The Compromise of 1850 included The Fugitive Slave Law, a law forcing non-slaveowners in the free Northern states to return escaped slaves to their Southern masters and participate in a system they did not believe in. Jehlen notes the reaction to this cruel governmental act by stating that “[t]he nation’s growing guilt and apprehension is tangible in the overwhelming response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (386). It seems hard to believe that people could find no wrong in making it a law to return humans as if they were property. In fact, Stowe wrote her most famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at a most opportune time; indeed, she wrote it in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Knowing her audience would be primarily white women, Stowe played on their feelings of uneasiness and guilt over the treatment of slaves, especially those of the Northern white women who could help with the Abolitionist movement, by introducing her readers to seemingly real characters suffering from the injustice of slavery. This can be seen even in the style in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written; Stowe directly addresses her readers, forcing them to consider slavery from the point of view of the enslaved. “Expressive of and responsible for the values of its time, it also belongs to a genre, the sentimental novel, whose chief characteristic is that it is written by, for, and about women” (Tompkins 124-25). Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sentimental novel; it was meant to appeal to the unsettled emotions that existed in the reader’s mind, creating and sense of guilt and injustice, making them see how slavery destroys human lives and families. Through the introduction of these Southern families, Stowe demonstrates how slavery corrupts and ultimately eliminates domestic stability.
Like many other female writers during this time, Stowe emphasizes the two separate spheres created by the Cult of True Womanhood. The Cult of True Womanhood was a system of values, deeply ingrained into the minds of 19th century Americans, much like the idea of slavery, that established the proper codes of conduct every respectable woman should follow. A major component of the Cult of True Womanhood was the Cult of Domesticity, the belief that a woman’s place was in the home where she could cook, clean, and care for her family. Nina Baym states that “[d]omesticity is set forth as a value scheme for ordering all of life, in competition with the ethos of money and exploitation that is perceived to prevail in American society” (27). A woman supposedly had no business worrying with events occurring outside the home, in the public sphere or marketplace where decisions like the Fugitive Slave Law were made and the cruel patriarchal institution of slavery thrived; she belonged strictly in the domestic sphere. Davidson comments that writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, having no voice in the public, male-dominated sphere, “used their writing to exert a moral force and power in the nation from which they were excluded by custom and law” (444).
Uncle Tom’s Cabin tells the stories of several Southern families who live within the confines of the slavery system. The characters have different feelings about the society they live in, but they do share one common belief—the belief that they cannot change things. Stowe shows how this feeling of helplessness only strengthens slavery’s grip on society. Stowe poignantly describes how the prejudice and separation created by society’s public sphere, when accepted and unchallenged, tragically deny a domestic, happy home life. In her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe uses kitchen imagery to demonstrate to Northern, white female readers that the patriarchal institution of slavery, deeply ingrained in America’s belief system, accepted by Southerners and slaves, and supported by separate social spheres and hierarchical structure, eliminates the opportunity for a true domestic sphere, defined by the Cult of True Womanhood, founded on sentimentality and emotion where families can feel safe and control their lives.
Although the two kitchens Stowe introduces,
Aunt Chloe’s and Old Aunt Dinah’s, are opposite in order and structure,
both kitchens cannot achieve true domestic freedom, the ability to establish
a safe, loving environment untouched by slavery, within the physical and
psychological confines of this institution. What better image to use to
symbolize domesticity then the heart of a home – the kitchen. Through these
kitchens, Stowe tries to reveal how slavery destroys the sentimentality
and emotion of the domestic sphere. Stowe had to figure out how to tell
a slave story in a way that white people would honestly listen and relate
to. Stowe cleverly crafted a novel founded on something that was
important and relevant to female Americans—families and homes. As mentioned,
Stowe used Uncle Tom’s Cabin to convince Northern white women to
support the Abolitionist movement. These women lived and breathed the Cult
of Domesticity, a belief undermined by the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The lack of sentimentality and instability of domestic life, portrayed
through Southern kitchen imagery, was meant to offend believers in the
Cult of True Womanhood and inspire them to action.
Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P-------, in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness. (41)With further reading, the content of the men’s conversation is revealed. Haley is a slave trader who looking to buy slaves from Mr. Shelby, the plantation owner. This scene is the ultimate representation of slavery’s invasion of the home and should no doubt offend Stowe’s reader. Home, supposedly a place of love and sentimentality turns to a harsh commercial environment in the presence of such a system. From the very beginning of the work, business and money take prevalence over human lives. Mr. Shelby is in debt and sees no other way out but to sell his slaves; he only sees “the necessity of the thing” (85).
