SILENCE AS STRENGTH: EXAMINING SILENCE IN STOWE'S UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

Hello, my name is Thomas Belote. I'm a sophmore Religion Major at Reed College. This project was created for Laura Arnold's English 341: Nation and Narration. Click Here to see other students web pages! Enjoy!

"Out of silence," said the Unitarian theologian Carlyle, "comes thy strength."[1] I believe Carlyle is describing one of two kinds of silence. On one side, silence can be negative and harmful. This is the silence of oppression, a controlling force which leaves victims voiceless and the needy helpless. This is not what Carlyle means by his silence. He is invoking a different force. His silence has agency; it is the silence of resistance, of overcoming, and of strength. Today I will examine the sophisticated silence of which Carlyle writes and, contradictory to the dominant archetype, show how silence can become our strength. Many of the characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin are supported by a silence which becomes their strength. Tom, the protagonist in the novel, and several other characters use silence as a tool to firmly uphold and protect their sense of pride, dignity, and self- respect even in the face of immense oppression which tugs at their very sense of individuality. In explicating this silence, the issue of faith moves into the foreground. A Christian text through and through, Uncle Tom's Cabin resembles instances in the Bible, the theological writings of Carlyle, aspects of Buddhist and Quaker religion, and contemporary Unitarian sermons.

In search of silence we pick up Stowe's novel in chapter twelve with Mr. Haley and Tom driving southward "in their wagon, each, for a time, absorbed in his own reflections."[2] The audience is privileged to hear what both are privately thinking. Haley ponders how much he can get for selling Tom while Tom ponders his fate, his family, and the bible. Finally, Haley, "for want of somebody else to talk to," breaks into conversation and verbally forwards his evil plans.[3] Tom remains silent. In this one- sided conversation, the contrast between spoken and silent evokes powerful sentiments. Two factors contribute to Tom's silence being positive. That we know Tom's thoughts is crucial in this scene. His silence is not empty; there are substantial and honorable thoughts that he holds within. If Tom did not have those potentially expressible thoughts, there would be no contrast. Secondly, it is possible for Tom to speak to Haley, but he chooses not to. He does not lower himself by begging for the freedom he knows he could never be granted nor does he grant Haley's desire for dialogue to break the uneasy quiet. Under this awkward surface silence, only Tom is comforted by religious words which "stir up the soul from its depths, and rouse, as with trumpet call, courage, energy, and enthusiasm."[4]

Ken Sawyer, a contemporary Unitarian minister, addresses a silence which stirs the soul in his sermon "And in the Stillness, a Light."[5] Sawyer's arguments for a "greater freedom and ability to be still, to maintain silence, (and) to wait,"[6] stress the same kind of stillness and patience to wait for heaven that get played out in Tom's actions. In this sermon, Sawyer admires Jesus and Buddha for their silent natures. The characteristics which he admires in Jesus and Buddha (Guatama) are characteristics which Tom shares. Sawyer's description of the Buddha being pressured to speak contains many parallels with Tom and Haley's trek by carriage.

Guatama, faced with those big questions many of our friends seem to have become so sure about answering - questions he could well be held to be professionally responsible for knowing the answer to - hung tough and offered us a model... Essentially, he shrugs: he puts himself down as "No Opinion."[7]

Elsewhere, Jesus shares many of these same characteristics as Guatama according to Ken Sawyer's sermon. Interestingly, near the end of Uncle Tom's Cabin , Tom is presented in the image of Jesus. Tom is the perfect Christian, even forgiving those that strike at him. Like Jesus, Tom says he'd "be willing to b'ar all I have if it'll only bring ye to Christ!"[8] While vernal images of the Crucifixion are the most obvious parallels to Tom's final scenes where he is beaten to death, the silence and calmness of the scene also evoke images of Christmas too. "Silent Night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright. Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child. Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace."[9] In Jesus, in Buddha, and in Tom even at the time of his greatest persecution, there persists an atmosphere of tender calm that is not weak, but rather, overwhelming. In fact Christmas historically is a time of overwhelming social inversion.[10] Given this liminal tendency, it would be interesting to ask who is in control in Tom's death scene, the privileged or the subordinated? Uncle Tom's silence removes him from the role of passive victim in that it gives him something to withhold, something that the slaveholder can't break, something which, as I am about to show, ultimately makes Tom victorious.

Now I will focus in depth on explicating this overwhelming silence with an example which I believe to be the most powerful incident of silence felt in the entirety of Stowe's novel. Chapter 40, appropriately entitled "The Martyr," finds Tom being interrogated by Simon Legree. During the interrogation, the furious devil- figure of Legree tempts Tom and furiously tries to get him to speak. Throughout, Tom stands silent. Finally, and in his own measured pace, he orders Legree to repent. This is particularly reminiscent of the biblical Paul demanding metanoia which itself wasn't always peacefully received. The reaction to Tom's demand, I believe, forms the climax of the novel:

Like a strange snatch of heavenly music, heard in the hull of a tempest, this burst of feeling made a moment's blank pause. Legree stood aghast, and looked at Tom; and there was such a silence, that the tick of the old clock could be heard, measuring, with silent touch, the last moments of mercy and probation to that hardened heart. It was but a moment. There was one hesitating pause,- one irresolute, relenting thrill.[11]

While the elements of the situation, the dichotomies between violent and peaceful, active and passive, spoken and silent, and good and evil, provide the contrast which makes this scene successful, it is the reader's knowledge that Tom's silence is not an empty silence that makes it so powerful. Just as in the scene with Haley and Tom in the wagon, likewise at the climax we know that Tom's silence is not empty; we know there is substance in Tom's thought:

"Do you dare tell me, ye old black Christian, ye don't know ?" said Legree. Tom was silent.

