Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Casebook

By Elizabeth Ammons | Go to book overview

Everybody’s Protest Novel

JAMES BALDWIN

IN UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, that cornerstone of American social protest fiction, St. Clare, the kindly master, remarks to his coldly disapproving Yankee cousin, Miss Ophelia, that, so far as he is able to tell, the blacks have been turned over to the devil for the benefit of the whites in this world—however, he adds thoughtfully, it may turn out in the next. Miss Ophelia’s reaction is, at least, vehemently right-minded: “This is perfectly horrible!” she exclaims. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”

Miss Ophelia, as we may suppose, was speaking for the author; her exclamation is the moral, neatly framed, and incontestable like those improving mottoes sometimes found hanging on the walls of furnished rooms. And, like these mottoes, before which one invariably flinches, recognizing an insupportable, almost an indecent glibness, she and St. Clare are terribly in earnest. Neither of them questions the medieval morality from which their dialogue springs: black, white, the devil, the next world—posing its alternatives between heaven and the flames—were realities for them as, of course, they were for their creator. They spurned and were terrified of the darkness, striving mightily for the light; and considered from this aspect, Miss Ophelia’s exclamation, like Mrs. Stowe’s novel, achieves a bright, almost a lurid significance, like the light from a fire which consumes a witch. This is

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