Critical Essays A Mosaic of Movement and Conflict in Uncle Tom's Cabin


Much of the attention that readers and critics have given to Uncle Tom's Cabin has been directed to its content — the development of its themes, the significance of its characters and incidents. Increasingly, however, there has been focus on the book's structure, which is generally now recognized as strong and balanced. Above all, we can see ways in which that structure is effectively and integrally related to features of the novel's plot movements and thematic conflicts — including ironically revealing symmetries and juxtapositions of incident.

Stowe herself was aware of the relationship between her structural choices and her purposes. Although the manner of its initial publication (in serial form) was certainly a determining factor in the novel's episodic nature, Stowe knew that — in order to persuade readers actively to oppose slavery — she would have to touch their emotions. Thus she chose to write what she called "a series of sketches" (Stowe's emphasis; quoted in Donovan's "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love). Having had considerable success in this popular literary form, Stowe must have felt confident with it; but she used the term sketches metaphorically as well in this case, for she went on to say "there is no arguing with pictures" (Donovan 30). Stowe had, in fact, been trained as a visual artist, and it is easy to see her eye for detail, color, movement and composition in her written work. She knew, too, that the reason "there is no arguing with pictures" has to do with the fact that people take in visual stimuli on a much more basic level than they do intellectual arguments; as much as possible, she wanted to hit her audience hard and directly at that level.

But if a "series of sketches" is a linear composition (as any conventional novel must to a great extent be), Stowe also thought of her composition in Uncle Tom's Cabin as an overall design. In another statement that compares the book to visual art, she said she thought of it as a "mosaic" of "stones" (Donovan 30), in which all the pieces (or "fragments") contribute to the overall whole. Stowe's comparison here is later echoed by critic Elaine Showalter in her essay "Piecing and Writing" (in The Poetics of Gender), who views the book's structure as similar to that of a patchwork quilt — fittingly, one made in the popular "Log Cabin" pattern. In both the mosaic design and the quilt images, we see parts, each with its own shape, color, and perhaps interior design, fitted together to make a larger piece of art. The effect is not linear but overall, and it includes the possibilities of balance, direction, and movement.

We can begin to see — literally — the sort of design that is present in Uncle Tom's Cabin, if we arrange the book's 45 chapters in a more-or-less symmetrical shape, using some arbitrary symbols to identify them: say, an X for each chapter in the "Eliza" plot, an O for each one in the "Tom" plot, and an 8 for each in which the two plots are combined. (Chapter 45, "Concluding Remarks," not part of the original serial publication, can be a <> at the design's base.) Here it is:










Although not exactly symmetrical, it is balanced, with the Eliza plot, thematically less weighty but more conventionally "exciting" to readers and certainly more cheerful (both important considerations in a work that aims at popularity), presented more often in the first third of the novel, while the Tom plot, appearing alone only three times in the first thirteen chapters, dominates the second two-thirds of the book. If our design were drawn in more detail — subdividing the two plots into large and small X's and O's to show, for example, the Quaker sections of the Eliza plot and the St. Clare sections of the Tom plot — we would see a more various pattern emerging. And if the X's and O's were in color, with brighter colors for the chapters in which the dominant moods were hopeful, darker ones for those in which despair and pain dominate, then — well, the reader may imagine that visual effect. It would be striking.

It would also show movement, as the arrangement marked changes from the quiet colors of the opening chapters to the brighter and brighter hues of Eliza and George's escape through the northern states into Canada, interspersed more frequently with the darkening colors of Tom's captivity as he travels first down the Ohio, then the Mississippi to New Orleans, and finally up the Red River in Louisiana to Simon Legree's plantation. As both plots move, so does the novel's structure, although first the Tom plot and then the Eliza plot are delayed, time-wise, in order for each plot's chapters to be arranged most effectively in terms of the overall design.

