Religion and Morality

 

The Uncle Tom archetype—the blindly obsequious slave figure—obviously derives from Stowe’s depiction of Tom’s submissive character and his resistance to fight against the debasing institution of slavery as George and Eliza do.  The archetypal Uncle Tom figure implies an African American who strives to assimilate to the white culture he respects so dearly—one who one who is always loyal to this repressive society even when it is harmful to himself, who is always grateful and passive even in meager circumstances, and who will never become angry or cross.  Bogle’s sardonic description,

“Toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n’er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind.  Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts.” (Bogle, 4-6).

 In other words, the Uncle Tom role embodies a mentality of ignorant subservience that slave-owners and their excessively malicious overseers—such as Haley—attempted to program the slaves into embracing.  Tom soon became a symbol of a slave’s learned helplessness, becoming a target for an endless debate among literary critics because of the role he so flawlessly embodied. 

HARRIET JACOBS’ INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL:

Harriet Jacobs, revealing slavery’s power to morally corrupt even the purest of hearts, breaks from her narrative to address the reader directly, assuming that the reader knows the deceitful slave laws she speak of that made it easy for slave owners to manipulate their slaves by making legally permissible falsified promises to their slaves.  Linda’s first mistress, whom she emphatically claims to have “loved” on account of her kindness and willingness to teach Linda how to “read and spell,” epitomizes slavery’s strenuous ability to corrupt even the most benevolent slave owners, seeing as the mistress went against the dying wishes of Linda’s mom by bequeathing the kids to various owners rather than freeing them as she said she would.  This notion of the false white promise is prevalent throughout both Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, most prominent in Mrs. Sofia Auld, whose moral kindness is gradually hardened by slavery’s power to corrupt, and Mrs. Shelby, who sell Eliza’s son despite Mrs. Shelby’s guarantee that her family wouldn’t be sold and separated.  Senator Bird, too, is inspired by Tom’s altruism to free him once the old politician passes on, yet this promise was actually a hollow one since, as Jacobs details, “the memory of a faithful slave does not avail much to save her children from the auction block.”  As objects, slaves were dehumanized to have no consciousness, no memory, and certainly no credibility of word. 

Jacob’s narrative also reveals the moral plight that slave women were forced to endure, especially with regards to sexual chastity and virtue.  In Dr. Flint’s disturbing attempts to isolate Linda into some sort of atrocious rape shack, she find is forced to face up to the agony of her horrific moral quandary—she must either give in to Flint’s “conquer[ing]” lechery or die a trivial death fighting back against the seemingly insurmountable machine of slavery.  What Jacob’s is pointing out here is that fact that slave women were forced to go against their own moral concerns and limitations in order to satisfy their master’s desires, whether it be servile or sexual; and even though Linda admits, “I know I did wrong,” she asks the “virtuous reader” (perhaps sarcastically implying that everyone, whether enslaved or free, has committed what can, in one form or another, be deemed a sin) to “pity” and “pardon” her for allowing herself to become a sex object, she rightfully claims that “the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others” who were not put in such dismal circumstances.  Otherwise said, anyone who is forced to break their own moral domain, like slaves were often forced into, should not be deemed immoral because the conscious decision to break that moral code was made by another individual—in Linda’s case, Dr. Flint ceased control over her morality and debased her against her will.  This is somewhat analogous with Twain’s more lighthearted satire, Puddn’head Wilson, in that Roxy curbs her conscience with legitimate rationalizations regarding her unjust enslavement—justifications that do not solely pertain to Roxy, but rather expands to the entire slave community as a sort of unwritten rule of thumb.  Even the black pastor, who epitomizes the most morally righteous slave in Dawson’s Landing, steals birds from his master with the justification that he (and other slaves) deserves to reap the fruit of his labor—quite literally for those plantation owners who forced their slaves to cultivate and harvest their cherry orchards and strawberry fields and whatnot.

 FREDRICK DOUGLASS’ NARRATIVE OF THE LIFE:

Fredrick Douglass’ account of the premature separation from his mother that his slave-owners set up captures what essentially forms the foundation for the institution of slavery’s morally void process of dehumanization in which white slave owners attempted to further detach their slaves from human consciousness as a means of reinforcing their roles as tools and commodity.  Slaves are tortured mentally and physically from the day they are born until they day they die—from the day they are born and separated from his mothers to the day they die toiling out on the fields or screaming at the crack of a white bigot’s whip.  Of these tortures, the mother/child separation is without a doubt one of the more inhumane and heartless manipulative techniques employed on slaves in order to strip them of their natural emotions and affections, thus crippling that slave’s sense of identity.  Without the care and nurture of a mother, the slave child is bound to obtain some form of attachment disorder that would ultimate further remove that slave from reality and normal human awareness.  The slave learns to be helpless and internalize this sense of hopelessness, thus perpetuating the grinding wheels of slavery.

