Simon Legree: a Manifestation of Slavery’s Cruelty in Fiction

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Updated: Oct 16, 2023
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Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” stands tall among the literary works that shaped American history. Released in 1852, the novel played a pivotal role in influencing public sentiment regarding the institution of slavery, providing a compassionate and harrowing view into the lives of the enslaved. Among the cast of memorable characters, Simon Legree emerges as the personification of the inhumane brutality of slavery. As an antithesis to the kind and spiritual Uncle Tom, Legree’s malevolence offers readers a lens into the darkest corners of human nature and the systemic violence of the antebellum South.

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Simon Legree’s portrayal is vital because he embodies more than just an individual antagonist; he represents the amalgamation of all the sinister aspects of slavery. He is a northern-born man who relocates to the South, thereby suggesting that the moral decay of slavery wasn’t exclusive to one region but was an American affliction. His ruthless management of his plantation and his eagerness to break the spirits of the enslaved people he owned demonstrated the dehumanizing effects of a system that treated humans as property.

While other characters in the novel, such as the Shelby family, may treat their enslaved individuals with a degree of kindness, Legree stands out with his belief in absolute subjugation. He is driven by power, profit, and domination, viewing any form of resistance or spirit as a challenge to be crushed. This is most evident in his interactions with Uncle Tom, whom he attempts to break both physically and spiritually. Tom’s unwavering faith and resilience stand in stark contrast to Legree’s cruelty, creating a profound moral battleground.

Furthermore, Stowe’s portrayal of Legree underscores the inherent evil of the slavery system. Legree’s sadistic nature isn’t merely a result of personal flaws; he is a product of a system that rewards brutality and suppresses empathy. By creating a character as detestable as Legree, Stowe effectively paints the institution of slavery in its worst light, challenging her readers to confront the system’s inherent wickedness.

It is also worth noting that while Legree is undeniably villainous, Stowe is careful not to make him a one-dimensional character. There are moments where glimpses of Legree’s past hint at a man haunted by his own demons and choices. This doesn’t seek to justify his actions, but rather adds depth to his character, reminding readers that behind every act of cruelty lies a complex web of influences, choices, and circumstances.

The significance of Simon Legree in American literature and history cannot be understated. He serves as a grim reminder of the depths of cruelty humans can sink to when empowered by a corrupt system. The character spurred discussions and garnered strong reactions from readers, both in the North and the South. For many, he became the face of all that was wrong with slavery, an embodiment of its inherent cruelty.

In conclusion, Simon Legree’s character in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a masterful creation that serves as both a narrative antagonist and a representation of the broader evils of slavery. Through his interactions with other characters and his tyrannical control of his plantation, Legree highlights the worst of human behavior, driven and amplified by a dehumanizing system. While the novel is filled with many compelling characters and stories, Legree’s malevolence leaves an indelible mark on readers, ensuring that the grim realities of slavery remain in the forefront of the narrative and, by extension, the consciousness of its readers.

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Simon Legree: A Manifestation of Slavery's Cruelty in Fiction. (2023, Oct 16). Retrieved from