Alexandra Urakova,“‘I do not want her, I am sure’: Commodities, Gifts, and Poisonous Gifts in Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (pp. 448–472)
This essay focuses on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) in discussing the interrelation of sentimentality, slavery, and race. It asks what happens when a slave himself or herself becomes a gift in the way that Mr. Shelby buys Eliza as a present for his wife, and St. Claire seems to bestow Uncle Tom upon Eva and ultimately gives Topsy to his cousin Ophelia. Although much has been said about “sentimental property” or “sympathetic ownership” in Stowe, the instances of exchanging slaves as gifts in the novel have been surprisingly overlooked. Touching upon one of the novel’s important and precarious themes—the distinction between people and things—the aforementioned episodes not only contribute to our understanding of the novel’s gift economy but also invite us to revise the complex attitude to racial otherness in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I claim that while pursuing a sentimental ideology of the gift that comes to support racialist implications of its abolitionist rhetoric, Stowe’s novel also contains a radical potential of its critique embodied in the image of the poisonous gift of a slave child, Topsy, who figures as an unwelcome, wasteful, and repellent present. Concurring with critical opinion that Stowe’s racism is in the sentiment, this essay suggests that the novel’s unsentimental, explicitly racist metaphors paradoxically inform one of Stowe’s strongest antislavery arguments.