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In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the slave characters express their autonomy in a variety of overt and subtle ways, from evasion and mild acts of sabotage to outright defiance and escape.  Given the narrow range of choices available to them within an oppressive system, these characters use whatever means available to preserve their families and their dignity.George and Eliza best illustrate the most active expression of autonomy, and, one gathers, the only kind that Stowe believes makes sense for slaves – escaping to freedom.  When Eliza addresses Mrs. Shelby and tries to prevent the sale of her son.  She approaches the subject with deference but directness, asking, “Oh, missus, do you suppose mas’r would sell my Harry?” (Stowe 10)  This kind of directness would be possible only if a slave and master were familiar, even somewhat intimate, with one another.  Despite the assurances, though, Mrs. Shelby forgets the matter and is unaware that her debt-plagued husband has already made the arrangements.  That night, Eliza asserts her autonomy far more clearly by fleeing with her child, realizing that only escape will save them.Her husband, George, is owned by another master and seeks his autonomy more actively than any other character in the novel, since he understands that he can have his autonomy only by escaping.  Having been returned to menial labor despite inventing a hemp-cleaning machine, George questions the very nature of slavery himself, asking aloud, “My master!  And who made him my master?  That’s what I think of – what right has he to me?” (17)  Intelligent and learned, he sees clearly slavery’s illogical nature and realizes that his only alternative to being forcibly separated from Eliza and Harry (and married off to someone else, since slave marriages were not legally recognized) is to flee to Canada, adding, “That’s all the hope that’s left us” (20).  Though George pledges to buy Eliza’s and Harry’s freedom, Eliza understands her predicament as well as escapes the plantation that evening, that being the only logical way to prevent her son’s impending sale to a potentially cruel new master; she reasons that “if I let him be carried off, who knows what’ll become of it?” (42)After she flees, the escape becomes a group effort, showing how the slaves were bonded by a common desire for freedom, and that if not all could be free at once, they would certainly help a small number escape.  Here, the autonomy becomes a sort of subtle resistance as other slaves assist.  For example, when Haley angrily mutters, “If I had the little devils,” the slave Andy replies saucily, “But you hasn’t got ‘em, though!” in a subtle display of disrespect (46).  The slaves conspire to delay Haley’s chase by placing a beechnut beneath his horse’s saddle; when it throws Haley and bolts, the slaves “clapped hands, whooped, and shouted, with outrageous officiousness and untiring zeal” (52).  Here, they feign ineptitude and laziness, but it is a rather perceptive ruse to assist in the escape, thus illustrating a sense of purpose.  They assert themselves by undermining not only the chase but also the sale itself.  Aunt Chloe also plays a subtle role by cooking slowly, thus costing Haley even more valuable time; she hides her intentions well but tells the other slaves that it was “a callin’ on the Lord for vengeance” (60).George is clearly Stowe’s device for expressing the folly of following unjust laws, as demonstrated in chapter eleven, where he debates the risks of fleeing with Wilson, an older white man and his former employer.  Passing himself off as a dark-skinned white in a tavern near the Ohio, he is hard-pressed to tell the kindly but somewhat oblivious elder man over the propriety of breaking the law.  George understands the issue far better than Wilson (whose freedom has never been in question) does, renouncing the United States for allowing slavery and bitterly saying, “[What] country have I, or any one like me, born of slave mothers?  What laws are there for us?  We don’t make them, — we don’t’ consent to them . . . . All they do for us is to crush us, and keep us down.”  (124)  Indeed, he sees his autonomy not simply in terms of his own family, but as an act of defiance against a nation that cares nothing for him and grants him no rights.  George thus claims mental autonomy as well as a physical one.George and Eliza reunite in Ohio, asserting their right to be a family and defying slavery’s norms, in which families were sometimes deliberately split apart without legal protection.  George again defies slavery by successfully fighting off slave hunter Tom Loken, perhaps foreshadowing the initiative African Americans showed by joining the Union Army in large numbers a decade later.  