74 pages 2 hours read

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1851

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Summary and Study Guide


American author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was published in 1852 after having originally appeared as forty weekly installments in the abolitionist periodical The National Era beginning in June of 1851. It was not intended to become a full-length novel, but its huge popularity led a publisher to contact Stowe and convince her to expand it. Though already an active abolitionist, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was the impetus for Stowe to write the novel, which became a symbol of the power of literature in social reform. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and was only outsold by the Bible. The novel became a cultural phenomenon, spawning “Uncle Tom Plays” and giving birth to character tropes “Uncle Tom,” “Topsy,” “Simon Legree,” and others. The novel was banned in many of the Southern states and later in the Confederacy. Its popularity helped spread and strengthen the abolitionist movement throughout the Union. In spite of its role in the anti-slavery movement, the book is not without controversy. It is critiqued for perpetuating racial stereotypes; these negative connections often overshadow its historical significance.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is comprised of two occasionally intersecting plots following Uncle Tom as he is sold down the river and Eliza and George Harris as they make their way north to freedom. Tom and Eliza are both slaves to the Shelby family of Kentucky. The Shelbys are indulgent masters and treat their slaves well. Tom is particularly well-liked by both the family and his fellow slaves for his honest, pious nature. Young George Shelby has a deep fondness for him.

Mr. Shelby runs up debts, and his mortgage passes into the possession of Mr. Haley, a slave trader. Shelby is obliged to sell Tom and Harry, the sons of Eliza and George Harris. Eliza catches wind of this and escapes with Harry, agreeing to meet her husband in Canada, a free country. They avoid pursuit when Eliza crosses the partially frozen Ohio River. Haley sends Tom Loker and Marks, two headhunters, to look for them. Mrs. Shelby is horrified at separating Tom from his wife, Aunt Chloe, and his children. She vows to save money to repurchase him.

Eliza’s escape is aided by a senator whose wife morally objects to the Fugitive Slave Act. She and Harry make their way to a Quaker colony where runaway slaves are welcomed and aided due to the Quakers’ generosity and strong morality. Eliza is soon reunited with George, and they plot their escape to Canada, aided by their Quaker friends. 

Tom is soon sold to a New Orleans man, Augustine St. Clare, after endearing himself to Augustine’s angelic young daughter, Eva. Augustine is a kind, indulgent master who objects to slavery on moral terms but feels it is of little use fighting the entire system. Augustine’s Northerner cousin, Miss Ophelia, moves into the St. Clare household to help manage it due to the incompetence of Augustine’s hypochondriac wife, Marie. Augustine and Ophelia frequently discuss the morality of the slave system, and Augustine buys Ophelia an abused young slave girl named Topsy to test Ophelia’s ideals.

Tom and Eva grow very close. Eva is deeply religious, and the pain caused by the slave system affects her deeply. She gradually falls ill, afflicted by tuberculosis. On her deathbed, she asks her father to free Tom. She does not fear death, and she asks her family and their slaves, whom she regards as her friends, to be good Christians so they can meet in heaven. She gives everyone a lock of her hair in remembrance. 

Augustine dies in a freak accident shortly after his daughter. He never got around to freeing Tom, and he never made a provision for his other slaves, except for Topsy, who was gifted to Ophelia. When Ophelia tries in vain to convince Marie to consider freeing Tom, she writes to the Shelbys on Tom’s behalf, but there is no response. Tom and his fellow slaves are sent to the New Orleans slave auction house. Tom is purchased by Simon Legree, along with a beautiful, pious young woman named Emmeline. 

Legree is monstrous, providing his slaves with only the minimum for survival; it is his policy to work them until they die, which usually does not take long. Legree quickly begins to dislike Tom due to his good nature. Tom is introduced to Cassy, an imperious and slightly unstable “quadroon” (a racist term identifying a person as one-quarter black) woman, who has lived with Legree as a mistress for several years. She advises Tom to capitulate to Legree’s evil ways or else suffer greatly at his hands. Tom refuses to sacrifice his morals. When Legree orders him to whip a fellow slave, Tom refuses; Legree has him beaten brutally. Cassy attends to Tom as he convalesces.

George, Eliza, and Harry make their bid for freedom, aided by other runaway slaves and the Quakers. They are cornered by a posse led by Tom Loker, but George shoots Loker and the posse disbands. George and Eliza make it to Canada where they establish themselves comfortably with the help of sympathetic locals.

Tom, meanwhile, suffers at the hands of Legree. Cassy and Emmeline make a bid for freedom, pretending to run away and then hiding in the supposedly haunted garret of Legree’s house. When Tom, who endorsed their plan, refuses to tell Legree their location, Legree has him beaten just shy of death.

As Tom lays dying, George Shelby, now a young man, comes to the plantation, having received Ophelia’s letter late. He is too late. Tom is delighted to see George before he dies. He sends his love to his family and dies happy, looking to the prospect of heaven. George buries his old friend’s body in a secluded knoll outside the plantation before heading back to Kentucky to deliver the grim news to Aunt Chloe and Mrs. Shelby.

Cassy and Emmeline, noting George’s sympathy toward Tom, decide to travel with the young man back up the river. On the steamboat, they are introduced to Madame Emily de Thoux, who turns out to be George Harris’s sister. Through the course of conversation, Cassy deduces that Eliza is her long-lost daughter. Cassy, Emily, and Emmeline travel to Canada, where they are reunited with their family. Due to wealth Emily received from her late husband, the family is able to relocate to France, and then Africa. George Shelby, meanwhile, returns to Kentucky where he frees the family slaves, asking them to remember Uncle Tom when they think of their freedom.