 HARRIET BEECHER STOWE’S UNCLE TOM’S CABIN

The whole notion of Miss Ophelia—from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—allegedly becoming a martyr merely by caring for a little girl strikes me as completely ironic, chiefly because the slaves that she holds bigoted conceptions against are actually the true martyrs, seeing as they sacrifice their lives for the dominant white society which ensnares them, albeit against their will.  The narrator in this passage speaks to the reader, yet whether this is supposed to be a sarcastic commentary on the passive-aggressive damages prompted by the brutal machine of slavery or a sincere tip-of-the-hat to the “self-sacrifice” that many slave owners bestowed upon themselves for doing one of the most natural things in life—caring for a child.  On second thought, I’m pretty sure this is a sarcastic critique of slave owners, predominantly Northern slave owners who took a more passive route to handling their slaves, but nevertheless perpetuate the entire system—from passive Northern slave-owners to the most brutal ones, such as the Southern slave overseer Covey from Fredrick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life.  In calling herself a martyr, Ophelia exhibits the more subtle moral ironies that white slave owners use, whether consciously or not, to oppress their “property.”

It disgusts me to think about the lesser-known cruelties of slavery, wicked misdeeds such as rape and sex slavery in which, as this passage shows, both women and girls were likely subjected to a life that consisted wholly of satisfying their master’s lust.  They become what Fredrick Douglas described as “breeder slaves,” or objectified slaves used almost as a tool would be used.  With regards to Emmeline’s hair providing Mr. Skeggs with “a hundred dollars difference” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the fact that her master essentially dolls her up directly alludes to the fact that any attractive, young female slaves were put to work doing more horribly unscrupulous tasks than picking cotton…

The Uncle Tom archetype that Donald Bogle’s article refers to clearly originated from the characterization Stowe attributes to Tom (that is, the Tom from Stowe’s novel, not Twain’s mischievous Tom) as being an obsequious individual hesitant to fight against slavery’s savagery much like George and Eliza do as they choose to flee rather than to blatantly accept the torture as Tom does, all his hopes pinned on God and the methods of Christian morality—to turn the other cheek.  Although this passage reveals some internal opposition to his slave condition, as he finds offense in Haley’s “naive off hand” indifference to Tom’s sleeping conditions (in jail), the narrator ultimately exposes the weaknesses that have turned Tom’s character into an emblem of the excessive obedience that slave-owners used to sustain the corrupted establishment.  Slaves like Tom, who pride themselves on their integrity and loyalty to a “strictly honest and upright course of life,” are prime examples of those who’ve been brainwashed by white society’s domineering system of exploitation and serve to perpetuate the embroiling system of slavery.  This pride in being honest is actually a less harsh way of declaring a sort of pride in one’s ability to bear the abuse of white enslavement; and even though in this instance Tom realizes that this honesty wasn’t matched with any kindness of Haley’s behalf, the narrator nevertheless infers that Tom subdues these minor resentments and “comfortably acccomodate[s]” himself in jail that night, thus confirming the narrator’s contention that the dejected slave has not “much else to be proud of” than his integrity towards Haley and the dominant white society he finds himself immersed in.

Also fascinating about Uncle Tom’s Cabin is George’s sudden surge of faith upon experiencing this ephemeral moment of freedom.  Feeling the serenity of his sudden equality, his “dark, misanthropic, pinging, atheistic doubts,” he is swiftly expunged from the religious skepticism brought on by his awareness of slavery’s firm grip on his individuality, “melted away before the light of a living Gospel,” as he says.  While George curses God up until the moment when he first tastes freedom, Tom vindicates his enslavement using God and the Bible to justify slavery and find some semblance of purpose and contentment in spite of his dire situation.  With this in mind, Stowe juxtaposes George and Tom throughout chapters 12-14, portraying their contrasting views on slavery and God.  In chapter 14, Tom finds a sort of freedom within the confines of slavery when Mr. St. Clare buys him and treats him with a sort of dignity he’d never experienced before.

 MARK TWAIN’S PUDDN’HEAD WILSON:

Throughout his brilliant satire, Twain masterfully pins his readers in a disquieting situation, force-feeding them the raw, naked truth about slavery’s brutal institution.  Boldly pulling the ole switcheroo with the later oblivious Tom and Chambers, Roxy sets Twain’s crafty intent into motion: to reverse to the two boy’s roles—domineering white aristocrat and obsequious slave—before they are old enough to be conscious of their society and the part they play in it.  This passage is probably the most potent example of Twain’s projected literary device, seeing as at this point in the story Twain’s readers are forced to watch Chambers—who, as only Roxy and the readers know, is actually the wholly white Tom—grapple with his tragic enslavement.  As “Chambers” grows from a pure white baby to a slave in the readers’ eyes, he becomes an utterly gut-wrenching character designed to make readers—especially contemporary white readers—feel a particularly disconcerting sense of pity and moral sympathy for Chambers’ harsh slave life.  Yet a powerful layer of irony is added to this experience as white readers find themselves becoming more emotionally and morally attached to, and thus disturbed by, the cruelty imposed on Chambers.  Even as I was reading this passage, I found myself at first unconsciously harboring a more potent and visceral sense of sorrow for Chambers simply because it was jarringly abnormal to see a white person succumbing to the harrowing grasp of slavery—as a white person, the agony became all the more tangible.  With this in mind, I can imagine readers of Twain’s day and age being heavily affected by this race-reversal, as white readers likely squirmed while imagining themselves trapped in such a morally perverted system.

Works Cited (My resource)

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: an Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum, 2001. Print.

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