Chapter 14: Commentary by Philip McFarland

Chapter XIV. “Evangeline”

What a beautifully crafted chapter this is! And how well it

exemplifies the narrative virtues that help account for the

unprecedented success of Mrs. Stowe’s great achievement. For one

thing, the chapter—like the novel throughout—is full of action.

Chapter 14 sets a compact world in motion, flowing north to south down

the Mississippi and bound for New Orleans 160 years ago, when the

Crescent City at the mouth of the great river appeared poised to rival

New York as America’s greatest port. For by means of the Mississippi

River, New Orleans received, as the chapter tells us, the wealth and

enterprise of “a country whose products embrace all between the tropics

and the poles!”

A steamboat is bearing cotton to market. On board, much is happening,

as we learn through Stowe’s admirable lucidity and economy of style. A

slave has won the privilege of moving unshackled around the boat and,

with his little bit of literacy, has retreated to where he can piece

out the words and consolation of his prized possession, a Bible. A

child of five is flitting about the vessel, winning the hearts of

everyone, even the gruffest of the crew. The little white girl, Eva,

and the black slave, Tom, meet and learn each other’s names. Later the

little girl falls off the boat, and Tom leaps into the water and saves

her. The child urges her father, a wealthy southern gentleman, to

purchase her rescuer for their household; and after haggling a bit with

a trader who is bringing a coffle of slaves to sell in New Orleans, the

gentleman, St. Clare, does buy Tom. He means to make him his coachman,

an enviable position of ease for a slave, so that by the end of the

chapter, Tom’s fortunes have taken a sharp turn for the better.

These many happenings are rendered with great vividness. At the

start, in proposing to write her sketches of slave life that would

become Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mrs. Stowe had presented herself primarily as

a painter. “There is no arguing with pictures,” the author wrote to

her editor, “and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to

be or not.” So her novel will show us this world in which so much is

going on, and let us hear what we see as well, and feel it, as in the

present chapter, where Stowe describes the turbid waters of the mighty

Mississippi as “hurrying, foaming, tearing along,” and shows us the

light “quivering” on the water at sunset, and the “shivery” sugarcane

along the shore, and the dark cypresses hung with “funereal” Spanish

moss. On board, amid cotton bales on the upper deck, Tom is pictured

poring over his Bible, having lifted his head from the page to gaze far

off at the fields back from the river and “the distant slaves at their

toil,” and at the “huts gleaming out in long rows”—slave cabins—set

apart from the plantation owner’s mansion. The scene on shore has

brought to Tom’s mind the Shelby mansion in Kentucky—his former

master’s dwelling “with its wide, cool halls”—and caused him to muse on

his own humble slave cabin, which fate has forced him out of. Now far

from Kentucky, Tom in his homesickness pictures “his busy wife,

bustling in her preparations for the evening meals,” and he imagines he

hears “the merry laugh of his boys at their play, and the chirrup of

the baby at his knee”—all that cheerful activity that he will never

return to or be part of again.

Stowe’s novel is filled with such clearly described actions, all in

motion for the reader to see, hear, and feel. And—in addition to

action and vivid images— she fills her world with colorful characters.

Four such dominate this chapter. There is Tom of the novel’s title,

Uncle Tom, as Eva agrees to call him—she a second major character. And

there is Eva’s father, St. Clare, a prosperous gentleman returning home

to New Orleans after a visit up North. Last, there is the dealer in

human flesh, the slave trader Haley, whom readers will remember having

met at the very beginning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

About Tom, even in this single chapter, we find a great deal confirmed

that we have already come to know. This particular slave is a splendid

worker, good-natured, one you can trust with responsibility. He is

young and strong: a “broad-chested, strong-armed fellow”—”Just look at

them limbs,” Haley says to St. Clare: “broad-chested, strong as a

horse.” In addition, Tom is kindly, “ever yearning toward the simple

and childlike,” and thus is drawn to little Eva’s liveliness and

innocence. And he is quietly, deeply religious.

Evangeline, the five-year-old who befriends the slave, is altogether

different. Consider the contrasts between the two—and how much more

interesting stories are when filled with contrasts, how much duller

they would be if everybody in them thought alike, valued the same

values, spoke the same way. Eva is female, Tom is male. Eva is young,

Tom is mature. Eva is white, Tom is black. Eva is rich, Tom is poor.

Eva is free and light-footed and welcomed wherever she goes; Tom is

enslaved, condemned to move about only at his owner’s sufferance. And

Tom at the time of the story was regarded by most white people as

inferior and near-beastial, to be put to work as one would put an ox or

a mule to work, whereas Eva, the little golden-haired, blue-eyed

Evangeline, is adored by all as though she were an angel.

Eva St. Clare, the “Little Eva” introduced in this chapter of Stowe’s

novel, was to become one of the most celebrated characters in all of

nineteenth-century American fiction. Her beauty, her purity, her

kindliness, the “airy and innocent playfulness” she brings into every

place she alights struck a chord in the hearts of millions of

Americans, so that as soon as Eva entered the story, which was

unfolding week by week in the National Era, her presence alone all but

assured a phenomenal success for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Eva’s father St. Clare looks something like his daughter—the same hair

and eyes, “the same noble cast of head”—but in him, innocence is

replaced by sophistication and skepticism. Moreover, a wealthy white

gentleman in 1851 was at the opposite end of the social spectrum from

the slave Tom. And unlike the pious Tom, St. Clare is lacking in

religious faith. The wonder is that Harriet Beecher Stowe—daughter,

sister, and wife of ministers—could write with sympathy of such an

irreligious person; for she will make St. Clare, despite his

sgnosticism and fondness for irony and sarcasm, into a wonderfully

attractive figure: witty, humane, compassionate, and wise.

And there is Haley, leading his grubby existence at the furthest

extreme from that of the adorable Eva: Haley the trader always looking

for the main chance, for what he can squeeze out of others, driving the

hardest bargain and happy only when he has done so. It is Mrs. Stowe’s

accomplishment to have brought such disparate figures to authentic

life, put entirely credible words in their mouths, and made each of

these four totally different people convincing. And she will do the

same for many others, again and again, in the bustling pages ahead.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents


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