September 25, 1851

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

Transcription of Chapter 16

Chapter XVI.—Tom’s Mistress and her opinions.


“And now, Marie,” said St. Clare, “your golden days are dawning. Here is our practical, business-like New England cousin, who will take the whole budget of cares off your shoulders, and give you time to refresh yourself and grow young and handsome. The ceremony of delivering the keys had better come off forthwith.”

This remark was made at the breakfast table, a few mornings after Miss Ophelia had arrived.

“I’m sure she’s welcome,” said Marie, leaning her head languidly on her hand. “I think she’ll find one thing if she does, and that is, that it’s we mistresses that are the slaves down here.”

“Oh, certainly, she will discover that, and a world of wholesome truths beside, no doubt,” said St. Clare.

“Talk about our keeping slaves as if we did it for our convenience,” said Marie. “I’m sure if we consulted that, we might let them all go at once.”

Evangeline fixed her large, serious eyes on her mother’s face, with an earnest and perplexed expression, and said, simply, “What do you keep them for, mamma?”

“I don’t know, I’m sure, except for a plague; they are the plague of my life. I believe that more of my ill health is caused by them than by any other one thing; and ours, I know, are the very worst that ever anybody was plagued with.”

“Oh, come, Marie, you’ve got the blues this morning,” said St. Clare. “You know ’tisn’t so. There’s Mammy, the best creature living—what could you do without her?”

“Mammy is the best I ever knew,” said Marie; and yet Mammy, now, is selfish—dreadfully selfish; it’s the fault of the whole race.”

“Selfishness is a dreadful fault,” said St. Clare, gravely.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 16 here.]

Commentary by Wesley Raabe

Assistant Professor of Textual Editing and American Literature at Kent State University

A Thoroughly Selfish Woman and Eva’s Mysterious Coach Ride

In the 25 September installment we as readers are offered our first close explication of how the system of slavery corrupts a female mistress. Whereas the previous mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin took seriously their responsibility to shape a household by love and kindness and Christian religion, Marie St. Clare reverses utterly such expectations. The casual or vicious cruelties of Arthur Haley and Tom Loker did seem to represent almost complete moral evil, but one could at least see a glimpse of humanity in the two men, Haley with his repressed plans for repentance, Loker with his recognition of Haley’s hypocrisy. Marie’s corruption within slavery as a system is more absolute. She has no hidden regrets nor any recognition of its moral evil: her beautiful surfaces—her “fine figure, a pair of bright dark eyes, and a hundred thousand dollars”—hide a rotten interior.

Marie St. Clare cannot be a beloved character, but I do think we can marvel at the seemingly effortless skill with which Stowe creates her. Augustine St. Clare, Eva, and Miss Ophelia challenge Marie to recognize human frailties or feelings in her servants, but she turns back each challenge by insisting that slaves are sub-human inferiors whose only purpose is to serve masters. If Marie sees a fault in her servant—deceit, self-indulgence, or laziness—the reader can see the fault written larger in herself. She cannot recognize that her self is reflected in her servants and instead attributes their failings to St. Clare’s refusal to discipline the slaves with sufficient whipping and brutality. Given the evil consequences to be let loose if Marie were allowed to rule her household, Stowe seems on the verge of celebrating the mistress’s deferral to her husband’s authority, a cultural norm that in the anti-patriarchal household of Rachel Halliday Stowe had seemed eager to overturn.

For this thoroughly self-indulgent woman, whose husband checks her cruelty and mocks her beliefs with sarcasm, the Southern church offers a pillar of self-righteousness to stand on. Dr. G——, her preacher, explains that the text “He hath made everything beautiful in its season” justifies her belief that “all the orders and distinctions in society came from God,” that “some were born to rule and some to serve,” and that “the Bible was on our side, and supported all our institutions.” Marie finds support for her beliefs in the church while Augustine for his in the memory of his saintly mother, but one marvels that the husband tolerates her moral corruption or that the wife tolerates his belittling sarcasm. Stowe offers a convincing portrait of a broken and cold marriage. Though she leaves the possibility unsaid, I think a reader can rightly wonder whether the absence of romantic affection within the marriage might lead husband, wife, or both to seek physical intimacy outside of it.

[Continue reading the full text of  Wesley Raabe’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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