Sunday, May 23, 2010

Uncle Tom's Cabin

I finished reading Uncle Tom's Cabin last night, after finding once tax season was past that I once again had energy for reading (yay!). Yesterday I had overdone physical exercise and needed to lie down much of the day, and the book was an excellent companion.

There are some critical comments and notes in the back of the book still to read.

I think I was expecting the book to be not very well written, and to be cloying in its sentimentality, and it is neither. I was surprised also to find it so much easier to understand than Charles Dickens (I recently read Our Mutual Friend, one of his latest works, and found it almost incomprehensible.)

One other surprise was finding that Simon Legree didn't chase Eliza across the river, an impression formed from watching The King and I years ago.

I came away a little mystified by the negative connotation of the expression "an Uncle Tom," but it seems from an entry on Wikipedia that the negative connotation comes not so much from the book itself as from later stage adaptations that changed Tom's character to be ingratiating. Tom's willingness to be sold down river in order to save the plantation seems entirely plausible to me, in a strong man willing to protect the more vulnerable around him, and it's hard for me to see much difference between Tom's refusal to obey orders and what we now call nonviolent resistance. I found the description of his martyrdom touching and believable without being saccharine or tear-jerking.

Also on the Wikipedia page, I see that James Baldwin objected to the characters of Eliza and George being white enough to pass, and I tend to agree that the story would have had more power if they hadn't been that white, but it might also have strained credibility that they were able to make it to Canada. As a writer, I can certainly understand Stowe wanting to have some of her characters make it to freedom rather than leave them all in slavery.

At the beginning of the book, one or two of the characters reminded me of characters in Roots (Sam on the Shelby plantation reminded me a little of Chicken George, and there may have been one other) and I wondered if there were going to be further signs of Haley's lack of originality, but that didn't come to be. It is certainly true that many of Stowe's characters are "types," and I haven't read enough novels from the same period to know if that was common for authors at the time. I was glad to see that some of her characters had more subtlety than stereotypes. She also had the regrettable tendency to draw inferences from one individual to the entire group to which the individual belonged, though I'm sometimes guilty of the same thing when I talk about Enneagram types!

In all, I very much enjoyed the book.

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