If there were also some way to show, in our design, degrees of conflict within the chapters, both the complexity of the overall picture and of the patterns of movement within it would be further enhanced. Throughout her absorbing study of the novel, Josephine Donovan emphasizes its dialectic structure: the tension between such opposites as the Shelby farm (with Tom and Chloe's cabin and Shelby's great house themselves at its heart) and Legree's plantation, the northward escape of Eliza's family and Tom's southward journey, the cool organization of the Quaker farms and the hot chaos of the New Orleans household, the "heavenly" sanctuary of Canada and the hell of Legree's plantation. Within these greater tensions are dozens of lesser ones; in the St. Clare chapters alone, for example, we find, among other dialectical oppositions, those between Marie St. Clare and Cousin Ophelia, between St. Clare and his twin brother, between the cook Dinah and the "upstairs" servants. And over the whole "design" presented by the book are the great tensions between slavery and freedom, evil (materialism, the objectification of human beings) and good (self-realization, spirituality, Christian love).

Sometimes these dialectical oppositions are shown as actual conflict (as, for example, the physical conflict in Chapter 17 between George Harris and Tom Loker — or, in Chapter 38, the verbal conflict between Tom and Legree and the spiritual conflict within Tom himself). Sometimes the tension is simply presented without a great deal of comment or actual confrontation (as, for example, the ironic oppositions of "the cabin of the man" to "the halls of the master" — including the relationships of the people who inhabit both dwellings — on Shelby's farm). If we could, within our design, somehow depict these oppositions (conflicts, tensions) in their growth, their rising and falling, their resolutions (if any), we might see an even more various and intriguing pattern of composition and movement.

But within the patterns of movement, something else becomes apparent. As art teachers used to tell their students tirelessly, the asymmetrical elements of a design convey movement and interest, while the symmetrical ones, which need not be obvious, give strength and solidity. An examination of the chapter arrangement in Uncle Tom's Cabin reveals, beneath the conscious asymmetry, a symmetry of ironic juxtaposition that further enhances our understanding of the novel's structure.

First, we may notice that Chapters 7 and 38, near the beginning and near the end of the book (at exactly the same respective distance from each, in fact, if "Concluding Remarks" is seen as an epilogue rather than an actual part of the novel) are oddly mirror-images of each other: in the first, Eliza is almost captured by Haley, but in desperation (and with the help of a miracle, according to Black Sam's eyewitness interpretation of the event) crosses the icy river to safe haven. In the second, Legree nearly pushes Tom over the brink of despair, but in a desperation described as "numb" (and with the help of a miracle — a vision of Jesus as he gazes at the dying fire), Tom gains a new and unremitting hold on his faith. The first of these chapters is entitled "The Mother's Struggle"; the second is "The Victory."

Two more events are similarly juxtaposed, both near the middle of the book: Prue's death at the beginning of Chapter 19 and Eva's at the end of Chapter 26. The death of little Eva was, for many nineteenth-century readers, the emotional heart of the novel, the sentimentalized scene of a "beautiful" death, with the dying child surrounded by the tears and prayers of those who love her. Set across from this, in what must be nearly the most unrelentingly bitter irony in literature, is the death of the old slave woman, beaten horribly and left alone in the cellar. (The reader who believes Uncle Tom's Cabin to be a children's book — or its author to be a gentle sentimentalist — should re-read the passage in which this death is described.)

And at the very center of the book, in Chapter 23, juxtaposed in their own chapter by the reasonable argument of two men who then break off arguing to play a game of backgammon, are the two 12-year-old boys, Henrique and Dodo. One, the master, hits the other, the slave, in the face with his riding whip, knocks him down, and beats him. This is the only appearance of either of these characters in the novel, and their encounter is understated — yet its position in the book makes it literally of central importance. One wonders if the placing of this particular "fragment" was not a conscious decision by the mosaic artist.

Until the twentieth century, the design of a novel as basically linear was more or less taken for granted. That is, indeed, the sort of design first apparent to a reader whose acquaintance with any book is most likely to be based on time and direction, from beginning to end. But viewed at once, overall (as is possible after we have read the complete book), a novel's design may be startling and revealing. As Harriet Beecher Stowe herself suggested, and as other writers have since noted, Uncle Tom's Cabin's structure works both in a linear way and as an overall pattern — a mosaic, a quilt — which may be examined visually in order to discover unexpected patterns of movement and opposition.