Like many other people who didn’t wholly believe in slavery, Shelby, apparently a fair and honest master, finds he cannot do anything but adhere to the patriarchal society that surrounds him, is ingrained in his mind, and has forever altered his sense of right. Stowe wastes no time establishing slavery as a patriarchal institution in which, as Mrs. Shelby states, “[she] was a fool to think [she] could make anything good out of such a deadly evil” (84). Stowe wanted her white female readers to share Mrs. Shelby’s view of slavery. Mrs. Shelby, who lives according to the Cult of Domesticity as strictly as possible in the South, tries to teach her slaves how to raise a family and establish home, but her husband’s business transactions destroy the emotions she has tried to instill in her slaves, her one chance at domesticity on the plantation.
Stowe introduces Old Aunt Dinah’s disastrous Louisiana kitchen, rooted in the Deep South, to show another example of how the patriarchal institution of slavery, with its hierarchical structure and separation, deny the existence of domestic stability. This kitchen allows Stowe’s readers to view how slavery prevents Southern women from creating an orderly kitchen that abides by the Cult of Domesticity. Old Aunt Dinah’s kitchen looked as though “it had been arranged by a hurricane blowing through it” (311) with “the rolling-pin under her bed, and the nutmeg-grater in her pocket with her tobacco” and “sixty-five different sugar bowls, one in every hole in the house . . .” (317). In this chaotic environment Dinah tries to establish true domesticity. This is seen with her occasional “clarin’ up times.” However, as the reader can see, she cannot escape the ideas of slavery, which have pervaded her thoughts her whole life; her “clarin’ up times” fail to change the chaotic state of her kitchen. The system of hierarchy described in Dinah’s kitchen directly contradicts how a “proper” kitchen should be.
Seated around her were various members of that rising race with which a Southern household abounds, engaged in shelling peas, peeling potatoes, picking feathers out of fouls, and other preparatory arrangements,-- Dinah every once in a while interrupting her meditations to give a poke, or a rap on the head, to some of the young operators, with the pudding stick that lay by her side. In fact, Dinah ruled over the wooly heads of the younger members with a rod of iron, and seemed to consider them born for no earthly purpose but to “save her steps” . . . It was the spirit of the system under which she had grown up, and she carried it out to its fullest extent. (311)The “spirit of the system under which she had grown up” refers to her family’s beliefs that have been structured and formed by slavery. Dinah has been raised in slavery and it is impossible for her, like many slaves, to establish her own way of thinking. It seems obvious that slaves would structure their kitchens around the ideas of social status, separate spheres, and violence since these are the foundations of slavery and the only ways they knew. “In objecting to the slave market’s violation of the family, Stowe holds the market accountable for a failure of sentiment, for impeding or perverting the process of sentimental relations” (Brown 43). Stowe hoped to create a passionate sense of injustice in her readers, so they would blame the marketplace for the corruption of domesticity and set out to destroy it.
Hoping to prompt her white readers into action, Stowe uses Aunt Dinah’s kitchen arrangements to continue her demonstration of the dominance of patriarchal slavery within domesticity. The disruption and chaos of Dinah’s kitchen appall Miss Ophelia, who is used to the clean structured kitchen in New England, free from slavery. When Ophelia, representative of Northern women, enters the kitchen and starts asking Dinah where certain utensils are, Dinah first tries to explain that things are how she wants them, then becomes impatient stating, “what does ladies know ‘bout work, I want to know?” (314) This statement suggests that Miss Ophelia, who was raised surrounded by the Cult of True Womanhood, could not possibly understand Dinah’s kitchen or way of nondomestic life because she had not grown up in the midst of slavery. As Brown suggests, “[t]he contagion of the market has already entered the Southern home where Ophelia finds desire and disorder—the impetus an pulse of the marketplace—in the kitchen” (505).
The idea of slavery seems to upset Ophelia more than it does Dinah because she does not have the imprints of slavery on her soul. While discussing slaves with St. Clare, frustrated and confused Ophelia says, “[t]his is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” (319). Stowe used Ophelia’s condemnation of the slavery system to show Northern females that others feel the same guilt and doubt about the institution that they did. Despite Miss Ophelia strong objections to slavery, she, like the others in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, don’t believe they can do anything about it. Instead, Ophelia goes about straightening Dinah’s kitchen, a useless effort because, as Dinah seems to have realized, order is not possible when inundated by slavery. Stowe wants her readers to see the ineffectiveness of trying to fix slavery; stronger efforts, like the Abolitionist movement, are necessary. “[K]itchen problems cannot be remedied without reference to the system the kitchen articulates in its modes of household production” (Brown 504). The only way to save the home is to abolish the marketplace, in other words, abolish slavery.
