one of her children, onto the novel’s characters.Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. This excellent, detailed book shows why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most widely read American novel of its time. The first section, about eighty pages long, describes the conditions that led to the creation of the book. The second section, another eighty pages, is an analysis of the book as fiction and social criticism. The remaining two hundred and fifty pages recount the reception of the book in the North, the South, and Europe; the replies; the dramatic versions; and adverse criticism. Contains extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography.Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A good source of information about Stowe’s career as a writer. Traces her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her initial resolve, through her decision to address the sexual exploitation of female slaves, to her effort to substantiate the novel with facts collected in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also mentions her work on behalf of emancipation of slaves in both America and England after publication of the novel.Kazin, Alfred. God and the American Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Chapter 3, “Christians and Their Slaves (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Others),” provides excellent historical context for Stowe’s literary works and religious ideas.Sizer, Lyde Cullen. The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Discusses Stowe as a religious visionary while comparing and contrasting her work with texts by Lydia Child and Fanny Fern.Stowe, Charles Edward. The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889. This excellent biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe was compiled by her son, the Reverend Charles Edward Stowe, from her letters and journals. The authorized family biography, it contains the first printing of indispensable letters and other documents and is the foundation of all later biographies. It tells the story of the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe as she had wished and had hoped to tell it herself in her autobiography. Two later books by members of the Stowe family add additional material: Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (1941) and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Saints, Sinners, and Beechers (1934).Wangenknecht, Edward. Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. A combination of biography and literary criticism, this book contains an accurate description of the literary and personal character of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The details are arranged topically, with chapters on Stowe as writer, reader, and reformer as well as daughter, wife, and mother.Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. The first chapter of Wilson’s book is devoted to a discussion of Stowe’s religious influences and beliefs within the context of the debates leading up to the Civil War.
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