Essay on Modern Criticism of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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Modern Criticism of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

It is extremely difficult for the modern reader to understand and appreciate Uncle Tom’s Cabin because Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing for an audience very different from us. We don’t share the cultural values and myths of Stowe’s time, so her novel doesn’t affect us the way it affected its original readers. For this reason, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been heavily scrutinized by the modern critic. However, the aspects of the novel that are criticized now are the same aspects that held so much appeal for its original audience.

Many people condemn Uncle Tom’s Cabin simply because it is a sentimental novel. This genre appeals to the reader’s emotions in order to enact social change. While
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Tompkins argues that “the tears and gestures of Stowe’s characters are not in excess of what they feel; if anything, they fall short of expressing the experiences they point to—salvation, communion, reconciliation” (510). The heart-wrenching scenes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin may strike some critics as overdone, but this is only when the reader refuses to consider the magnitude of the experiences these scenes illustrate.

A prominent figure in the sentimental novel is that of the martyr. Nineteenth-century literature abounds with stories in which the “pure and powerless die to save the powerful and corrupt, and thereby show themselves more powerful than those they save” (Tompkins 507). These martyrs were almost always females or minorities. The modern reader tends to be annoyed by these figures, seeing them as evidence of the stereotypical view that females and minorities are weaker than white males. What the modern reader often fails to comprehend is that death was the only avenue through which the marginal members of society could achieve power in that time period. By sacrificing themselves for others, the marginal members of society attained a level of esteem that they never could have gotten had they lived. On the other hand, white males already had power and thus wouldn’t gain anything in death. Unfortunately, twenty-first century