Arthur Shelby and his wife are slaveholders. Among their slaves is a hardworking, devoutly Christian slave, Uncle Tom, the acknowledged protagonist of the story. The couple treats the slaves kindly and does not show any ‘unnecessary’ acts of dominance, preferring their unwavering loyalty instead. However, because of financial trouble, Shelby is forced to sell Uncle Tom to an obnoxious, inhuman slave trader by the name of Haley.
Haley’s character in the story epitomizes the ‘Cruel Slave-Owner’. His coarse manners. his justification of the harsh treatment meted out to the slaves. and his complete lack of sensitivity to their sentiments are all designed to repel the readers and give them a vivid image of the perpetrators of slavery.
Uncle Tom, though heartbroken at the separation, luckily finds another kindly owner in Mr. St. Clare and his daughter, the angelic Eva. The beginning of the story, therefore, is not as harsh and cruel as one would expect of a novel on slavery. However, this first, seemingly placid part of the book does not seek to justify the practice of slavery or to prove that it was alright to have slaves as long as their owners took care of them. On the contrary, Stowe strives to show the reader that even under the best of conditions, i.e. with a loving master and mistress, reasonably comfortable accommodation, and being raised with education, slavery was an oppressive practice and destroyed the lives of several innocent God-fearing men and women.
This is more apparent when one considers the characters of the Shelbys a little more brutally. Under their veneer of gentle kindliness lie the traits of hypocrisy and weakness. Arthur Shelby, although unwittingly, is responsible for unleashing the chain of events which ultimately lead to the cruel demise of Uncle Tom. Had Shelby and his wife been a tad stronger in the face of Haley, who he dislikes instinctively and kept their promise of freeing Uncle Tom, he (Uncle Tom) could possibly have had a happier ending.