October 9, 1851

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

Transcription of Chapter 18

Chapter XVIII.—Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions.


Our friend Tom, in his own simple musings, often compared his unfortunate lot, in the bondage into which he was cast, with that of Joseph in Egypt; and, in fact, as time went on, and he developed more and more under the eye of his master, the strength of the parallel increased.

St. Clare was indolent and careless of money. Hitherto the providing and marketing had been principally done by Adolph, who was, to the full, as careless and extravagant as his master; and between them both, they had carried on the dispersing process with great alacrity. Accustomed, for many years, to regard his master’s property as his own care, Tom saw, with an uneasiness he could scarcely repress, the wasteful expenditure of the establishment, and, in the quiet, indirect way which his class often acquire, would sometimes make his own suggestions.

St. Clare at first employed him occasionally, but struck with his soundness of mind and good business capacity, he confided in him more and more, till gradually all the marketing and providing for the family were intrusted to him.

“No, no, Adolph,” he said one day, as Adolph was deprecating the passing of power out of his hands, “let Tom alone. You only understand what you want; Tom understands cost and come to, and there may be some end to money some time, if we don’t let somebody do that.”

Trusted to an unlimited extent by a careless master, who handed him a bill without looking at it, and pocketed the change without counting it, Tom had every facility and temptation to dishonesty, and nothing but an impregnable simplicity of nature, strengthened by Christian faith, could have kept him from it. But to that nature, the very unbounded trust reposed in him was bond and seal for the most scrupulous accuracy.

With Adolph the case had been different. Thoughtless and self-indulgent, and unrestrained by a master who found it easier to indulge than to regulate, he had fallen into an absolute confusion as to meum tuum with regard to himself and his master, which sometimes troubled even St. Clare. His own good sense taught him that such a training of his servants was unjust and dangerous. A sort of chronic remorse went with him everywhere, although not strong enough to make any decided change in his course; and this very remorse reacted again into indulgence. He passed lightly over the most serious faults, because he told himself that if he had done his part, his dependents had not fallen into them.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 18 here.]

Commentary by Marjorie Pryse

Professor of English at SUNY-Albany

In Chapter 15 (18 September 1851), the reader learned that Augustine St. Clare has persuaded his Vermont cousin, Miss Ophelia, to come with him to New Orleans to help take care of his household. Stowe describes Ophelia in that chapter as “a living impersonation of order, method, and exactness,” as a woman who regards “shiftlessness” as “the great sin of sins,” and “conscientiousness” as the “strongest principle of her being”: “Nowhere is conscience so dominant and all-absorbing as with New England women,” Stowe writes.  Then, in Chapters 16 and 19 (25 September 1851 and 16 October 1851), Ophelia begins to make her opinions concerning slavery known and to challenge her cousin, becoming in the process a trustworthy sounding board for St. Clare’s view of slavery.

In light of the seriousness of the subject of slavery and Miss Ophelia’s moral repugnance for the system, in Chapter 18 (9 Oct. 1851), the novel may initially appear to step back from its main topic.  The installment focuses on Miss Ophelia’s “invasion” of Aunt Dinah’s domain, the Northern woman’s attempt to “put everything in order” in Aunt Dinah’s kitchen, and in small, both applauds the way Miss Ophelia “thoroughly reformed every department of the house in a systematic pattern” and at the same time suggests how little she understands either Dinah, Dinah’s approach to her kitchen, or the complexities of Southern life in the St. Clare household.  The language Stowe uses to describe Miss Ophelia’s approach is mock-heroic—that is, language that would more appropriately describe the grandeur and sweep of an epic struggle but here applies to the domestic sphere.  For example, Miss Ophelia “prepared for a vigorous onslaught on the cupboards and closets of the establishment of which she had the keys”; as she makes her “awful review” of housekeeping, “hidden things of darkness were brought to light to an extent that alarmed all the principalities and powers of kitchen and chamber”; and Old Dinah, “the head cook, and principal of all rule and authority in the kitchen department, was filled with wrath. . .”  In her resistance to Miss Ophelia, Dinah chooses the path of standing “on defensive and conservative ground—mentally determined to oppose and ignore every new measure.”  Both Stowe and St. Clare defend Dinah.  Although Dinah’s kitchen “generally looked as if it had been arranged by a hurricane blowing through it,” the narrator writes that her dinner would come out “in perfect order, and in a style of preparation with which an epicure could find no fault.”  St. Clare tells his cousin, “‘I think it really sublime, the way she manages. . . Let her go her own way.’”  In the subsequent installment, St. Clare refers back to the struggle between Miss Ophelia and Old Dinah, suggesting that his cousin’s brief view into slavery in his household is “‘like looking too close into the details of Dinah’s kitchen.’”

[Continue reading the full text of  Marjorie Pryse’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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