Critical Essays The Haunted Cabin: Uncle Tom and the Gothic


Numerous critics (including Helen Waite Papashvily in 1956 and Philip Fisher in 1985) have discussed Uncle Tom's Cabin as being in the tradition of fictional sentimentalism, a tradition that also includes many of the works of such nineteenth-century realists as Walter Scott and Maria Edgeworth, whom Stowe took as models. Other critics have suggested an element of the Gothic in Stowe's book; most notably, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, writing in 1979 (The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination), see Cassy as an ironic example of a Gothic archetype, the "madwoman in the attic." And if the relationship between sentimentalism and the Gothic had never been otherwise noted, one could hardly escape it in this novel, where a real Gothic power lurks like a deep shadow behind its own ironic evocation in the closing chapters.

Sentimentalism can be recognized by the presence of various elements within a fictional work. One is the assumption that heartfelt feeling (often seen as a feminine attribute) is better, more trustworthy, than intellect or reason. Chapter 9 ("In Which it Appears That a Senator Is but a Man") is only the most emphatic illustration of this assumption in the novel. Another such element is stress on the importance of morality; yet another is the presence of certain sentimental character types, of which — although no character in this novel is entirely stereotypical — George Harris (the "tamed" sentimental hero), Eliza (the innocent heroine), and St. Clare (the "Byronic" or untamed hero) are to a great extent examples. The primacy of marriage and the family, and the special importance of the relationship between mother and child, are also typical.

But sentimentalism and the Gothic are often closely linked, both historically and thematically, and almost all examples of Gothic literature have strong sentimental underpinnings. Moreover, while not all sentimentalist works have Gothic elements, many do — for example, the novels of Charles Dickens, which Uncle Tom's Cabin resembles in numerous ways. Among the elements that most frequently identify the Gothic in literature are themes of oppression and guilt (which are often characterized as being handed down through generations), inequality in power struggles (with, often, the feminine or "feminized" characters suffering in consequence of such struggles), and stereotypical Gothic characters (typical sentimental characters exaggerated: the innocent heroine becomes a helpless victim, the "tamed" hero is powerless to save her, the "untamed" hero — out of control, his "masculine" attributes of aggression and acquisitiveness unchecked — becomes the Gothic villain or monster). These elements, too, are present in Stowe's novel, as the reader will recognize — even the Gothic characters, although their relationships with each other are unconventional.

Also identifying the Gothic are a number of typical objects, characters, motifs, or incidents that writer Thomas Thornburg, in "The Quester and the Castle: A Study in the Gothic Novel with Special Emphasis on Bram Stoker's Dracula," has called "trappings" of the Gothic. Among the most familiar of these are the ruined mansion, the haunted house or castle, the lost or misdirected letter, the dark and winding road or labyrinth, the "wasteland" or barrens, nightmares (what Thornburg calls "Gothic dreams," including birth dreams), and, of course, the vampire. These "trappings" appear in abundance, especially from Chapter 31 onward, and the title of Chapter 32 ("Dark Places") suggest that Stowe consciously brought them in. Legree's unkempt house and yard, once beautiful, have fallen into ruin; the house is said to be haunted (by the ghost of an imprisoned slave, perhaps a suicide); a dark and winding road, through "cypress swamps and pine barrens," leads to the plantation; Legree, drunk on brandy and overwhelmed with guilt, has nights of terrible dreams (mostly involving his mother); Ophelia's letter to Mrs. Shelby, which might have saved Tom's life, goes astray; and Cassy, warning Tom about their master, whom she knows all too well, describes Legree as a vampire.

The Gothic elements virtually disappear after the novel's climax, at the beginning of Chapter 38 ("The Victory"), when Tom's vision and his renewal of faith render even Legree harmless (harmless, that is, to Tom's soul); the villain stamps and curses, but he senses his own ineffectuality, and the "haunted house" scheme that Cassy cooks up is a parody of the Gothic. Ironically, only Legree is frightened now, and his bad dreams (helped along by the liquor he takes to dull them) quickly kill him — a horrible death, the narrator tells us, but one that she doesn't even glorify by describing. Still, while they dominate the chapters from 32 through the beginning of 38, the Gothic elements are effective in deepening the spiritual darkness that confronts and threatens Tom. But serving the novel's atmosphere is not their only function.

