Uncle Tom's Cabin is a collection
of power struggle
s in a time of slavery
. Although the book primarily portrays the struggle of enslaved Africans
against the antebellum
power structure, it also concerns itself, both directly and indirectly
, with women and their place
within this system. Women in America
have always been at a disadvantage within government
, both on a state and personal level, and the women that Stowe
portrays are no different. Each character vies
. The men compete for it directly, confronting
a given situation, whereas women, by the nature of their station
, need to approach it cunning
ly, with tact and grace
, or risk being dismissed by men who hold the true power
Often, throughout the book, wives will attempt to reason with husbands, only to have the husbands smile at them and their simple world views, or threaten them with physical violence. The common denominator for each of the women, who desire a position of authority, is stepping outside of a masculine arena: Mrs. Shelby shows her disapproval for the selling of Eliza's son by repeatedly leaving the room, Eliza leaves with her son in the night because she knows that is her only option, and Marie exercises her power over her household by feigning sickness. The only woman to make an attempt to directly change her situation is Cassie, who is able to deceive Legree because of her intellectual prowess.
The triumph of the intellect is another theme throughout the novel. Stowe points to individuals who demonstrate their clever natures and overcome obstacles: George eventually gains his freedom, Augustine comes to understand his spiritual nature and George Shelby finally realizes the ravages of slavery upon the owners as well as the owned. Stowe also uses the intellect as a feminine symbol. All the women in the book possess it to some degree. Intelligent men in the book are characterized by feminine traits. George and his son have curly hair and long eyelashes. She describes Augustine St. Clare as "...remarkable for an extreme and marked sensitiveness of character, more akin to the softness of a woman than the ordinary hardness of his own sex."
Often however, the work mingles intelligence and with a blind trust in religion and Christian morality. Some passages in the book read like a political or religious tract. Mrs. Shelby's speech to her husband is an excellent example: "This is God's curse on slavery...it is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours...I always thought so...still more after I joined the church." This may at first seem incongruous with Tom's ineffectual nature brought about by his sense of honor and Christian duty. Tom had many opportunities to escape his fate on Legree's plantation, but none of those options offered him the security and serenity of his religion. Tom seems to be Stowe's ideal man, putting his faith in the Lord rather than in his master or in his own desire for freedom. In this way Uncle Tom's Cabin follows Kierkegaard's conceptualization of the stages of man.
The first stage is represented by the action in Kentucky and New Orleans when the primary focus of Stowe's writing is on education and physical comfort versus the punishment of her characters. This corresponds with the first stage, Aesthetic Man, where Kierkegaard states that an individual explores the world of wit and sensuality. The next portion of the novel is dominated with arguments against slavery and symbolized by the rational nature of Augustine's treatment of his household, mirroring the second stage, Ethical Man, when an individual explores the world of moral responsibilities. The next logical step after a careful consideration of morality and ethics is a Leap of Faith which is described as the essence of subjectivity and a rational suicide, where Man throws his lot in with eternity and puts a blind faith in God's will. This is exactly what Tom chooses as his fate when he refuses to run away with Eliza, or insist on his immediate freedom from St. Clare, or become one of Legree's overseers. His steadfast holiness cost him his life.
With this in mind it would seem that Stowe's message is that salvation and freedom can be found in intelligence tempered with simplicity, with the unsaved Augustine St. Clare and religious Tom at opposite sides of the human spectrum.
This view also brings the novel's theme of women's freedom full circle. The importance Stowe places on faith and Christianity is shown in the values of the women who make an attempt to help the slaves to freedom. Mrs. Shelby, Ophelia, the women at the Quaker settlement all place a high value on the religious education of the oppressed, for the relief of their suffering and the ultimate salvation of their souls. There is a nearly constant repetition by the author and her characters of the absolute horrors of slavery and how it is demeaning to both the enslaved and the elite. Stowe was foreshadowing the true understanding these women possessed of their religion, of the atrocities forced upon their families in the name of slavery, and perhaps too, these women were stating, in their tactful, graceful way, at Stowe's behest, of the silent suffering of their own class.