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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Children (and Prison Guards) in Power

Most people only view slavery in terms of the Africans who were forced to be slaves; what this narrow minded viewpoint does not show is how slavery affected everyone who was at all involved. The Caucasian children in Uncle Tom’s Cabin seem to have different reactions to slavery and also seem to treat the slaves in very different ways. The ones who became cruel and grew to be adults that most people now days would view as evil and sadistic perhaps should not be as hated as they are because that is what they were taught and pushed towards these attitudes since they were born. We should also respect the children in the novel who were able to recognize the evils of slavery despite their young age and all the influences from family, society, and psychology even more. What these few special children were able to overcome in their perception of slavery is truly remarkable.

Young master Tom, the son of George’s master, is one of the unfortunate cruel children who gave into the stigmas of society. He treats slaves as less than human even though he is just a child. He lies and says that George is fighting with him in the beginning when George asks that he not scare the horse and is able to manipulate his father into whipping and eventually letting him whip George. He acts in a way society has taught him to. He has been put in a position of power over other people and that has affected the way that he thinks of and in turn treats slaves. This way of thinking is similar to what happened in Zimbardo’s experiment at Stanford with prisoners and guards. The people who were placed in positions of power as guards became cruel and sadistic. According to the experiment close to one third developed these extreme tendencies. Similarly Tom was placed in a position of power over the slaves. Growing up in such a position he was cruel to those who he viewed as inferior which obviously included slaves. He also learned from his parents when growing up as he watched them treat the family slaves poorly. His behavior is probably learned from a combination of family, society and psychology; it should not be excused as it is by far the cruelest of all the Caucasian children in the novel who also grew up in similar positions, but perhaps there is more to the story to consider than his simply being an evil little child.

Now compare Tom to George, the son of the Shelby’s. He is very kind and loves spending time with the family slaves. He is fond of Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe. He finds joy in trying to help Tom learn to write and would rather spend time in Uncle Tom’s cabin than at the main house. Overall he is a sweet and kind boy who is not turned cruel by slavery. In fact as he grows older his compassion for slaves continues to increase. Towards the end of the novel he even travels to where Tom is and tries to buy his freedom. Unfortunately, he arrives too late to save Tom as Tom dies from a cruel beating, but he is inspired to free the rest of his families slaves in Tom’s memory. George is different from Tom as he did not grow up seeing his parent horribly mistreating slaves, however he still could have been influenced by similar social pressures and psychological influences. Despite these other influences he was able to remain an overall good and moral character that fought against slavery because he was able to see how it was wrong.

Eva St Clare is the other child that is mentioned in the novel. She is clearly a Christ like figure in the novel. She seems blind to race and accepts everyone. She is especially kind to Tom and her family purchases Tom at her request. She is an ideal figure in the novel and acts as an example of a child who is not negatively impacted by slavery. She is similar to George as she did not see her parents abuse the house hold slaves but she still would have encountered the societal pressures and psychological influences. Personally I don’t think that she fully escaped these influences as even though she clearly loves the slaves and seems to have a special connection with Tom I wonder if she truly views the slaves as human beings. The way that she interacts with them suggests that she almost views them as pets that she can love and dote on and can love her in return but they are still not equals to her. This sort of perception of slaves is much better than reacting cruelly but it is still not ideal. It would be interesting to see what might have happened to her perceptions if she had lived longer and actually grown up, but unfortunately this didn’t happen.

I’m not justifying Caucasian people mistreating others in any way, but it is important to recognize how slavery affected Caucasian children who grew up in this sort of environment and how they were influenced by the actions of their family and society. Despite these terrible influences some children in this novel at least were able to make their own moral choices and see how horrible slavery truly is.


  1. I think your analysis of the Caucasian children in Uncle Tom's Cabin is very interesting. The book does seem to comment on the effects that parents' actions have on their children. The last sentence in your second paragraph and a few other spots in your post are a little bit confusing. I think there are a few spots where sentences should be split into two, but overall your post is an interesting description of the various influential children and their interactions with slaves in the novel.

  2. I agree that there were definite effects on whites who experienced slavery as well as the African Americans. Within the novel Stowe made a comment along the lines of slave owners being just as imprisoned by slavery as slaves. I think that applies here.