Uncle Tom's Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe Summary and Analysis Chapters 2-3

Summary

In Chapter 2, the narrator pauses to describe Eliza as a young woman of beauty and grace, gently raised from childhood by Mrs. Shelby, and to tell of her marriage to George, who is the slave of a Shelby neighbor named Harris. Earlier in their marriage, Eliza lost two children in infancy, which makes her especially protective of little Harry. When Eliza and George were married, George was "hired out" to the owner of a small factory, where he was a superior employee and invented a labor-saving machine. His jealous owner ended George's factory employment, assigned him to menial labor, and now punishes him gratuitously. George can keep from expressing his anger only by exercising strict self-control.

In Chapter 3, later in the afternoon, after Mrs. Shelby has left, Eliza's husband George, on an errand for his master, stops to see Eliza and their child. George complains bitterly about his life and tells Eliza that his master has decided to make him take a different woman as his wife. George says he plans to run away to Canada, where he will work and try to buy Eliza's and Harry's freedom.

Analysis

These two chapters finish laying the groundwork for the Eliza plot, and they introduce the character George Harris. Eliza and George are two important characters in the book, as they are the central characters of the second plot. Neither, however, is really a developing character. Eliza is a stereotypical young mother of sentimental fiction, conventionally beautiful, conventionally attached to husband and child. It is the loss of her first two babies that makes her attachment to Harry strong enough to support her behavior in later chapters, which the narrator does not fail to remind us, for that behavior is not that of a conventional sentimental heroine. We are also told, later, that Eliza's character has matured and deepened, but in fact this is never actually shown, for as a character Eliza is less important than she is as a type: Readers who have found this type of character attractive in other books, and who are thus able to identify with Eliza on a conventional level, may be surprised when they realize they are sympathizing and identifying with a woman of color; this of course may have been Stowe's purpose in so portraying Eliza.

George, too, is a conventional sentimental hero with enough spirit and spark in him to make him probably more attractive to a modern reader than is his wife. We like George almost immediately for his anger, for his outraged assertion that he is a better man in every way than his master. We like him for his adventurous spirit, his willingness to undergo hardships and take risks. Conventionally, all this is for his wife and child, but as George is portrayed, we suspect that he would be as bold and adventurous even if he were not married. Much later in the novel, we learn that George is studious and philosophical, but we see him throughout as a man of action, and he does not really change. Like Eliza, George is a relatively static character, functioning as a type rather than as an individual. Although he plays a relatively small part in the book, he is the most thoroughly likeable, albeit the most conventional, of its male protagonists. Again, this may have been Stowe's intent: Male and female readers would both have found George attractive, and white readers would not have seen him as exotic or alien. Even George's assertive masculinity cannot make him seem threatening, for he is domesticated by his loving marriage and is a faithful husband to the beautiful Eliza, another characteristic of his type as found in the fashionable fiction of the day.

It is worth mentioning that George and Eliza are both said to be very light-skinned. This fact is significant in several ways. First, of course, the possibility of their "passing" as white or Latino people will be necessary to the plot in later chapters. Second (and the novel will recognize this but will not explore it in any depth) the fact that both of these characters, and several others of mixed race) are virtually "white" is ironic, given the argument that was advanced by proponents of slavery that Africans and people of African descent were somehow intended by God and / or by nature to be enslaved. However foolish and self-serving this argument may seem to us, it is one of the many proslavery arguments that Stowe must deal with in the novel, and one way of doing so is to show that many slaves could not be readily identified as to race. A third significance of George and Eliza's being light-skinned is one that we may consider racist: Since Stowe's intended audience was white, it may be that she believed readers would be more likely to sympathize or identify with people who resembled themselves, and thus that white readers would find it easier to see the beauty of the mixed-race Eliza than they might have found it to see the beauty of a dark-skinned African woman.

We may see yet a fourth kind of significance in this aspect of the characters George and Eliza. Eliza fears the loss of her little son, knowing that slavery can separate children from their mothers. But she herself was raised since she was a child by Mrs. Shelby. Her own mother must have been a slave from whom Eliza herself was separated in childhood. Furthermore, Eliza fears the immoral use that her child may be put to, should Haley resell him, and the narrator tells us that Mrs. Shelby has protected Eliza herself from the all-too-common fate of attractive young girls and women in slavery. Yet Eliza's own mother, whoever she was, must have suffered that fate herself, if a white man fathered the light-skinned Eliza. In fact, George and Eliza, like the other mixed-race characters in the novel, testify by their skin color to the immorality of a system that separates families, will not allow slaves to marry legally, and holds individual men and especially women hostage to the sexual and commercial wants of those who have power over them.

Glossary

bagging cloth for making bags; George's factory apparently manufactured cloth made from hemp.

Whitney Eli Whitney (1765–1825), American inventor of the cotton gin, a machine for separating cotton fibers from the seeds.

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