Transcription of Chapter 34
“And slight, withal, may be the things that bring
Back on the heart a weight it fain would fling
Aside forever; it may be a sound,
A flower, the wind, the ocean, which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we’re darkly bound.
—Childe Harold’s Pil., Canto iv.
The sitting room of Legree’s establishment was a large, long room, with a wide, ample fire-place. It had once been hung with a showy and expensive paper, which now hung mouldering, torn, and discolored, from the damp walls. The place had that peculiar, sickening, unwholesome smell, compounded of mingled damp, dirt, and decay, which one often notices in close old houses. The wall-paper was defaced in spots, by slops of beer or wine, garnished with chalk memorandums and long sums footed up, as if somebody had been practicing arithmetic there. In the open fire-place stood a brazier, full of burning charcoal, for the weather was not cold, yet the evenings always seemed damp and chilly in that great room; and Legree, moreover, wanted a place to light his cigars, and heat his water for punch. The ruddy glare of the charcoal displayed the confused and unpromising aspect of the room. Saddles, bridles, several sorts of harness, riding whips, overcoats and various other articles of clothing, were scattered up and down the room in confused variety, and the dogs of whom we have before spoken had encamped themselves among them, to suit their own taste and convenience.
Legree was just mixing himself a tumbler of punch, pouring his hot water from a cracked and broken-nosed pitcher, grumbling as he did so—
“Plague on that Sambo, to kick up this yer row between me and the new hands! The fellow won’t be fit to work for a week, now, right in the press of the season!”
“Yes, just like you,” said a voice behind his chair. It was the woman Cassy, who had stolen upon his soliloquy.
“Hah! you she devil, you’ve come back, have you?”
[Continue reading the full text of chapter 34, here.]
Commentary by Patricia Hill
Professor of History at Wesleyan University
Today’s installment, with its Byronian epigraph, offers a fascinating account of the power of memories associated with material objects. Stowe uses Legree’s horror at seeing the ringlet of Eva’s hair to segue into Legree’s personal history. Uncle Tom had kept the ringlet, along with the dollar George gave him on parting, in a paper suspended by a black cord around his neck. Sambo, who calls it a “witch thing,” informs Legree that such items were acquired to ward off the pain of beatings such as the one Tom had just endured. Stowe was aware, as she makes clear in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that African religious culture included a belief in spells, “fetish and obi,” and “the evil eye.” In the Key she suggests that this reflects a “peculiarity of constitution” in the African race. But the reader knows, of course, that Sambo is wrong is assuming that Tom kept these objects about his person as anything other than cherished mementoes of people he loved. And Legree’s reaction reveals a susceptibility to belief in witchcraft that is not racially delimited. In this passage from the novel, Stowe offers a psychological rather than a racial explanation for the ringlet’s powerful effect on Legree. She also sets the stage for Cassy’s successful strategy of haunting Legree.
We learn that Legree’s pedigree is divided; born inNew Englandto a devout Christian mother and an abusive father, Legree rejects the better element in his nature inherited from his mother in favor of his father’s legacy of brutality. In contrast to a common trope in sentimental fiction where sainted mothers’ dying prayers and disembodied spirits guard sons against vice, Legree strikes his mother senseless and burns the lock of hair sent with a message of love and forgiveness when she dies. Stowe tells us that Legree was haunted thereafter by dreams of his mother despite his most strenuous efforts to erase her memory. Stowe uses this to make a rather abstruse theological argument about how a God of love and a God of wrath can coexist in the same divine being. She posits a “necromancy of evil” that turns an emblem of perfect love into an instrument of torment. Both the mother’s lock and Eva’s ringlet are mementoes of such perfect love, of the Christ who inhabited them both. The persistence of memory—especially dark memories–and the inability to forget at will are triggered by the fetish object as the Byronian epigraph suggests. Legree attempts to bury these memories, initially in his plan to gratify his lust with Emmeline and then, when the hymn she is singing about the judgment day triggers another image of his mother, by calling Sambo and Quimbo to join him in drunken carousing.
The picture Stowe paints by detailing Legree’s history is of a man who has chosen evil and who willfully does evil. His character allows Cassy to contemplate murder. Her rumination on whether it would be “a sin to rid the world of such a wretch” prepares the reader to accept Cassy’s efforts to do just that. Stowe is not quite endorsing murder but she has already presented Cassy’s killing of her infant as understandable, even as an expression of maternal love in the distorting context of slavery. What slavery has done to Cassy is also a central concern in today’s installment. It has clearly hardened her, but it has not reduced her power. Stowe’s description of her as a “strong, impassioned woman” who can maintain influence over “even the most brutal man” explains her ability to manipulate Legree. Cassy stands up to Legree; she criticizes him with impunity because he is afraid of her. Stowe tells us that he fears her because the “hideous yoke” of slavery had made her liable to fits of raving insanity. It is this element of slave-induced insanity that seems to give Cassy permission to contravene the moral code that Stowe would ordinarily insist upon in a sympathetic character. What this passage also reveals is Cassy’s pride and her cleverness. Cassy sees in Legree’s reaction to the ringlet a superstitious weakness that makes him vulnerable. She will find a way to exploit that weakness in a way that this passage foreshadows.
[Continue reading the full text of Patricia Hill’s commentary here.]
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