Chapter 16: Comment by Wesley Raabe

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A Thoroughly Selfish Woman and Eva’s Mysterious Coach Ride

In the 25 September installment we as readers are offered our first close explication of how the system of slavery corrupts a female mistress. Whereas the previous mothers in Uncle Tom’s Cabin took seriously their responsibility to shape a household by love and kindness and Christian religion, Marie St. Clare reverses utterly such expectations. The casual or vicious cruelties of Arthur Haley and Tom Loker did seem to represent almost complete moral evil, but one could at least see a glimpse of humanity in the two men, Haley with his repressed plans for repentance, Loker with his recognition of Haley’s hypocrisy. Marie’s corruption within slavery as a system is more absolute. She has no hidden regrets nor any recognition of its moral evil: her beautiful surfaces—her “fine figure, a pair of bright dark eyes, and a hundred thousand dollars”—hide a rotten interior.

Marie St. Clare cannot be a beloved character, but I do think we can marvel at the seemingly effortless skill with which Stowe creates her. Augustine St. Clare, Eva, and Miss Ophelia challenge Marie to recognize human frailties or feelings in her servants, but she turns back each challenge by insisting that slaves are sub-human inferiors whose only purpose is to serve masters. If Marie sees a fault in her servant—deceit, self-indulgence, or laziness—the reader can see the fault written larger in herself. She cannot recognize that her self is reflected in her servants and instead attributes their failings to St. Clare’s refusal to discipline the slaves with sufficient whipping and brutality. Given the evil consequences to be let loose if Marie were allowed to rule her household, Stowe seems on the verge of celebrating her deferral to her husband’s authority, a cultural norm that in the anti-patriarchal household of Rachel Halliday Stowe had seemed eager to overturn.

For this thoroughly self-indulgent woman, whose husband checks her cruelty and mocks her beliefs with sarcasm, the Southern church offers a pillar of self-righteousness to stand on. Dr. G——, her preacher, explains that the text “He hath made everything beautiful in its season” justifies her belief that “all the orders and distinctions in society came from God,” that “some were born to rule and some to serve,” and that “the Bible was on our side, and supported all our institutions.” Marie finds support for her beliefs in the church while Augustine for his in the memory of his saintly mother, but one marvels that the husband tolerates her moral corruption or that the wife tolerates his belittling sarcasm. Stowe offers a convincing portrait of a broken and cold marriage. Though she leaves the possibility unsaid, I think a reader can rightly wonder whether the absence of romantic affection within the marriage might lead husband, wife, or both to seek physical intimacy outside of it.

Perhaps the most telling words in the chapter are two of Marie’s responses, first to Eva’s offer to give her bed to Mammy, then to St. Clare’s claim that he cannot respect a religion if a minister uses Scripture to support slavery. In one case Marie accuses the speaker of being uncharitable. In the other case she is flabbergasted and rendered speechless by the speaker’s “want of moral perception.” I have purposely made vague the link between what Eva and St. Clare said and how Marie responded because the text of the Era serial differs from the text of the Jewett edition. While the book text repairs a problem of a misplaced passage in the serial, Marie’s replies are not problematic in the serial itself.

Instead, an Era reader is left to wonder about Eva’s dinner-time coach ride, which the serial text never explains. Perhaps even more mysteriously, Eva claims that she spent dinner-time in Tom’s room, the time when she was said previously to be laughing merrily as she watched passing scenes from the coach window. Might the system of slavery be corrupting the innocent daughter? Could this installment complicate the relationship between Eva and Tom with the suggestion of a budding May-December romance—or worse? The text has offered hints of such possibilities. Recall that Tom on the steamboat had attracted Eva’s interest by sharing the things in his pockets. When St. Clare was negotiating Tom’s purchase, Eva told her father, “I want him.”[1]

But Eva’s mysterious coach ride was put aside after the Jewett edition appeared some months later, and scholarly readers have not addressed this serial complication. Readers can use the text of the Jewett edition to posit disordered manuscript pages or a mistake during serial typesetting—and my notes for the installment do that—but the serial readers had to manage with the text that they had. And so aside from some markings to help present-day readers solve the puzzlingly fluid text in the serial installment, I reproduce the words in the order that they appeared in the serial rather than in the corrected version of the Jewett edition. One assumes in the Jewett edition that Eva is accompanied in the coach on its way to church by her mother and Miss Ophelia, but in the serial Eva takes a mysterious coach ride during dinner.

[1] Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, National Era, September 11, 1851.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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