Heteroglossia in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
An excerpt from a final exam in a Survey of American Literature course.
Heteroglossia is a concept Mikhail Bakhtin describes as “the multiplicity of social voices through the interplay between authorial speech, narrator, speech, inserted genres, and character speech,” a description well suited to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe uses all of these traits Bakhtin lists to portray almost every possible viewpoint on slavery occurring at the time of her writing to refute various pro-slavery arguments and reinforce anti-slavery arguments, influencing her audience’s worldview to favor anti-slavery.
Stowe uses numerous social voices to portray numerous possible viewpoints on slavery to communicate her anti-slavery message. One way she does this is by using inserted genres into her novel. For example, at the beginning of chapter 12, the passage begins with an epigraph, a quote from the Book of Jeremiah. By using such a quote, Stowe helps set up a theme of morning for loss of family, the separation of family being a big argument against slavery as a moral evil. By using an epigraph, Stowe also creates some room for conversation and commentary between both texts. Stowe employs this effect again when she quotes Hamlet in chapter 10, this time focusing conversation about the geographic removal of slaves. By taking various quotations from other texts, Stowe allows other texts to give voice to other opinions that support her message of anti-slavery.
Stowe also uses narrator speech to comment upon the action occurring in the novel and give voice to yet more opinions to support her message of anti-slavery. Stowe’s narrator is often sarcastic in her description of events to comment in an entertaining fashion while often masking anger at the situation. A good example is when the narrator first introduces Tom Loker saying that “could our readers fancy a bull-dog come unto man’s estate, and walking about in a hat and coat, they would have no inapt idea of the general style and effect of his physique” (122). By describing his formidable strength, Stowe is setting up another double in her novel, as Tom Loker is the very antithesis of Uncle Tom. This particular characterization also supports Stowe’s anti-slavery message by influencing the audience to prefer Uncle Tom over Tom Loker. This is just one example of many in how Stowe employs her narrator voice to comment upon the novel and reinforce her anti-slavery message.
Authorial speech is another technique Stowe employs to comment upon the action of the novel and reinforce her anti-slavery message. Instead of being sarcastic, her authorial voice tends to be more direct and serious about the events unfolding in the narrative. When Mr. Wilson talks with George in chapter 11, the authorial voice sheds light upon the character of Mr. Wilson, stating that “Mr. Wilson’s mind was one of those that may not inaptly be represented by a bale of cotton, – downy, soft, benevolently fuzzy and confused” (185). The authorial voice here is sympathetic to this character, illustrating that he is conflicted with either obeying the law and turning George in, or following his conscious and letting him escape. This is important in that the authorial voice illustrates the unfairness of the Compromise of 1850 and humanizes Mr. Wilson. Throughout her novel, Stowe employs authorial voice as well to continually comment and support her various arguments against slavery.
Finally, Stowe employs numerous characters that voice nearly every opinion about slavery at the time to illustrate and refute them. For example, in chapter 12, where Haley ventures down the Mississippi river, various characters such as Lucy, various women and men, Uncle Tom, Haley, auctioned slaves, and John the drover all voice their opinions. This chapter is specifically highly symbolic as a representation of the voices of America, and thus well illustrates all of the different views on slavery in conversation with each other. In conjunction with these voices, Stowe also illustrates every form of slavery in her novel, from the mildest form to its most severe. With all these different perspectives, Stowe refutes those in support of slavery and highlights those anti-slavery opinions through the character’s discussions and her own narrator and authorial voice. At the end of the chapter, the authorial voice takes command and preaches upon what the reader has seen, questioning “But who, sir, makes the trader? Who is most to blame?” (212). Stowe presents various viewpoints on slavery to debunk the arguments for it while
As a highly sentimental and popular text, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was also highly effective in influencing the reader’s perceptions of slavery. By illustrating nearly every viewpoint on slavery and commenting on it, Stowe addresses her own audiences’ numerous worldviews, strongly refuting those who held pro-slavery sentiments. And as a serialized novel with cliffhangers and emotional sentimentality, the combination of good storytelling with didactic criticism was likely to influence those to either change their opinions about slavery to be anti-slavery, or reinforce those who were anti-slavery already. The use of narrator voice in talking directly to the audience was also strongly influential, in that it often encouraged identification and empathy with the plight of the characters. All these techniques, combined with multiplicity of viewpoints on slavery, allowed nearly anyone to identify with the novel and characters, strengthening Stowe’s effective arguments against slavery.
When President Lincoln said to Stowe that she “wrote the book that started the great war,” his comment on how effective her novel was wasn’t totally inaccurate. Stowe’s use of heteroglossia throughout her novel enabled her to present multiple views on slavery and influence her reader through identification and commentary to become against slavery. As a novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is likely one of the best examples of heteroglossia in literature for all time.