Uncle Tom's Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe Summary and Analysis Chapter 17

Summary

At the Halliday's house, George and Eliza discuss their future in Canada but recognize the dangers they will face before they arrive there. The man who is to drive them to their next stop, Phineas Fletcher, arrives and says their pursuers are gathered in a nearby tavern and plan to chase them down that night. They leave after an evening meal. Near dawn an outrider, Michael Cross, tells them the posse is approaching. Phineas drives to a place where they climb up a steep hillside and take shelter among rocks.

The pursuers — Loker, Marks and others — must come up the trail one at a time. George calls down that he is a free man and will shoot them one by one. The men below tell each other that George doesn't mean it, but only Loker dares go up. George shoots him with a pistol, wounding Loker. Marks, supposing his partner is dead, mounts and rides away. The others also retreat, leaving Loker. As the fugitives begin to walk down the road, they are met by the wagon and men from the next farm. Eliza talks them into loading Loker into the wagon to be cared for at their next stop.

Analysis

Modern readers who have seen more than one action-adventure film or television show set in the Old West can easily envision the setting of this chapter, and while the rocky defile through which these pursuers are challenged to ascend may be the only one of its kind in Indiana, the excitement of the long ride through the night, the breathless chase, the scramble up the rocks, and George's heroic defiance must have quickened the blood of readers who would not have known so well what to expect.

Some aspects of this scene may not be as clear to modern readers, however, as they probably were to Stowe's original audience. The constables who have joined Loker and Marks in their pursuit of these fugitive slaves may or may not have been corrupt, but they were duly constituted officers of the law, acting within their authority, and had thus (no doubt) officially deputized not only the two slave-catchers but also the accompanying adventurers whom Loker and Marks had handily found in the nearby tavern. Riff-raff though this group may appear, it is not just a semi-drunken mob, but a semi-drunken mob representing the government, and so George's (and Phineas Fletcher's) defiance of it is a criminal act, an act of civil disobedience. We must remember, therefore, what George told Wilson in an earlier chapter: The government of the United States is not his government. He sees himself as a legitimate rebel against a tyrannical authority, and the exchange between George and one of the constables makes clear the terms upon which they meet.

George does not acknowledge the government this lawman represents. To underscore this point, the narrator makes an ironic comparison: If this were a fugitive from some tyranny in Europe, escaping from a repressive and inhuman government, we would consider him a hero; however, since he is a fugitive from our own government, trying to save his wife from sexual slavery and his son from being sold at auction, no reader (she says sarcastically) will applaud him, for we are too patriotic. The efforts of Hungarian patriots against Austrian oppression were, when Stowe was writing, widely admired by the American press and consequently by the public, so her narrator's observation was a timely one.

The cowardliness of Marks and the posse, after George makes his impassioned speech and especially after Loker goes down, is perhaps extremely lucky for the fugitives, but it is not as unbelievable as some readers have complained. The dainty Marks, as the earlier chapter in which he appeared has prepared us to suspect, now shows his true colors. This man whom the narrator has described as cat-like is no fool, and now that his protector Loker appears to be dead, Marks no longer deems the possible reward equal to the risk. Furthermore, Marks and certainly the rest of the group have been telling each other one of the racist stories current at the time: Black men will fight each other but will not fight white men. The pursuers would all like to believe this, but the very fact that they have had to remind themselves of it shows that they aren't actually sure, and George first shakes their faith with his speech and then erases it completely by shooting Loker, so they all turn tail, leaving Loker to die in the road.

Today's reader is likely to bridle at the incident that ends the chapter. The two women in the fugitive party ask that Loker be taken along in the wagon to be treated for his wounds, and the men comply. Earlier, when it seemed Loker might be dead, Phineas, Quaker though he is, hoped it was so; now, of course, even George must agree that the decent thing to do is to pick the man up and get help for him, and we can see the sense in that. But even Jim's old mother, who has been whipped because her son ran away and who now has come within a few inches, literally, of being returned to the same vindictive master, now says she can't help pitying poor Loker, who after all has an old mother himself. It is at this point (especially since we know that Loker is really in no danger of being left) that a reader might be forgiven for a small sin of impatience with such Christian turning of the other cheek; Tom's wife, Chloe, one supposes, would agree.

Glossary

au fait acquainted with the facts; well-informed.

"But as for me . . . I have put my trust in the Lord God" Psalms 73: 2–28.

buffalo a robe or throw made of buffalo skin.

"Woe unto the world . . . " See Luke, 17: 1, 2: "And he said to his disciples, 'Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.'"

own to acknowledge; George says he does not own the laws his pursuers refer to, meaning he does not accept them as his own.

class people grouped together because of certain likenesses or common traits; in referring to "men of [Loker's] class," the narrator does not mean social or economic class but "men of Loker's type or temperament."

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