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Posts Tagged ‘cruelty’

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a staunch advocate for the abolishment of slavery in the mid-1800s, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is her most famous book, was a novel about the evils of slavery and the slave trade.  It is said that when Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he said to her, “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war in reference to the American Civil War.  However, while is it certainly true that the two met, it has never been confirmed that Lincoln said such a thing, although I can see why the book would have caused a large stir when it was released.

The titular character starts the novel as a slave owned by Mr and Mrs Shelby.  He has lived for several years on their plantation, and has a wife and children there.  Due to financial woes, Mr Shelby sells him to a slave trader, and the novel follows Tom’s life through two more owners.  It talks about the other people he meets, some benevolent, such as Augustine St Clare, who determines to give Tom his freedom, and others not so.

Because of the historical and political significance of this book, I really really wanted to like it.  I had meant to read it for ages, and finally picked it up after a friend told me she had enjoyed it.  And the thing is…I came away a bit disappointed.  The main thing that hit me about this book was just how preachy it is.  There’s a lot of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A LOT.  And people are divided into one of three categories.  If you are a Christian, you are a good person.  If you are not a Christian, you are an evil person.  If you are not a Christian but are striving to be, you will probably be a good person in the end.  I understand that books have to be read in context; it’s important to remember when this novel was written, but whereas some classics age well, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has aged badly (well, it’s just my little opinion of course).  It’s overwhelming preachiness – which appears without fail on at least one out of every two pages – got somewhat tiring after a while.  It’s a shame, because when Beecher Stowe stepped away from the religious aspect, her writing could be quite enjoyable and even amusing.  I’m not a religious person, but I don’t have anything against religion.  I just don’t need it ramming down my throat quite so often, or to be told that anybody who is not a Christian is inherently bad.

Also, for a book which strives so hard to point out that slaves are just as much people as anyone else (which sounds obvious in today’s world, but again remembering when this was written – slaves were seen as commodities or possessions, nothing more), it is a shame that the slaves themselves are spoken about in broad stereotypes (several times, Beecher Stowe makes reference to a trait that is common “to their race.”), and rather patronisingly.

Although there is little characterisation, the story itself was a quite enthralling one, and would have been much more enjoyable if it had been told as a more straightforward narrative without the religious lecturing part.  My favourite part was the section of the book where Tom was living with the St Clare family, and within the confines of his situation was happy.  The ending contained a ridiculous amount of coincidence, which made the last few pages hard to take seriously, but I cannot deny that the book did make me cry on a couple of occasions.

I think I would probably recommend this book, but more because of its significance, rather than because I especially enjoyed it.  At times, it was enjoyable, but I found it hard going at times.  Nonetheless, it did help to change the widely held view that slavery was acceptable, and it’s worth reading the book that managed to do such a thing.

(For more information about Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, please click here.)

 

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This is a very moving story which made me feel angry and sad while I was reading it.

The book is narrated by Chief Bromden, a patient at a mental institution.  He is believed by staff and fellow patients to be deaf and dumb, but the truth (as we find out on page one) is that he is not, and is therefore perhaps more aware of what is going on around him some of the other patients.

Nurse Ratched rules her ward in the institution with a system of fear and intimidation.  Her coldness and cruelty is very apparent early on in the story. Such is her reign of fear that none of the inmates dare stand up to her.  Even the ward Doctor – her superior – is terrified of defying her.

Into this regime comes Randle P McMurphy, criminal, gambler and unlikely hero.  McMurphy has chosen to come to the institution in lieu of serving a custodial sentence on a work farm.  He believes that it will be a breeze, and expects almost a holiday camp.  As he finds out, the reality is very different.  He is shocked, not only by the nurse’s treatment of the patients, but by the way they just accept it.

McMurphy encourages to the men to start thinking for themselves, but this is something which does not go down at all well with the nurse, and her effort to maintain control over the patients leads to a drastic conclusion.

The characterization in this book is excellent.  It was clever on the part of the author to make McMurphy a not altogether likable man – it would have been too easy to turn him into a classic hero; instead we have a man who rebels against authority, is a known criminal, and encourages others to act out (albeit for their own good).  Nurse Ratched is a hateful character, although sadly, all too believable.  Her pleasure in intimidating the patients, and her frustration at finding someone who is not scared of her, is almost palpable.  Chief Bromden is also vividly portrayed – unsurprisingly, as the book is told from his point of view.

Well written, touching and even funny at times, this is a book I wish I had read a long time ago, and certainly intend to read again in the future.  I would also recommend watching the film adaptation, starring Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

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