Uncle Tom's Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe Summary and Analysis Chapter 4

Summary

The narrative is interrupted again for a description of Uncle Tom and his family. His "cabin" is described as a one-room log house. Inside is Tom's wife, Aunt Chloe, preparing an evening meal. Two young boys, Mose and Pete, are playing with a baby girl about a year old; these are Tom and Chloe's three children. The family has a guest, the Shelbys' son George, who is teaching Tom to write and is going to stay for supper. While the meeting is taking place, the scene changes briefly to the Shelby dining room, where Shelby is settling his debt to Haley. Haley promises, unconvincingly, to try to find a good home for Tom.

Analysis

This chapter is in the form of a literary sketch, a short, mostly descriptive narrative, popular in Stowe's time and a form in which she often worked. The ironies implicit in the chapter may not be immediately apparent, for reasons related to differences in audience. In Chapter 4, we have a picture that would have seemed on the surface (in 1852) to show the slave, Tom, as a respected man with a comfortable and picturesque home, well-treated by his master's family, secure among his own wife, children, and friends, leading them all in heartfelt Christian worship. Those early readers who wanted to believe slavery was a good or at least an acceptable thing would have been able to relax and smile at this chapter. Such readers, however, were being set up: Stowe is again employing situational irony, for the narrator and the reader both know what has transpired in the first chapter. They know this happy home is about to be destroyed, and she makes that irony explicit in the short final scene of the chapter.

Unfortunately for the author's rhetorical plan, readers today are not likely to be lulled into relaxation by this depiction of happiness in the slave quarters. To be sure, not every 1852 reader would have been smiling either; no doubt many of them cringed as we do at Chloe's jovial flattery of young "Mas'r George" and at that young man's tossing of food at his contemporaries, the sons of his host and hostess, as those two "woolly-headed" youths roll happily on the floor. But the very ugliness of the stereotypes may keep us from seeing what is really going on in the chapter.

First, the description of the cabin makes the place seem comfortable and homey, but a comparison with "the halls of the master" is always implied and finally stated. We see a family of five living in one room made marginally comfortable only by the labor and effort of people who spend most of their day seeing to it that the master and his family are much more comfortable. Aunt Chloe's bread and cake and molasses, her rickety table and cracked teapot, are made to contrast with the fine foods she prepares and serves in the master's well-appointed house. For readers who look at the details of this sketch, the contrasts undercut the sentimental prettiness of chinked logs and climbing roses.

The offensive stereotypes (Aunt Chloe flattering and fooling with the white boy, while she snaps at her own sons and calls them "niggers," Uncle Tom humbly taking a lesson in the alphabet from his owner's child) are similarly undercut for readers who look more closely. For the reader who defended slavery as a kindly, paternalistic institution, George's presence is more evidence of the good will between slaves and their owners. In fact, however, this glimpse into Tom and Chloe's cabin and life is a carefully drawn picture of what any white visitor or owner might have seen, designed to let us see these people as they pretend to be while their masters are watching: carefree, happy, joking, singing, the "childish darkies" so dear to the hearts of slavery's defenders.

"Uncle" Tom, the novel's central character, is seen here for the first time. From this chapter we know that he is quietly studious, helpful, earnestly prayerful, kind, fond of children, and almost preternaturally patient and forbearing. As the book progresses, Tom's character will not so much develop as it will be revealed; he will be put into situations and tested, for central to his character is his steady, unshakable Christian faith. It is worth noting that, whatever stereotypes the name "Uncle Tom" may now suggest, Tom as he appears in the novel is no stereotype. He is described as a "powerfully-made" man, dark-skinned, with "truly African" features and an air "self-respecting and dignified, yet united with a confiding and humble simplicity." His age is not suggested, but he and his wife are young enough to be the parents of a baby and two sons not yet in their teens; we are later told that Tom is about eight years older than Shelby, his owner (who may be deduced to be between 35 and 40 when the novel opens), so Tom is probably somewhere in his middle 40s, not the white-haired old man of later illustrations and dramatizations.

"Aunt" Chloe, on the other hand, does behave in this chapter like the stereotype of the foolish, fawning slave woman that 1960's black radicals called "Aunt Jemima." She jokes, flatters, pretends to be inordinately proud of herself, pretends to side with "her" white family against her fellow slave, Jinny, a neighbor's cook. Her treatment of her sons is in marked contrast to her treatment of George Shelby, and they obviously don't resent this; in fact, they seem to follow her clowning example. Here is a game their mother plays, one that they are learning. A moment of real camaraderie among the three boys is heartrending, because we know this possible friendship will only become another master-slave relationship, full of false pleasantry at best. Later, we will see Chloe as she is without pretense, and the contrast will become another irony: Aunt Chloe is not what she seems.

Glossary

rusk sweet, raised bread or cake, sliced and toasted or baked a second time.

Mericky Chloe calls the baby girl "Mericky," perhaps short for "America"; in a later chapter, she will call the child "Polly."

trundle-bed a low bed on small wheels or casters, that can be rolled under another bed when not in use.

parchment a document written or printed on parchment.

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