September 4, 1851

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Image and link courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center-Hartford, CT

Transcription of Chapter 13

Chapter XIII.—The Quaker Settlement.


A quiet scene now rises before us. A large roomy, neatly painted kitchen, its yellow floor, glossy and smooth, and without a particle of dust; a neat well-blacked cooking stove; rows of shining tin, suggestive of unmentionable good things to the appetite; glossy, green, wood chairs, old and firm; a small flag-bottomed rocking chair, with a patch work cushion in it, neatly contrived out of small pieces of different colored woollen goods, and a larger sized one, motherly and old, whose wide arms breathed hospitable invitation, seconded by the solicitation of its feathered cushions—a real comfortable, persuasive, old chair, and worth, in the way of honest homely enjoyment, a dozen of your plush or brochetelle drawing-room gentry—and in the chair, gently swaying back and forward, her eyes bent on some fine sewing, sat our old friend Eliza. Yes, there she is—paler and thinner than in her Kentucky home—with a world of quiet sorrow lying under the shadow of her long eyelashes, and marking the outline of her gentle mouth! It was plain to see how old and firm the girlish heart was grown under the discipline of heavy sorrow; and when, anon, her large dark eye was raised to follow the gambols of her little Harry—who was sporting, like some tropical butterfly, hither and thither over the floor, she showed a depth of firmness and steady resolve that was never there in her earlier and happier days.

By her side sat a woman with a bright tin pan in her lap, into which she was carefully sorting some dried peaches. She might be fifty-five or sixty; but here was one of those faces that time seems to touch only to brighten and adorn. The snowy lisse crape cap, made after the strait quaker pattern—the plain, white muslin handkerchief, lying in placid folds across her bosom—the drab shawl and dress, show at once the community to which she belonged. Her face was round and rosy, with a healthful downy softness, suggestive of a ripe peach. Her hair, partially silvered by age, was parted smoothly back from a high placid forehead, on which time had written no inscription, except peace on earth, good will to men—and beneath shone a large pair of clear, honest, loving brown eyes; you only needed to look straight into them, to feel that you saw to the bottom of a heart as good and true as ever throbbed in woman’s bosom. So much has been said and sung of beautiful young girls! why don’t somebody wake up to the beauty of old women? If any want to get up an inspiration under this head, we refer them to our good friend Rachel Halliday—just as she sits there in her little rocking chair. It had a turn for quacking and squeaking—that chair had—either from having taken cold in early life, or from some asthmatic affection, or perhaps from nervous derangement—but, as she gently swung backward and forward, the chair kept up a kind of subdued “creechy crouchy,” that would have been intolerable in any other chair. But old Simeon Halliday often declared it was as good as any music to him, and the children all avowed that they wouldn’t miss of hearing mother’s chair for anything in the world. For why? for twenty years or more, nothing but loving words, and gentle moralities and motherly loving kindness, had come from that chair—head-aches and heart-aches innumerable had been cured there—difficulties spiritual and temporal solved there—all by one good loving woman, God bless her!

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 13 here.]

Commentary by Stephen Railton

Professor of American Literature at the University of Virginia

At the start of Chapter 13 readers are reunited with Eliza and Harry, whom we have not seen since Chapter 9, and by the middle the wife and son are reunited with George, whom they have not seen since Chapter 3.  From this point forward the Harrises will travel together as a family toward freedom.  Their journey is the plotline Stowe uses to counterpoint Tom’s movement southward, deeper into slavery, and a lot could be said about these different trajectories.  But from the point of view of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Christian narrative, both journeys are ultimately toward the same eternal place: what happens to Tom and George’s bodies is finally less important than what will be become of their immortal souls.  Chapter 13 is also the place where George begins traveling toward God.

The person who puts him on that path is Rachel Halliday.  Aptly named, Rachel is the mother of all mothers in the novel, enshrined by Stowe’s narrator as a “decided modern” improvement on Venus, the pagan goddess of love.  When Rachel serves the Harrises breakfast in the chapter’s second half, she also feeds their souls: “There was so much motherliness and full-heartedness even in the way she passed a plate of cakes or poured a cup of coffee, that it seemed to put a spirit into the food and drink she offered.”  This nurturing spirit soothes George’s atheistic bitterness and awakens his long dormant spirituality: “This, indeed, was a home—home—a word that George had never yet known a meaning for—and a belief in God and trust in his providence began to encircle his heart . . . ”

In this scene Rachel’s coffee and cake play the same role that the wine and the wafer play in the Christian Eucharist, and Rachel, “at the head of her table,” plays the role of minister.  It was at the communion table of that Brunswick church that Stowe had the vision that led to the writing of Uncle Tom, but one of the most striking features of her book is that, although it is very much a Christian narrative, and Stowe’s own father, husband and brothers were all ministers, the novel never takes its readers inside a traditional church.  Of course, as a woman in mid-19th-century America, Stowe could never have been ordained as a minister herself.  Perhaps that is why, throughout the novel and most powerfully in Chapter 13, she relocates true religion inside domestic spaces like Rachel’s kitchen.  While she saves a soul for the kingdom, Simeon Halliday, the man of the house, occupies a spot in the corner, “engaged in the anti-patriarchal operation of shaving.”

[Continue reading the full text of Stephen Railton’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1851, here!

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