Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender

By Jerilyn Fisher; Ellen S. Silber | Go to book overview

The Power of Mothers in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

Denise Kohn

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a didactic novel of epic proportions that interweaves the tales of white and Black American families, demonstrates Stowe’s belief that slavery should be abolished. This best-selling novel looks at the political issue of slavery within the private sphere of the home, a tactic Stowe uses to emphasize the important role of women in American domestic, moral, and political life.

While most novels cast heroines as young, unmarried women within a marriage plot, Stowe’s novel highlights the significance of women as mothers. The first mother presented is Eliza, a beautiful quadroon slave, introduced in a chapter entitled “The Mother,” to counter the period’s racist belief that slaves were incapable of loving their children in the same way as whites. When Eliza learns that her owner, Mr. Shelby, plans to take her son away from her and sell him down South, she plans their escape. Emily Shelby argues in vain with her husband that it is immoral to sell Harry and to separate mothers from their children. Powerless to stop the sale, Mrs. Shelby cleverly uses her control over meal times to defy both her husband and the law, thus enabling Eliza and Harry to escape. In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, Eliza demonstrates heroic courage when she narrowly eludes her captors by jumping from one patch of ice to another to cross the Ohio River into the free state of Ohio.

In the North, Eliza befriends two women who illustrate the moral power mothers wield within their families and the bonds of motherhood between enslaved African-American and free Anglo-American women. The maternal Mrs. Bird uses both emotion and reason to persuade her husband, a senator, to defy the Fugitive Slave Law. The character of Mrs. Bird also highlights maternal love felt by both free and slave women, when she gives the clothes

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