Chapter 13: Comment by Stephen Railton

At the start of Chapter 13 readers are reunited with Eliza and Harry, whom we have not seen since Chapter 9, and by the middle the wife and son are reunited with George, whom they have not seen since Chapter 3.  From this point forward the Harrises will travel together as a family toward freedom.  Their journey is the plotline Stowe uses to counterpoint Tom’s movement southward, deeper into slavery, and a lot could be said about these different trajectories.  But from the point of view of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a Christian narrative, both journeys are ultimately toward the same eternal place: what happens to Tom and George’s bodies is finally less important than what will be become of their immortal souls.  Chapter 13 is also the place where George begins traveling toward God.

The person who puts him on that path is Rachel Halliday.  Aptly named, Rachel is the mother of all mothers in the novel, enshrined by Stowe’s narrator as a “decided modern” improvement on Venus, the pagan goddess of love.  When Rachel serves the Harrises breakfast in the chapter’s second half, she also feeds their souls: “There was so much motherliness and full-heartedness even in the way she passed a plate of cakes or poured a cup of coffee, that it seemed to put a spirit into the food and drink she offered.”  This nurturing spirit soothes George’s atheistic bitterness and awakens his long dormant spirituality: “This, indeed, was a home—home—a word that George had never yet known a meaning for—and a belief in God and trust in his providence began to encircle his heart . . . ”

In this scene Rachel’s coffee and cake play the same role that the wine and the wafer play in the Christian Eucharist, and Rachel, “at the head of her table,” plays the role of minister.  It was at the communion table of that Brunswick church that Stowe had the vision that led to the writing of Uncle Tom, but one of the most striking features of her book is that, although it is very much a Christian narrative, and Stowe’s own father, husband and brothers were all ministers, the novel never takes its readers inside a traditional church.  Of course, as a woman in mid-19th-century America, Stowe could never have been ordained as a minister herself.  Perhaps that is why, throughout the novel and most powerfully in Chapter 13, she relocates true religion inside domestic spaces like Rachel’s kitchen.  While she saves a soul for the kingdom, Simeon Halliday, the man of the house, occupies a spot in the corner, “engaged in the anti-patriarchal operation of shaving.”

Rachel as home-maker is at once a conventional mother and a very subversive figure.  Giving her the job that supposedly belonged exclusively to men is only one of the radical elements in the chapter.  We also see a black family eating the same table with a white one (a very rare sight in Stowe’s U.S.), and an entire community involved in breaking the Fugitive Slave Law.  Yet it is also important to notice that the Harrises are not asking for a permanent place at the American table; they are actually trying to get out of the country.  And as an anti-slavery polemicist, Stowe would have done better to notice how even Rachel’s domestic world is complicit in the existence of slavery.  As you read the chapter, think about all the muslin those Quaker women are wearing, and especially all those “snowy cloths” on the tables in Rachel’s kitchen.  As part of the genteel culture’s campaign against the passions Venus symbolized, Stowe and her contemporaries believed all legs – tables’ and well as ladies’ – should be covered down to the floor.  It took a lot of cotton to decorate a “home” in Stowe’s time, and without the growing demand for cotton Simon Legree would not have come to New Orleans to buy more slaves.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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