February 5, 1852

Transcription of Chapter 31, Part 2 and Chapter 32, Part 1

Chapter XXXI—Continued.

It was late in the evening when the weary occupants of the shanties came flocking home—men and women in soiled and tattered garments, surly and uncomfortable, and in no mood to look pleasantly on new-comers. The small village was alive with no inviting sounds; hoarse guttural voices contending at the hand-mills where their morsel of hard corn was yet to be ground into meal, to fit it for the cake that was to constitute their only supper. From the earliest dawn of the day they had been in the fields, pressed to work under the driving lash of the overseers, for it was now in the very heat and hurry of the season, and no means was left untried to press every one up to the top of their capabilities. “True,” says the negligent lounger, “Picking cotton isn’t hard work.” Isn’t it? And it isn’t much inconvenience, either, to have one drop of water fall on your head, yet the worst torture of the inquisition is produced by drop after drop, drop after drop, falling moment after moment, with monotonous succession, on the same spot; and work in itself not hard becomes so by being pressed hour after hour with unvarying, unrelenting sameness, with not even the consciousness of free will to take from its tediousness. Tom looked in vain among the gang, as they poured along, for companionable faces. He saw only sullen, scowling, imbruted men, and feeble, discouraged women, or women that were not women—the strong pushing away the weak—the gross, unrestricted animal selfishness of human beings, of whom nothing good was expected and desired, and who, treated in every way like brutes, had sunk as nearly to their level as it was possible for human beings to do. To a late hour in the night, the sound of the grinding was protracted, for the mills were few in number compared with the grinders, and the weary and feeble ones were driven back by the strong, and came on last in their turn.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 31, Part 2, and Chapter 32, Part 1, here.]

Commentary by Susan M. Ryan

 Associate Professor and vice chair of English at the University of Louisville

In this installment of Stowe’s novel, Tom has arrived at the Legree plantation, dispirited and physically exhausted. It’s the end of a typically long workday, which timing allows Tom to witness the ways in which overwork and abuse have affected Legree’s slaves, the “sullen, scowling, imbruted men and feeble, discouraged women” trudging in from the fields to grind their meager share of corn. As a means of underscoring the slaves’ degradation, Stowe’s narrator emphasizes the plantation’s systematic destruction of domesticity—readers have already learned from the previous week’s offering that Tom is disappointed to find that his new master will not even provide him with the refuge of a neat, quiet little cabin—instead, he’s assigned to a filthy shack, where he’ll sleep on a dirt floor among similarly arranged strangers. Stowe further emphasizes the disintegration of home life in her description of the evening meal—instead of preparing and sharing food as families, Legree’s slaves subsist as competitive, atomized beings, hostile toward one another by habit and necessity. Hardship has isolated them, left them bereft of affiliation. Here Tom’s habitual, constitutional benevolence intrudes: he grinds corn and revives the cooking fire on behalf of two weary women, (re)awakening in them a “womanly kindness” that leads them to make his dinner while he reads aloud from the bible.

Tom’s first night at the Legree plantation sets the stage for spiritual trials to come. He’s already struggling with despair; Stowe describes him as sitting “alone, by the smouldering fire, that flickered up redly in his face,” suggesting that the hellish qualities of the world Legree and slavery have created might engulf even Tom. But this “disconsolate” figure, as Stowe describes him, is not in fact beyond spiritual comfort—that night he dreams of (or is visited by?) Eva, whose “deep eyes” exude “rays of warmth and comfort” that go directly to Tom’s heart. The pattern thus established, of despair and spiritual renewal, will be repeated with increasing intensity across the narrative’s next several installments.

The following chapter, the action of which takes place a few weeks later, introduces the desolate and embittered—but still powerful—figure of Cassy, whom readers have previously encountered only via a glimpse of her “wild” face and her unidentified voice from within Legree’s house. It becomes clear by the end of the installment that Legree is setting a trap for Tom, in which the latter will be forced either to beat another slave or be beaten himself.  But the pseudo-cliffhanger with which the segment ends carries no real suspense. Tom’s Christ-like forbearance and penchant for self-sacrifice are so well established by this point in the narrative that the reader cannot imagine his failing Legree’s diabolical moral test.  Tom’s trajectory, in other words, entails no more uncertainty than do scriptural accounts of Christ’s passion. The point is not what ultimately happens to Tom—that most readers steeped in the New Testament could readily guess—but rather the ways in which his gentle resistance and brutal murder allow Stowe to emphasize the cruelties of slavery and the redemptive power of Christian faith.

[Continue reading the full text of  Susan M. Ryan’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 1852, here!

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