November 27, 1851

Click on the image for a larger/readable version of the National Era

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

Transcription of Chapter 24 and Part I of Chapter 25

Chapter XXIV.

It was Sunday afternoon. St. Clare was stretched on a bamboo lounge in the verandah, solacing himself with a cigar. Marie lay reclined on a sofa, opposite the window opening on the verandah, closely secluded, under an awning of transparent gauze, from the outrages of the mosquitoes, and languidly holding in her hand an elegantly bound prayer book—she was holding it because it was Sunday—and she imagined she had been reading it—though, in fact, she had been only taking a succession of short naps with it open in her hand.

Miss Ophelia, who, after some rummaging, had hunted up a small Methodist meeting within riding distance, had gone out, with Tom for a driver, to attend it, and Eva had accompanied them.

“I say, Augustine,” said Marie, after dozing a while, “I must send to the city after my old Doctor Posey; I’m sure I’ve got the complaint of the heart.”

“Well; why need you send for him? This doctor that attends Eva seems skilful.”

“I would not trust him in a critical case,” said Marie; “and I think I may say mine is becoming so! I’ve been thinking of it these two or three nights past; I have such distressing pains, and such strange feelings.”

“Oh, Marie, you are blue; I don’t believe it’s heart complaint.”

“I dare say you don’t,” said Marie; “I was prepared to expect that. You can be alarmed enough if Eva coughs, or has the least thing the matter with her; but you never think of me.”

“If it’s particularly agreeable to you to have heart disease, why, I’ll try and maintain you have it,” said St. Clare; “I didn’t know it was.”

[Continue reading the full text of 27 November installment, here.]

Commentary by Hollis Robbins

Professor at the Peabody Institute at the Johns Hopkins University

Chapter 24:

 

Little Eva is dying and the reader cannot pull herself away.   In the last chapter, Eva’s mother diagnosed Eva as possibly consumptive, but does nothing.  Neither does Eva’s father, Augustine S. Clare, who seems to prefer to ignore the truth.  The scene opens with an image of St. Clare that suggests he is little different from his languid wife, Marie:  lounging on the verandah, “solacing himself with a cigar.”   St. Clare’s preoccupation with putting things in his mouth is also reminiscent of the hapless Shelby in the first chapter, lounging “in easy and even opulent circumstances,” eating oranges and drinking brandy with Haley.    You’ve seen this scene before, Stowe’s description suggests.  When an operation is run by a man such as this, it will all and badly.

 

Even as we worry about Little Eva’s health, Stowe employs a jocular tone at odd moments, such as the description in the previous chapter of Ophelia as having “rummaged” for a nearby Methodist church service to attend, accompanied by Eva and Tom (as driver).

 

The scene turns to Topsy, the emblem of mischief, who, though given to Ophelia as a present, seems still to belong to St. Clare, as her “master.”   Topsy captured the imagination of readers immediately.  What kind of creature was she?   The Rev. John Angell James of Birmingham wrote to Stowe in 1853 praising Topsy:  “Another character which has pleased me above most, is that little imp of wickedness and mischief, from which slavery had almost crushed out the remains of humanity. O my dear Madam, I rose in a kind of rapture from the wondrous and felicitous skill of the mind and pen which could make even poor Topsy start up at the touch of the magic wand of love, a new creature in Christ Jesus. What an illustration, thought I, is here, of a passage of Scripture which contain the true philosophy both of humanity and the Gospel – “I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love.” Never was the motive power of man’s nature more beautifully illustrated. You have taught the world a new lesson, how man is to be reformed and governed, even when sunk by oppression and by crime into this lowest depth of degradation, by the omnipotence of God.”[1]

 

The rage that Topsy provokes in both Ophelia and Marie (who wants to have Topsy whipped “till she couldn’t stand”) is particularly unconventional in narratives about southern plantation.   Topsy is neither a sexual threat nor a political problem.  She is simply unmanageable.   She is the prototype of Kay Thompson’s Eloise or Beverly Clearly’s Ramona the Pest.[2]  Topsy is incorrigible.  She cannot be contained.    Even Ophelia has whipped her.

 

What is wrong with her?  “Spects it’s my wicked heart,” says Topsy in one of the more famous phrases in the book.   We see Stowe’s particular brand of pointed subtlety:  what does it matter anyway? “Laws I’s nothing but a nigger, no ways!”  as Topsy concludes.  The reader, like Ophelia, does not quite know whether to categorize poor Topsy as a good character, a sympathetic one, or a caricature.  She is an imp from another planet.

 

Even poor Eva cannot instill a sense of sobriety in the perfectly self-aware Topsy, though for a moment it seems that though heaven may have a chance at warming her heart.

 

 


[1] Published in Frederick Douglass’s Paper, April 1, 1853.

[2] Kay Thompson.  Eloise.  Illustrated by Hillary Knight.  Simon & Schuster, 1955; Beverly Cleary.  Ramona the Pest. Harper Collins 1968.

[Continue reading the full text of  Hollis Robbin’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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