Seeing Uncle Tom's Cabin, if not as a Gothic novel per se, then as a novel that shares in certain elements of the Gothic, may help us to understand some aspects of the book more clearly. Cassy, as Gilbert and Gubar point out, is indeed stereotypical in certain ways of a Gothic figure, the "dark woman" who is threatening to the hero and heroine either through her sexual appetites or her "madness," or both. The specific "dark woman" who Cassy brings to these readers' minds is Bertha Mason, Rochester's first wife in Emily Brontë's Jane Eyre. Bertha, a Creole woman from the West Indies, is violently insane, murderous (she frequently escapes from her tipsy keeper and tries to kill Rochester), and her insanity is said to result from her having inherited a family tendency (on her mother's side) to excess — alcoholism is stated, sexual excess is implied. In Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha — here called Antoinette, the Brontë character's first name — is portrayed as a normal but troubled young woman whose brother arranges her marriage to Rochester. The sexual passion their union inspires frightens Rochester, as does almost everything about his bride's culture, and he takes her back to England and imprisons her. Like Cassy, Antoinette / Bertha is the victim of an economic system that uses her as an object (Rochester marries her for her dowry) and punishes her for her sexuality.

Cassy, of course, has been used sexually since her early teens. Like all the African and African-American slave girls and women sold for such use, she was not only less able to resist but was thought to be more sexually passionate than white women — sexual passion being, in sentimental / Gothic tradition, a "masculine" attribute which, in a woman, calls for punishment. Ironically, the use to which Cassy has been put has indeed driven her nearly mad (the same is true of Rhys's Antoinette), and Tom's first glimpse of her through a window in Legree's house is of that stereotypical "madwoman." But by the time she "haunts" the attic with Emmeline, Cassy has recovered her sanity with Tom's help, and her appearance as a Gothic figure now is only a parody of the stereotype.

The Gothic typically divides the sentimental heroine into two parts — one, the "dark woman" whose passions make her dangerous; the other, the "fair" woman (although of course these physical characteristics are not always adhered to) who is often portrayed as nearly sexless and whose attractions (to the hero, but also to the villain or monster) are those of a victim, arousing sadistic interest in the villain, the urge to protect in the hero (but these two are often more closely related to each other than either would like to admit). This "fair" Gothic woman is an exaggeration of the helpless, fluttery, and fainting sentimental heroine so fashionable in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and her death (or her near-death, if the sentimental plot is stronger than the Gothic) is an almost obligatory scene in Gothic novels from The Castle of Otranto to Dracula. There is, of course, such a character in Uncle Tom's Cabin: it is Eva, the little girl whose death dominated early dramatic productions based (often very loosely) on the novel.

Eva is certainly not a standard Gothic "fair" heroine, nor is her death brought about (as it ought typically to be) by the Gothic villain of the book, Simon Legree, who does not even appear until after Eva has died. But Eva's presence here, and her dying, are unmistakable signs of the Gothic nature of the book. Critics have noted Eva's resemblance to the frail, oddly sexless, Gothic "fair woman," and readers have questioned the meaning of her death, which is obviously a central incident in the novel. Eva dies of tuberculosis (although the name of the disease is never mentioned), but mythically, it is slavery itself that kills her. For slavery itself is the monster, created by materialism and the profit motive, that towers over everything in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Simon Legree is one of slavery's embodiments (as, to a lesser degree, are Shelby, Haley, St. Clare, and indeed every white person who refuses or declines to oppose slavery). Legree is, metaphorically and mythically at least, a vampire: Cassy tells Tom that Legree will dog him and have his blood, as indeed Legree eventually does, through the agency of his two overseers. The other slaveowners are vampires as well, achieving their own "life" ("making their living") through slaves whose lives they use. The vampire in literature — from John Polidori's malicious and thinly disguised portrait of Byron in "The Vampyre" to the mysterious monster of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot — has long been associated with the power of money and class oppression. The most famous of all literary vampires, Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a nobleman who drinks the blood of his own feudal serfs and uses wealth to gain entrance to England. Stowe's novel was published almost 50 years before Stoker's, and she probably had not read Karl Marx on capitalism, but Cassy's metaphor of the profiteer as bloodsucker seems to have been in the nineteenth-century air.

If Uncle Tom's Cabin is a sentimentalist novel, it is certainly also reflective of that inevitable sentimental reflection, the Gothic. In its characters, incidents, themes, and various "trappings," Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous book displays dark Gothic features whose examination may shed new light on this American classic.