Contrast Master Harris with Arthur Shelby. How does the pairing of these two characters illuminate the novel’s major themes?
Master Harris, the man who owns the industrious slave George at the outset of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, represents the worst aspects of the institution of slavery. With a psychopathic intensity, he makes every effort to ruin George’s life. On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe presents Arthur Shelby as a kind-hearted slave-owner who, with his wife, Emily, tries to provide the slave Eliza with a loving, comfortable home. Despite his virtues, however, Shelby proves himself to be no better than Master Harris when he sacrifices his slaves to promote his own financial well-being. Stowe uses the superficial differences between Harris and Shelby to argue against the myth of the happy slave and to demonstrate that slavery has a corrupting influence on even the most seemingly thoughtful white men.
Stowe uses Master Harris as little more than a cartoon character, a stereotype of cruelty that reinforces all of our darkest notions about the slave trade. He prevents his slave George from enjoying the smallest measure of professional fulfillment because George makes him feel inferior. He rips George from his industry job and forces him to do work far beneath the brilliant slave’s abilities, simply to soothe his own ego. When George upsets Master Harris’s young son, Master Harris does not take on the task of whipping George but instead allows his own child to carry out the punishment, thus doubling George’s humiliation and introducing a small boy to the inhuman traditions of slaveholding. Annoyed by George’s dog, Master Harris doesn’t simply sell it but instead asks George to drown it, and when George refuses to perform this unspeakably cruel chore, Master Harris tortures, stones, and kills the dog with his son’s participation. Each of these actions confirms Master Harris’s status as a stereotypically villainous slaveholder, completely uninterested in the welfare of his slaves.
Arthur Shelby, by contrast, seems generous and thoughtful, the kind of friendly slaveholder who provided ammunition for nineteenth-century pro-slavery advocates who argued that the institution was sensible and humane. Shelby repeatedly recoils at Haley’s philosophical murmurings that slaves should be speedily separated from their infants so they aren’t encouraged to form expectations of permanent domestic stability. Stowe notes that “there had never been a lack of anything which might contribute to the physical comfort of the Negroes” on Shelby’s estate. Shelby allows Eliza to spend a great deal of time with his soothing, good-hearted wife, and the degree of comfort he affords Eliza even manages to irritate Master Harris, who feels that these elaborate displays of kindness are signs of Shelby’s “uppity” spirit. Stowe clearly means us to contrast the comfort Eliza enjoys in Shelby’s home with the harsh lives of George and Master Harris’s other tormented slaves.
Despite their superficial differences, however, Master Harris and Shelby are powerfully linked by their participation in the evil system of slavery. Shelby may be the friendliest man in the world, but, as Stowe notes, Eliza could find herself on Harris’s cruel territory the moment Shelby dies. Shelby may encourage Eliza to relax in his home, but like Harris, he will choose his own comfort over Eliza’s basic needs the moment he feels financially threatened. Shelby may never torture a dog the way Harris so willingly brutalizes George’s dog, Carlo, but like Harris, Shelby is willing to separate a mother from her son in the interest of his own fiscal security. The differences between Shelby and Harris prove to be superficial, for the two men are permanently bonded by their belief in the convenience, profitability, and moral sense of the most evil institution in American history.
Stowe thus uses the false contrast between Harris and Shelby to argue that slavery makes tyrants of the most mild-mannered, cheerful men. Writers and politicians who supported slavery in the nineteenth century might have hoped to suppress examples such as Harris’s, for such nasty slaveholders might make even the dullest American question the moral character of slavery. Shelby, on the other hand, would seem to provide pro-slavery advocates with a wonderful example of all the good that a slaveholder can provide for his chattel. Stowe sees past Shelby’s kindness and exposes the ultimate cruelty in his casual sacrifice of Eliza. Kindness means nothing, she argues, for participation in slavery will corrupt even the meekest, sweetest master.