"Speak!" thundered Legree, striking him furiously. "Do you know anything?"

"I know Mas'r; but I can't tell anything. I can die !"[12]

Tom knows yet Tom is defiant. Resistance is crucial to the effectiveness of Tom's silence. It tells Legree that Tom's faith will never be broken, that he serves a higher power far more impressive than Legree. It says that although Legree may beat him, he will never beat him. Chapter 38, entitled "Victory," tells of an earlier time where Tom's spirit and faith proved victorious over Legree's violence. These victories are testament to the powerful act of keeping stillness and silence.

Leaving Tom for a moment, let's examine this silence played out in a separate case. We are introduced to Henrique as he is berating one of Augustine St. Clare's slaves. "`You hold your tongue till you're asked to speak!' said Henrique, turning on his heel, and walking up the steps to speak to Eva."[13] Although Henrique, who is but a child, may have gotten the last words here, he is the unjust and, to a certain degree, less powerful character here. Henrique lashes out as if in a temper tantrum; he desperately seeks to exert his control. Dodo, the slave which Henrique admonished not only receives the sympathy of the audience, but also is favored and rooted for without ever acting himself. His favor is personified by Eva, who gives him candy and explains Henrique's faults. While Dodo's thoughts are not revealed as is seen with Tom, Eva makes up for the missing pieces by implicitly and explicitly awarding favor to Dodo. Without Eva acting as a balance, the virtue of silence would not be demonstrated in this scene.

The virtuous silence has been observed by many. I believe that Henry Louis Gates is describing something similar to the silence in Stowe's novel when he uses the term "unspeakability." In his book, The Signifying Monkey, Gates describes incidents from Alice Walker's The Color Purple . Gates comments, "Rather than representing the name of God as unspeakable, Walker represents Celie's words, her letters addressed to `God,' as unspeakable. God is Celie's silent auditor, the addressee of most of her letters, written but never sent."[14] It appears that "unspeakability" can stand for a mode of expression that is appropriated where verbal expression is forbidden. Instead of song, domestic craft, or letters in the case of Celie, Tom's unspeakable actions involve prayer and reading the bible.

I will call to attention several instances outside of Uncle Tom's Cabin where a positive silence is invoked. In the Bible, Job is concerned with coming to grips with a God that causes suffering and finding ways to overcome that suffering. Silence, one way to overcome, is addressed in Job 9:2-3, "Indeed, I know that this is so; but how can a mortal be just before God? If one wished to contend with him, one could not answer him once in a thousand."[15] In silence there is humility yet justice; God expects humility, not egocentrism, from his followers -- nobody needs to answer for God. In speaking there are a thousand places for wrong. Even Frederick Douglass, who tends towards the polar opposite of silence, has points which he chooses silence or chooses a type of language he otherwise might not favor. One such example lies in Chapter eleven where he deems "it proper to make known my intention not to state all the facts connected with the transaction."[16] Yet this is not negative because the silence is executed with agency like the magnificent silences in Stowe's novel. To borrow from the title of Ken Sawyer's sermon, in the stillness, there can be a light.

Ken Sawyer's sermons invoke this positive silence which has assisted Tom, Job, and Frederick Douglass and suggest the application of silence to the modern listener. In a sermon which treasures the act of "simply enduring," Sawyer advises, "Maybe we all should go through a few days believing that we are wiped out, until we center down to that marvelous assurance that we'll pull through, we'll survive."[17] Is that not what Tom is doing, enduring under the assurance that he will find peace eventually in heaven? Elsewhere, silence again triumphs in a passage which ties back to the Buddha's answer of "No opinion" and Jesus' tactic of not answering the questions of his followers. Sawyer writes,

We have been saying, without it ever occurring to anyone that it even needed to be said , that in the formation of our much-revered private judgment, it does help to think about the subject first, to learn a bit about it, even to subject oneself to the tempering fires of intelligent discussion before venturing forth with a stand; and that in the end one might in many cases in all humility demur from having one at all, at least for now.[18]

Here, as with the examples before, silence is an instrument of strength and a prudent choice of humility and thoughtfulness. To demure, to freely choose not speak, can be a sign of wisdom, especially when said speech has not been reasoned.

In this essay I have presented one type of silence, the silence of defiance and strength and not the one of repression. Simon and Garfunkel poetically discuss this powerful silence and its counterpart negative silence on their album "Sounds of Silence." Tom of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin does not act in a way which warrants the warning lyrics, "`Fools,' said I, `You do not know Silence like a cancer grows.'"[19] Instead, Tom's character would fit better in the lyrics, "A winter's day In a deep and dark December; I am alone, Gazing from my window to the streets below On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow. I am a rock."[20] These lines capture both the humble, gentle side of the silence as well as the transgressive, morally rigid side. Ideally, there are times where it is necessary to sound your "barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world," [21] and a time to keep a defiant silence. Ken Sawyer supports this balance when he writes,

The next time I speak on life and faith I will probably remount my great white horse and go charging forward under the banner of life strong and mighty, life mighty in battle. But don't be fooled: I also know how to revere the smaller, gutsy battles life fights on barren terrain, where victory is simple endurance.[22]

In pointing out these silences, holding them up to scrutiny, and inevitably welcoming them and accepting them, we have welcomed a resource that aids us and places us in defiance of our sharpest oppressors. Indeed, we might do well to remember that "shepherd place where out of silence may again come our strength."[23]

Through paradoxical silences, some artists convey their anguish over heaven's unresponsiveness in the face of evil. But in religion silence often conveys God's presence and sorrow. -Mark L. Staker

Questions or Comments? Email me at moxie@reed.edu