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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Motherhood in UTC

Mother and Child, James John Hill (1811-1882)
In UTC, Stowe describes a setting in which mothers play dominant role in the lives of their children while the father's role is less prominent.  In the case of Eliza, her role in the live of her son Harry is obvious, as she fights to save his life.  Her fear of losing her son is compounded by the fact that she has already lost in "two infant children to whom she was passionately attached."  That attachment is based on the fact that many slaves are torn from family members, real and adopted, several times during their lives.  No mention is made about Eliza's family, so she may not remember them, having been brought up by Mrs. Shelby since girlhood.  Therefore, every attachment she has in life is connected to the Shelby plantation.  Even her husband is from a neighboring estate.

Nevertheless, Eliza recognizes that those attachments are fragile for someone in her social position.  As her husband points out, a slave's marriage is subject to the interest of the master.

"Don't you know a slave can't be married? There is no law in this country for that; I can't hold you for my wife, if he chooses to part us. That's why I wish I'd never seen you, -- why I wish I'd never been born; it would have been better for us both, -- it would have been better for this poor child if he had never been born (Ch. 3).

Slaves have very little autocracy in their own lives.  Even the family unit is not held sacred.  Therefore, having been separated from family by way of the trade and death, and knowing that the threat of both is always there, Eliza is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect her young son.  He is the only thing to which she can confidently grasp and when she overhears conversation of his impending sale, she runs away, thinking foremost not only of her love for him but also of her Christian duty as a parent to protect him.

 "She said, herself, one soul was worth more than the world; and this boy has a soul, and if I let him be carried off, who knows what'll become of it? It must be right: but, if it an't right, the Lord forgive me, for I can't help doing it!" (Ch. 5).

Eliza believes that she has a moral obligation to do whatever is necessary to protect her son from the evils of the slave trade.

Mrs. Shelby seems to have fulfilled her moral obligations to her son George as well.  Strangely, in the opening chapters mother and son do not appear together, as George's only appearance takes place in the titular location with the slaves.  Nevertheless, her influence can be detected, as Stowe tells us he is "well trained in religious things by his mother" (Ch. 4).  Once again, the mother is the one that instills the Christian morals.  George chooses to eat dinner in Uncle Tom's Cabin rather than at the main house, and from his interaction with the inhabitants thereof, it is easy to see that he does not consider himself superior to them.  Such an attitude he likely also learned from his mother who is able to empathize with Eliza's desire to protect her son when she tells Eliza, "I would as soon have one of my own children sold" (Ch. 1).  There is no distinction made between the feelings of a slave and the feelings of free whites.

The role of the mother in the early part of the novel is to provide a moral compass for their children.  Religion is of great significance as it teaches one mother to protect her own while it helps another mother to instruct her family.  In both cases, women are victims of slavery in that one has to deal with the possibility of being traded and the other has no control over the presence of the evils of the institution within her realm.  Both are forced to accept their position and find ways to adjust.

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