Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Summary

The novel opens with a description of the plantation of Arthur Shelby. Shelby is known as a kind hearted slave owner who has an affectionate relationship with all his slaves. Unfortunately Mr. Shelby has fallen into debt. The only way he can save his home and overcome from debt is to sell two slaves for whom his family has great affection.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

The coarse slave trader, Haley is the slave trader who accepts only Uncle Tom and little Harry, the son of the polite mulatto Eliza. Shelby feels forced to agree to this arrangement and, despite his good intentions, he has to surrender in front of the financially bad situation.

When Eliza and Uncle Tom discover the bargain, they react quite differently. Eliza has just learned that her husband George, who lives on a neighboring plantation, has planned his own escape. He can no longer bear the cruelty of his master. Eliza has no one to turn to for help, but she will not, as a mother, tolerate having her child torn from her. She resolves to escape and in the middle of the night carries young Harry to the Ohio River. When she finally reaches the river, it is so choked with ice that no boats can cross. But the slave trader Haley has caught up with her. In desperation and with grim determination, Eliza grabs her son, leaps onto the ice floes, and crosses to the Ohio shore.

Eliza first seeks refuge in the home of Senator Bird, who has just voted "yes" on the Fugitive Slave Act. When he is actually confronted with the sight of this poor woman and her son, though, he realizes he must disobey the very law he helped pass. As Eliza travels further north, she is protected by whites of the Quaker faith. Finally, she is reunited with George, and they head north to Canada.

Uncle Tom reacts quite differently to the news that he is being sold. A pious Christian, he submits to his fate and sadly bids farewell to his wife and children. He is taken south down the Ohio and then the Mississippi rivers to the big slave auctions in New Orleans. On the way, he witnesses the anguish of fellow blacks in bondage. He sees children torn from their mothers and virginal young women being sold into prostitution during ugly slave auctions taking place at various landings. Uncle Tom and little Eva St. Clare, the five-year-old daughter of a rich planter, develop a friendship on the boat, and Eva persuades her father to buy Tom. She is an angelic child, full of Christian faith and sweetness, who recoils at the evils of slavery. Her father, a sophisticated man named Augustine St. Clare, realizes that slavery is wrong, but does nothing about this conviction. Eva develops tuberculosis and dies. Her father has promised Uncle Tom his freedom, but shortly after Eva's death, he is killed in a brawl, and Tom's fate depends on his widow. The callous Mrs. St. Clare proceeds to sell him.

Uncle Tom now descends into the deepest hell of slavery, a remote Red River plantation devoid of the saving influence of women or the Christian faith. His new owner is the cruel Simon Legree. Enraged by Uncle Tom's piety and goodness, Legree tries to destroy both traits. His other slaves have already been defeated in spirit and dehumanized; but Uncle Tom struggles against this fate and finally marshals the spiritual strength to resist. When Legree's embittered slave-mistress, Cassie, begs Uncle Tom to help her murder Legree, he refuses to sink into such sin. Legree finally beats Tom mercilessly until the -old slave loses all strength. Just as Eliza and George step onto the free shores of Canada, Uncle Tom, beaten to death, rises in triumph to heaven like a Christian saint.