Professor Humphrey’s stated that our emotional attachment to ‘things’ is mediated through literary works. She called this the “Thing Theory.” I find it extremely interesting how objects are made out of literature. Characters come outside of the context of the book and take on a life of their own. Objects become ‘things’ to us and we treat them as if they were alive. As a result, humans make meaning out of these objects. For instance, take Stephanie Meyer’s, “Twilight” series. Everywhere I look, I see pillows, bed sheets, tattoos, mugs, t-shirts, jewellery, dolls, shoes, bags, and the list goes on, all revolved around the Twilight series. By owning these products, fans of the series feel connected to the main characters and remain in the fantasy world Meyer created. Our habitus tells us that Edward Cullen is the perfect man who embodies what most women want. He is an old-fashioned gentleman, smart and loving. He devotes his life to protecting Bella and being there for her whenever she is in need. On top of that, he is described as being overwhelmingly beautiful and muscular . Need I say more? Female readers can relate to that desire; the desire to find the love and security that Edward provides for Bella. Girls aspire to one day meet their own Edward and find their “true love.” Stephenie Meyer’s novels suggests that the ‘happily ever after’ ideology does exist, and that ‘true love waits.’ Therefore, Twilight is a hot commodity because young girls eat up the love story Meyer portrays. J.K Rowling’s, “Harry Potter” series works in the same way, with the famous Harry Potter glasses and scarves. The main purpose of these mass-marketed items is to allow the reader to further immerse themselves in the world the author has created. I strongly believe that literature and commodity culture will forever remain inevitably linked. Check out the video below to view the world’s biggest Harry Potter fan:
Even back in the mid to late 1800s, people bought into the idea of pop culture selling products. So how do objects shape identity in Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Well, after browsing the Archives of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is clear that Tom-themed material culture further demonstrates how commercial commodities give visual representation to values derived from the literature. The commodity culture of ‘things’ perform cultural work as the objects often serve to reinforce certain belief systems. I came to the realization that paraphernalia produced around the novel often reinforces the negative messages and highlights the racism in the text. For instance, I came across “3D Tomitudes,” which are an assortment of Staffordshire figurines of some of the popular characters in the novel.
To the left, we can see a sentimentalized and stereotypical representation of Uncle Tom with Little Eva by his side. Uncle Tom is seated on a bale of hay with the Bible open in his lap, holding a bitten apple in his hand. He is barefoot, which enforces his social position. Note how Tom’s eyes are looking up to Little Eva, who is raised above and supported by him. Interestingly, the objects within the figurine itself also create meaning. For example, the apple and Bible may serve as symbols of good and evil, as in the biblical story of Adam and Eve. Uncle Tom appears to be offering Little Eva his apple, which may represent temptation. Therefore, the figurine is portraying Little Eva as good, while identifying Tom as bad, which plays into the racial stereotypes produced by the book. On another note, throughout the novel, Uncle Tom cherishes his relationship with Little Eva, and vice versa. Hence, the phrase ‘the apple of my eye’ comes to mind when looking at this figurine as well. Clearly, this image reveals how literary works and commodity culture are linked through the use of symbols and representations of one’s class and worth.
To the right, we have picture of a child’s mug, depicting a scene of Little Eva placing a flower garland around Uncle Tom’s neck. The caption on the bottom of the mug reads: “Eva dressing Uncle Tom.” Unlike the figurine above, here, we can see that the roles are reversed as Little Eva is now the one looking up and holding onto Uncle Tom, whereas Uncle Tom is looking down on her. I could not help but notice that the illustration of Uncle Tom on the mug does not seem to accurately portray the man we come to know and love in the novel. In the novel, Uncle Tom is described as a pious man with deep, religious values, who finds the good in everything. Yet, on the mug, his face looks mean and his body language is not welcoming to Little Eva. What do you think this implies? In an interview, Bill Brown, a Professor of English and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, brings up that ‘thing’s’ have power over people and shape our attitudes towards the objects they represent. In other words, they shape social mindsets (Brown). The fact that the image to the right was placed on a children’s mug during the 1850s may indicate that it served as a warning to white children about black male identity. Even though the novel works against this idea of black masculinity as a “frightening force of savage,” the mug shows the durability of this kind of representation of black masculinity (Humphreys, 2011). Once again, we can see Little Eva portrayed as innocent and good, as she is dressed in all white, while Uncle Tom is encompassed by darkness. Furthermore, the significance of this being a cup sends the message of drinking into the images on the cup.
I have only looked at a couple of objects in regards to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To view more, check out the Archive of Uncle Tom’s Cabin!
Also, click here to view Bill Browns Interview.