On a winter afternoon in the early 1850s, two white men, Shelby and Haley, discuss business in Shelby's dining room on a Kentucky farm. Shelby is preparing to sell two slaves to Haley, a slave-trader: Someone named Tom, a capable, honest, Christian, is one. Haley demands another, and when a small boy comes into the room, Haley says he wants the child, too. The boy's mother collects the child, and Haley remarks on her marketability, but Shelby refuses to sell her. But the mother, Eliza, hears the trader offer to buy the child and tells her mistress that she fears little Harry will be sold. Mrs. Shelby, not knowing of Shelby's indebtedness, assures Eliza that Shelby would never do such a thing.
Shelby's sale of Tom and little Harry is the action that sets both main plots in motion, the first being Tom's story as he is taken south, sold, and eventually resold; the second (which gets well underway before the novel focuses on Tom) being the story of Eliza's escape with her family to Canada.
We are also introduced here to two of the book's major themes: the effect of slavery upon morality and the family, and the strength of Christianity as a powerful force by which the individual who lives in Christ's grace may overcome all adversity. Although Tom is present in the chapter only by reputation, we learn that Tom is a Christian man, from which his other strengths and virtues flow. Haley's insistence that no "nigger" can be truly honest and his apparent belief that religion and the appearance of religion are the same thing hint at the tension between Tom's spirituality and the materialism of his owners that will become central to the novel. The second theme is introduced as Shelby prepares to separate Eliza from her child, which the narrator makes plain is not something he chooses to do but something the law regarding slaves as property forces him to do. The most unnatural and immoral act possible is the separation of mother and child, and this is what slavery, which regards human beings as articles of property, not only allows but actually requires. Moreover, Haley suggests another of slavery's immoral functions when he tells Shelby that Eliza would sell well in New Orleans; he would sell her into sexual slavery. He does not state this intent for little Harry, but we will learn that both Mrs. Shelby and Eliza are well aware of this possibility for young boys as well as girls.
The point of view in the novel is that of the omniscient ("all-seeing") third-person narrator. This narrator (who is, for all intents and purposes, Stowe herself) describes and relates settings, characters, and action; she can also relate the thoughts and feelings of any of the characters (as, for example, she tells us here what Shelby thinks of Haley, but not what Haley himself thinks). Stowe's narrator uses this insight into the minds and hearts of the characters fairly arbitrarily throughout the book, relating some (but not all) characters' thoughts some (but not all) of the time. The narrator may also tell us things about the characters and events, rather than showing them through action (as, for example, she tells us what kind of woman Mrs. Shelby is), and at times she may speak directly to the reader in her own voice, which is sometimes earnest, sometimes angry, sometimes amused, sometimes sarcastic, and so on. Stowe uses this function of the narrator's voice to underscore points made in the book's action.
One of the most important rhetorical strategies throughout the novel is Stowe's use of irony (which may be defined as "a reversal of expectations in service of the truth"). At least four different types of irony operate in Chapter 1, and examining each of them will show the reader what to expect in further chapters.
When Shelby, after listening to Haley praise himself, says to Haley, "It's a happy thing to be satisfied," Shelby is using verbal irony, saying one thing (and expecting to be understood that way) but meaning another (and enjoying the second meaning privately). The meaning he expects Haley to hear is something like, "I'm glad you admire yourself; you deserve to be admired." The meaning Shelby himself hears (as does the reader) is quite different: "It's lucky you like yourself, because no one with a brain would judge you so well." Characters, as well as the narrator, frequently use this kind of irony; in fact, a character's use of irony is one of the features that Stowe uses to reveal certain characters.
A second form of irony, used by an author to reveal character or for other purposes, is dramatic irony. Here, a character's actions or words may seem (to that character, at least) to mean one thing, but the reader (and perhaps other characters) will derive a different meaning. For example, when Haley tells Shelby what a "good-hearted fellow" his former partner, Tom Loker, was, Shelby and the reader know, from what Haley has said about the man, that Loker is cruel and brutal. Thus what Haley expects Shelby to learn (and what he may well believe himself) is different from what we and Shelby do learn, which is that Haley himself is insensitive to Loker's real character.
The narrator employs a third form of irony, sarcasm (really a type of verbal irony), in the chapter title and again when she comments directly that "humanity comes out in a variety of strange forms now-a-days." In the kind of verbal irony illustrated previously, the speaker hid his true intent from the listener; in sarcasm, however, the speaker's real meaning is apparent in tone of voice. Sarcasm is easy to recognize when heard, but written sarcasm is more difficult to convey; for example, the sarcasm in Chapter 1's title is not apparent until we have read the chapter and realize that what Stowe really means is that slavery allows someone like Haley to behave in inhuman ways and still to refer to himself as "a man of humanity."
But the chapter title may have a second, deeper meaning, and may reveal a fourth (and deeper) form of irony. Shelby, as he is described, really is a "man of humanity" — or would be, were it not that slavery forces him and everyone who willingly participates in it to behave as inhumanely (and inhumanly) as Haley himself. Is Shelby a good man and Haley a bad one? This is a question the novel will ask, in various forms, again and again, and Stowe's answer is always that, whatever the intent, an action that promotes or supports slavery (and finally even inaction, the failure to take action against slavery) is bad. The irony here is situational irony and is implicit in the whole situation, the whole fact of slavery. We expect an obvious gentleman like Shelby to behave in moral and admirable ways, while an obvious boor like Haley will display behavior immoral and reprehensible. Ironically, however, Shelby himself is as bad as Haley or worse, for he has the advantages of education and cultivation that should allow him to make better decisions.
Throughout the book, Stowe will employ these forms of irony alone and in combination. The narrator's voice, especially, is ironic and usually understated — as when, in a later chapter, she tells of a slave weeping because he has been sold without having a chance even to tell his wife: "Poor John! — the tears that fell, as he spoke, came as naturally as if he had been a white man." This sentence must be heard in the narrator's characteristic tone of deadpan sarcasm if it is not to be read as the remark of an imbecile.
quadroon a person of mixed race whose ancestry includes one grandparent of African descent and three of European. (Quadroon, octoroon, and similar terms were used to make distinctions in a complex system of social and legal status developed in some Caribbean societies. In the United States, they were apparently used less exactly; Stowe uses mulatto throughout the novel to refer to people of mixed race, and quadroon to refer to African-American people very light in complexion, even when the person's exact ancestry is not known.)
Jim Crow a generic name formerly used by Southern whites for African and African-American people, especially boys or young men; used slightingly.
Wilberforce William Wilberforce (1759–1833), English statesman and vigorous opponent of slavery.