Apparently contrasting Aunt Dinah’s chaotic kitchen, Stowe describes Uncle Tom’s cabin set in “ a neat garden patch” to represent and ultimately erase the mythical vision many Northerners had about slave plantations which caused them to accept slavery’s social structure and prejudice. Instead of facing the terrible truth and ugliness of the institution, many Northerners were convinced that slave life wasn’t so bad, that slaves like Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe could establish a happy, domestic life on a plantation. This cabin is the place where Aunt Chloe, who serves as the head cook, attempts to establish a structured family environment (66). Aunt Chloe’s delicious food and happy, confident countenance seem to have a genuine domestic quality, but with closer examination, the evidence of slavery ingrained into the minds of all slaves exists. In this kitchen, although efficient and orderly, Stowe mentions a kind of hierarchical structure. “Aunt Chloe, who presided over its preparation as head cook, has left to inferior officers in the kitchen the business of clearing away and washing dishes . . .” (66). This militant imagery of social rank or status seems oddly out of place in this serene, positive setting, especially the words “inferior” and “business.” These terms better describe the public marketplace. Although Aunt Chloe is doing her best to prevent the world of slavery from entering her home, she can do nothing about its entrance into her mind. Slaves spent their whole lives engulfed in slavery; therefore, shaping one’s beliefs around a system, however unjust or opposing, cannot be prevented. Although slavery was morally wrong, it was so common to everyday life in 19th century America, ingrained in the heart of the country, that people, including slaves, just accepted as a way of life. Stowe wanted to show the danger of inaction; Northerners could no longer ignore or make excuses for the events of the South.
Using Aunt Chloe’s illusionary kitchen image, Stowe further shows how slavery erases all hope of a constant domestic life where families can have stability and control in their lives. Uncle Tom, the claimed hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sits at a kitchen table when he is introduced to the story. The reader’s first glimpse of Uncle Tom is in a kitchen, which seems to suggest that he is safe in his home with his family, that the cruelty of slavery cannot break his spirit. However, this false sense of security is shattered; the reader knows that while Tom is enjoying dinner with his wife and children in his loving, domestic kitchen, Mr. Shelby is planning his separation from them. It is this contradiction that Stowe creates to show the incompatibility of domestic life and slavery and to give the Northern reader a reason to fight slavery. “ The sacred ties envisioned in Stowe’s cabin scene are swept away by Master Shelby’s debt and its resolution in the sale of slaves who have been nurtured as family . . .” (MacKethan 227). Stowe purposely contrasts Chloe and Dinah’s kitchens. One is an outright demonstration of slavery’s negative effect on the Southern home, while the other is disguised with false images of domesticity. However, Stowe wants the reader to realize that both homes display an ingrained belief and acceptance of slavery, separate spheres, social structure, lack of control, and limited sentimentality—all of which deny domestic freedom within their walls.
Like its opening, Uncle Tom’s Cabin closes with kitchen imagery. Mrs. Shelby is sitting at the dining table when she hears the news of Tom’s death. It is only at this point in the novel that the Shelby plantation can experience domestic freedom, only after the legalization of the freedom papers bundled in George’s hand. Only after a home is freed from the limitations and prejudices of slavery, free from its acceptance and blind continuation, free from its separate spheres and hierarchical structure, can domesticity founded on emotion and family exist. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin with a purpose; she wanted to see action and, although restrained by her sex, she tried to make the biggest impact on American slavery as possible. “In fashioning her abolitionist protest as a defense of nineteenth-century domestic values, Stowe designates slavery as a domestic issue for American women to adjudicate and manage. The call to the mothers of America for the abolition of slavery is a summons to fortify the home, to rescue domesticity from shiftlessness and slavery” (Brown 506).
In the final pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe directly addresses the reader:
But what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do,-- they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly, healthily and justly, on the great interests of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! (624)Uncle Tom’s Cabin spoke to each individual Northerner who read its pages, forcing her to view slavery from a new perspective, sympathize with the slave characters, and relate the novel to things she knew all too well—family, sentimentality, and the Cult of Domesticity. Above all, Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted her white audience to take action against slavery.
Baym, Nina. Woman’s Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. New York: Cornell UP, 1978.
Brown, Gillian. “Sentimental Possession.” Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990. 39-60.
Brown, Gillian. “Getting in the Kitchen with Dinah: Domestic Politics in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” American Quarterly 36 (Fall 1984): 503-523.
Davidson, Kathy N. “Preface: No more separate spheres!” American Literature 70 (September 1998): 443-454.
Jehlen, Myra. “The Family Militant: Domesticity Versus Politics in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Criticism 31 (Fall 1989): 383-400.
MacKethan, Lucinda H. “Domesticity in Dixie: The Plantation Novel and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts. Ed. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997. 223-239.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.
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