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Uncle Tom at the Well

In African-American circles, the term “Uncle Tom” has become a byword for, at best, a foolishly non-resistant member of the race and, at worst, a traitorous collaborator in white oppression. Without a doubt, many of those who use this disparaging term have never opened Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Certainly, as we read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, we recognize in the title character a person with profound meekness and almost supernatural restraint. In more recent years, film has shown us the angry, combative former slave—in characters such as Quentin Tarentino’s Django, Denzel Washington’s character from Glory, or the role in Hell on Wheels played by Common. These characters appear on the screen like anachronistic Malcolm X clones, yet reality suggests a slightly less strident character. Even the righteously indignant (and marvelously articulate) Frederick Douglass demonstrates a great deal less rage and a more restraint than these Hollywood creations. Regardless, Uncle Tom seems an unnaturally cooperative fellow, the sort of man who would forgive a brother seventy times seven or turn the other cheek when struck. In short, and I recognize that this is nothing original, Uncle Tom is portrayed as a Christ figure.

At the end of chapter 34, Uncle Tom is Jesus to Cassy’s “Woman at the Well.” After she offers him a drink, Tom “looked earnestly and pitifully into her face.

“’O, Missis, I wish you’d go to him that can give you living waters!’

“’Go to him! Where is he? Who is he?’ said Cassy.

“’Him that you read of to me,–the Lord.’”

In this case, Stowe mimics the rhetorical move from literal water to spiritual water from John 4. She shows the confusion of the woman and the ability of the teacher to look beyond his own temporal needs—Jesus was thirsty and Tom had just been beaten—to eternal concerns.

Tom, of course, good Christian that he is, differs from Jesus in his woman-at-the-well exchange. Where Jesus sought to draw the Samaritan woman to himself, Tom aimed to draw Cassy toward Jesus. Nonetheless, we have to be impressed that this man can think of another after a beating, “such a breakin’ in as he won’t get over, this month.” In fact, Stowe seems to conflate the forgiving Jesus of “forgive them for the y know not what they do” or “today you will dine with me in Paradise” with this less stressed Jesus at the Well of Jacob into her long-suffering Tom.

What brought this beating onto Uncle Tom is significant as well, for it wasn’t an escape attempt, shirking, or insolence that drew Simon Legree’s ire. Instead, Tom’s “crime” lies in first helping a weaker slave make her quota of cotton and then in refusing to participate in her unjust flogging. If there is any righteousness in a basket of cotton, Tom can be said to have given his righteousness to one who could not come up with her own. Legree’s attempt at punishment ignored Tom’s imputed cotton righteousness, but then Tom stepped in to accept the unjust punishment.

Thus, when Stowe places her Tom-Jesus with Cassy-Samaritan Woman, she tweaks the Biblical account by siting it in the midst of Tom’s “passion” experience. Still, the man’s primary motivation, love for others, completely parallels that of Jesus. This is why I would argue that to dismiss Uncle Tom as a collaborator or a fool is to utterly miss Stowe’s point. One can weigh her Christian philosophy in the balance and find it wanting, as Simon Legree does with a despised slave’s cotton basket, but to pretend that such philosophy does not lie behind this novel, thus reducing Uncle Tom to a dupe is unfair to both the character and the author.


Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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