Chapter 15: Comment by Catherine Clinton

When Tom is on the riverboat after being sold down the river, Stowe introduces readers to a cast of formulaic characters reflecting popular images of Deep South  slaveholders, having dealt with the horrors of the upper South and the slave markets.   Augustine St. Claire possesses some typical and familiar traits: he is the son of a wealthy planter in Louisiana, he is never punctual and remains easygoing no matter what the occasion. At first, he does not seem driven by the greed of others sullying themselves with slavery, but is portrayed as a man in a bad marriage, a union concocted when he was on the rebound from a broken heart—giving us a sense of his personal flaws plus his faults as a representative of his race and class.

Yet Augustine is given a few twists, including Yankee origins which give him Canadian roots and Vermont relations, to play off against his deep South sensibilities—which offers Stowe opportunity for showcasing sectional and moral conflict. As the North and the South battle it out through characters related by blood, but dramatically opposed in terms of their attitudes toward slavery (but perhaps not towards racial inferiority, it is hinted).

But even more exaggerated and stereotypical, Augustine’s wife Marie St. Claire is portrayed as a  semi-invalid, a mother whose “ceaseless ennui and discontent, united to the ordinary weakness which attended the period of maternity, in course of a few years changed the blooming young belle into a yellow, faded, sickly woman.”  Again, she is branded as a corruption of her environment, someone who was condemned by being surrounded from birth “with servants, who lived only to study her caprices.”  Stowe portrays her as someone damaged, but who also wreaks havoc, as “there is not on earth a more merciless exactor of love from others than a thoroughly selfish woman.”

But Eva, the product of their union, is portrayed in ethereal, symbolic terms—as a child craving goodness and starved of genuine care and true love.

The St. Claire’s daughter brings out the best in her father—tenderness, feeling-while his wife sinks into an even more “languid” state—to use the adjective Stowe employs repeatedly to sketch the plantation mistress as the unattractive contrast to Yankee womanhood.

St. Claire’s Cousin Ophelia is an energizing force, repelled by “shiftlessness.”  Augustine, despite his nonchalance, remains a family favorite from his childhood days, and he is able to persuade his female kin to take up the maternal duties his  wife cannot manage—a duty made supremely attractive by the precocity of St. Claire’s daughter Eva.   Stowe  takes a high moral road when she compares the several differences between those encountered North and South—stating without equivocation, “No where is conscience so dominant and all-absorbing as with New England women.” This granite bedrock comes into dramatic contact with the atmospheric and romantic setting of Augustine’s Louisiana home.

Tom is brought back to the St. Clair household  when he rescues Eva from a spill into the water while still on the boat. This rescue causes a reversal when Tom is not the only one being rescued, as he will be the one to establish himself within the St. Claire home and as Little Eva’s confidante and mentor. His fealty, like his religion, are not worn on his sleeve, but he humbly performs his small but magnificent tasks.

When the group arrives “home” the stark regional differences appear. Augustine has brought Tom home as an “offering” to his wife, Ophelia is relieved from carrying her own bags lest she be mistaken for a maid, and Stowe pulls out all the stops to portray the St. Augustine home as exotic, alluring: “Wide galleries…arabesque ornaments…a fountain…alive with myriads of gold and silver fishes…like so many living jewels.”  Added to this bedazzling mix is the near-comedic portrait of the dance between of southern black and  southern white, master and servant, with Stowe’s subtle condemnation oozing through, as  we are introduced to “Mr. Adolph” the satin-vested, gold-chained black man  in charge who not only exhibits the “passion for all that is splendid, rich and fanciful” which elicits “the ridicule of the colder and more correct” white race, but who displays a lack of hospitality, and is upbraided by St. Clare (“Is that the way you treat your company?”)

But the home, Stowe suggests, is not just the structure, but what of the heart of the household? As Tom enters the velvet-carpeted, sumptuous boudoir of  Marie St. Claire (“like the Queen of Sheba”) a chill falls over the homecoming—as Augustine struggles to please his capricious wife.  The daguerrotpe of Eva and her father, falls short of pleasing Marie St. Claire, and the family also seems a complex jigsaw that Stowe reminds readers continues to be shaped by this system that alchemically turns flesh into capital, but creates ripples of corrosion, as slavery seeps into every aspect of southern life, corrupting along its destructive path. As Tom arrives in his new home, another journey begins.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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