Gender Roles in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

January 5, 2022 by Essay Writer

In considering how Stowe represents gender, it must be foregrounded that men and women inhabited different sectors within nineteenth century American society. Males belonged almost exclusively to a public world of work, whilst females were restricted to a private sphere within the home. Different characteristics that were stereotypically attached to gender- compassion and domesticity in women, and control and chaotic violence in men- can thus be accountable to the different spheres they belonged to. Additionally, we cannot examine how Stowe approaches gender as a singular concept; both masculinity and femininity are challenged through their synthesis with other concepts such as religion and slavery. A person’s gender is thus labelled according to which antithetical sphere their characteristics align most accurately to. Therefore, Stowe does not approach gender biologically, but instead socially in accordance with what is expected of both men and women within society.

Through assumptions within American society of both male and female attributes, Uncle Tom can be seen as “feminine” through not completely fulfilling the expectations of American masculinity. Throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly, Tom inhabits the world of slavery where the owners are predominantly incapable of religion. Characterisation of behaviour is thus based mainly on gender. Therefore, when Tom displays Christian attributes such as compassion and unconditional love, he can only be described as “feminine” through the source of these emotions being typically female. This expectation of gender is not only contextual, but is constructed within the novel: nurture and guidance stems naturally from female characters such as Eva and Rachel Halliday, whilst little but chaos and harm are caused by the patriarchal influence of Legree and Mr Shelby. Therefore, to examine the construction of gender through Christianity, Tom’s interaction with a male figure must be considered. Despite Legree being possibly the most cruel slave owner, Tom vows that: ““if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ‘em freely, as the Lord gave his for me.”[1] Whilst a feminine submission seems apparent through ‘[giving]’ physical strength to another, this act is elevated in presenting Tom through a religious context. In sacrificing himself for the sake of believing all souls are ‘precious’ despite their sinning, it aligns him with Jesus; his behaviour is therefore not submissive specifically to Legree but heroic for the sake of humanity. Through being forced to submit to life as a slave, it can be argued that Tom has no choice but to exhibit Christian values; either he seeks a higher salvation through showing humanity where Legree is lacking, or submits to a hatred that leaves him damned spiritually as well as physically. Whilst the emotion of compassion can be characterised as female, his sacrifice is physical and so remains predominantly masculine. This suggests a pain and toil that only men would encounter through work and women would not through residing in the home. Therefore, the construction of Tom’s gender is dependent not only upon his personal identity and actions, but the faith of others. Those who remain intrinsically faithless can only attribute his kindness to femininity through a lack of knowledge on Christian values.

Through Stowe’s interaction with wider issues of slavery, the female role is not centred on seeking relationships. Without this pre-occupation of romance and lack of objectification, the presentation of gender within the novel is more flexible. However, women can only show masculine traits through a perversion of their own femininity. Within The Feminization of American Culture, Douglas sees a “continuation of male hegemony in different guises”[2]. Previously, work and home were contained in separate masculine and feminine spheres yet this is complicated through introducing race. Dinah is female in sex yet is unorganised and works without “logic and reason” (Stowe, p.620), characteristics of chaos that are typically representative of masculinity. The kitchen can also act as symbolic of the slave economy, of which Dinah attempts to organise through what: “she called “clarin’ up times,” […] and make the ordinary confusion seven-fold more confounded.” (Stowe, p.315) In attempting to rectify this process of domesticity and instead only producing it as ‘more confounded’, it suggests that the female sphere also needs reform before approaching the faults within the male sphere. However, the focus remains- as it does in slavery- on the results. St Clare cares only for the fact that Dinah “gets you a capital dinner” (Stowe, p.316); this almost identifies Dinah as a slave trader through her preference of chaotic method yet effective results, as slavery similarly produces. Dinah herself, as a purchase, also brings the economic in to the domestic. The expectation of American women was to influence men through being a “wise and appropriate influence”[3] at home. Through placing a lower class of slaves instead in the home, it renders the expectations of the American wife impossible to carry out. Stowe thus inverts gender through presenting a female character that exists within a female world, yet is this ‘continuation of male hegemony’ being essentially a male-invested economic purchase. Yet it must also be questioned whether this lack of femininity is caused by patriarchal influence or an initial lack of femininity in Dinah; whilst she economically belongs to St Clare, she intrinsically lacks a feminine nature embodied by domesticity and organisation.

Stowe’s narration works not only to describe the events, but becomes a self-fashioned “penetrating”[4] voice in itself. Gender roles are therefore inverted through Stowe assuming a voice that can reach all through publication. She also transcends her sphere through topic; Stowe breaches typically masculine topics of slave auctions and violence beyond the household. Once her character’s issues have been resolved as far as possible, she uses the ‘Concluding remarks’ to continue these issues to reality: “But, she asks any person, who knows the world, are such characters common, anywhere?” (Stowe, p.621) Instead of using a first person, she self-consciously places herself within the third, highlighting her gender’s ability to speak publicly where women were usually mute. The reader is also called upon to consider the type of person they are. She seeks for answers only in a specific group, those that ‘[know] the world’, thus suggesting a challenge to look inward on oneself after a novel of examining others. Stowe almost acts like a conscience, re-iterated by Jane P. Tomkins, of whom suggests “the novel functions both as a means of describing the social world and as a means of changing it.”[5] In considering whether characters of “nobility, generosity, and humanity” (Stowe, p.621) are common within humanity, it once again encourages readers to consider themselves. This suggests an intended readership of those who also display “feminine” characteristics; through this, the slaves Stowe gives a voice to can be approached with sympathy. However, it can be argued that her description of the ‘social world’ is purposefully inaccurate. Through the coincidences of two reunions and a future happiness for previous slaves, Stowe presents an idealistic future that can only be achieved through human development in to these said characters. Therefore, a sense of realism is twisted to present possibility beyond reality. To encourage action through words almost suggests Stowe’s narrative as a speech. She thus embodies what would have been recognised as patriarchal control, yet she successfully inverts it through her female voice; she presents the possibility that matriarchy could incur change also.

Despite examining how it is repeatedly constructed and inverted, gender becomes irrelevant within Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whilst restrictions of gender could dictate the action physically taken against slavery, such as Mrs Shelby being powerless to prevent the sale of Tom, gender becomes irrelevant when considering the morality of the individual. Throughout the novel, Stowe questions how much human progress has been made if men are still enslaved. It is therefore standards of morality that needed to evolve, and this remains independent from which gender predominantly rules society; being female did not automatically denote care and domesticity, as Marie St Clare shows. It is therefore not a solution to displace patriarchy with matriarchy if human nature and morality is arbitrary and not specific to gender.


Beecher Stowe, H., Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986)

Brown, G., Domestic Individualism (University of California Press, Oxford: 1992)

Douglas, A. ‘Introduction’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986)

Tompkins, J. P., ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Literary History’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Elizabeth Ammons (Norton & Company: London, 1994)

Yellin, J. ‘Doing it Herself: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woman’s Role in the Slavery Crisis’ in New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Eric J. Sundquist (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986)

[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986) p.583 (All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.) [2] Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture in Domestic Individualism, Gillian Brown (University of California Press, Oxford: 1992) p.18 [3] Jean Fagan Yellin, ‘Doing it Herself: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woman’s Role in the Slavery Crisis’ in New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Eric J. Sundquist (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986) p.88 [4] Ann Douglas, ‘Introduction’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986) p.15 [5] Jane P. Tompkins, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Literary History’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Elizabeth Ammons (Norton & Company: London, 1994)

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