They ultimately escape to Canada and later Liberia, where they can assert themselves as free citizens – knowing that they can never do so in an America that includes the Fugitive Slave Act.Meanwhile, the character of Uncle Tom illustrates a more passive kind of autonomy, relying on his strong Christian faith to keep his dignity and hoping that better circumstances will come his way.  Though his name is today synonymous with kowtowing to whites, in the novel he is not at all a weak character, especially considering the amount of punishment he bears.  Stowe describes his character in noble terms: “There was something about his whole air self-respecting and dignified, yet united with a confiding and humble simplicity” (24).   His Christian faith itself is a form of autonomy, since he refuses to abandon his religion even when Legree discovers his hymnbook and tells him, “Well, I’ll have that out of you. . . . I’m your church now!” (378)  Within himself, however, Tom never wavers; Legree cannot enslave or take away his spirit.Tom’s autonomy lies not in defiance of slavery itself, but in his ability to keep his character in face of inhumane treatment.  He accepts the fact that he is enslaved but tries to make the best of his circumstances, even when he is sold to a cruel master in the Deep South.  He is willing to submit for the good of the whole, telling Aunt Chloe, “It’s better for me alone to go, than to break up the place and sell all” (43).  However, he encourages Eliza to flee, claiming, “[It’s] her right. . . . ‘t an’t in nature for her to stay” (43); though he does himself run away, he understands and approves when others do, and he does not betray the escapees or serve as a spy for the masters.His refusal to betray fellow slaves is ultimately his downfall; he refuses to whip Cassy, telling Legree, “I know ye can do dreadful things; but . . . after ye’ve killed the body, there an’t no more ye can do.  And, oh, there’s all ETERNITY to come, after that!” (424)  In return, Legree (himself immune to religious sentiment or even human decency) has him whipped nearly to death.  His defiant act has come too late for his own benefit and he can only become a martyr.  Nearing death, he seems to realize that the impossibility of maintaining one’s humanity while enslaved, and he urges Cassy and her daughter Emmeline to escape rather than kill Legree.Stowe implies that slaves who fail to express some degree of autonomy may meet a cruel end because of how slavery operates.  For example, on his trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, Tom witnesses a slave woman who drowns herself by leaping from the boat into the river after her baby is taken away and sold.  In this sad instance, she is unable to exercise any control over her life except by choosing death.  Also, at his destination, he encounters Prue, a slave from a neighboring plantation, an abused slave whose master used her for breeding, sold her children, and denied her the chance to tend to the baby she was allowed to keep, which died of starvation.  She failed to express her autonomy and was victimized (and later whipped to death).In the case of Topsy, the ill-behaved young female slave whom Miss Ophelia tries to tutor, one sees an aimless defiance in the face of cruelty – not really autonomy, but a lack of awareness of her situation and a lack of concern about her fate.  When Topsy arrives at the St. Clare plantation, Ophelia notices whipping scars across her back and discovers that the girl has never had a family nor enjoyed kindness; having never been treated as a civilized person, she has become wild and her autonomy is more like a wild animal than that of the other slaves.  Her defiance lacks George’s sense of humanity or Tom’s religious integrity; instead, she accepts her punishments as natural, without really considering the consequences of her actions.  Where other slave characters have dignity and family to defend, she has nothing but pure directionless, anarchic will.Stowe demonstrates that slavery is an impossible situation, in which masters who have blinded themselves to its immorality treat slaves cruelly and arbitrarily.  It denies slaves simple autonomy by depriving them of freedom, family, and control over their destinies.   Thus, slaves in this context must assert their autonomy in order to retain some sense of control over their lives.  Characters like Topsy do not even think about their situation and exercise no control over it, whereas George and Eliza understand it too well to accept it any longer, and their solution to the problem proves correct – they liberate themselves and thus take control of their destinies. In Uncle Tom’s case, he tries throughout the novel to maintain his humanity and dignity while enslaved, with tragic consequences.  The only victory he can enjoy is a moral one, since he finds that trying to keep control over his spirit while allowing the body to bear the load for others is noble but ultimately fatal.  In the context of slavery, the only genuine means of gaining autonomy is impossible – only gaining freedom can really bring control over one’s life.

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