Chapter 18 & 19: Comment by Hollis Robbins

After the chase scene, a gunfight, and the return to St. Clare’s household, Stowe continues Chapter 18….

In the first part of the chapter, “Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions,” we saw a selfish and perhaps only mildly brutal tale of a mistress demanding that her slave wait on her all hours of the night.  We also saw how Stowe’s narrator emphasized Ophelia’s and Uncle Tom’s shared interest in domestic economy.  Uncle Tom is uneasy at St. Clare’s wanton spending – as well he should be, since Shelby’s financial imprudence began the novel and necessitated the sale of Uncle Tom and little Harry.  Finally we saw the frivolity and indifference of the St. Clare house servants generally – unsympathetic characters created, Stowe suggests, by the particular conditions of slavery in the St. Clare household.

Chapter 17 ends with the departure of old Prue from Dinah’s kitchen.  Tom follows her and we hear brutal story of a mistress demanding that her slave wait on her all hours of the night.

Prue’s sorrowful tale would have been familiar to readers of abolitionist literature, which often featured stories of slave mothers kept as a breeder, whose own children were neglected or sold away, but Stowe particularizes Prue’s story to serve several narrative purposes.  Notice that Prue’s master was one of those fine, kind Kentucky men Stowe seemed to praise in previous chapters.  The selling of the slave children is sorrowful enough to raise sympathy in white mothers, but the final insult, the painful and audible death of a baby Prue hoped to keep, is heart-wrenching. Not only would white mothers know the anxiety of “losing one’s milk” but also many of them had most likely lost a child to illness, listening to its dying cries.

The episode of putting the crying infant out of earshot recollects the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21:15-6, after Hagar, the slave/maidservant of Abraham (and mother of his child Ishmael), was sent by Abraham’s wife Sarah into the desert after the birth of Sarah’s son Isaac.  Hagar (called a ‘bondwoman’ in some translations) runs out of water in the desert and does not want to hear the cries of her dying son:

When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes.  Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

The figure of Hagar was used regularly by African American writers and artists who saw the obvious parallels between Hagar’s story and the suffering of too many female slaves before and after the Civil War. From sculptor Emonia Lewis to writes such as Frances Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Richard Wright and Toni Morrison, Hagar became a primary literary figure for the suffering female slave.[1]

To Stowe, evoking Hagar was both literary and political.  Stowe clearly knew the verses immediately following:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.

Stowe’s narrator is optimistic that men such as George Harris will lead a great nation…in Africa.   Earlier Stowe’s allusion to Uncle Tom’s managerial stills in relation to Joseph’s (in Pharoah’s household, Genesis, 37-50) suggests another instance of a former slave finding success in Africa, in this case Egypt.
It is unclear why Tom needs to tell the sad story of Prue to Eva, but he does, and she replies, famously. “These things sink into my heart, Tom…they sink into my heart.”  If noble, honest, Christian Tom does not think that children should be kept in the dark about the horrors of slavery, perhaps readers will be more open in discussing the specifics.   Two days after her talk with Tom, Eva overhears the gruesome story of Prue’s whipping and banishment to the cellar, where “the flies had got to her…and she’s dead.”

Unlike Tom, Dinah does not want Eva to hear such thing:  “Lor sakes! it isn’t for sweet, delicate young ladies like you—these yer stories isn’t; it’s enough to kill ‘em!”

A third telling, from Ophelia to St. Clare follows.

St. Clare shows himself the opposite of Ophelia, who searches for some solution to any problem. His reaching for food recollects Mr. Shelby of the early chapters. (In an editing error, St. Clare begins peeling an orange before the basket of oranges is handed to him). Here St. Clare parodies the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a fellow to hold two or three dozen of his fellow worms in captivity, a decent regard to the opinions of society require…”  St. Clare knows his founding documents but knowing the documents, Stowe suggests, isn’t enough.  Action is necessary.

The idea of twins – of brothers who disagree – will resonate meaningfully for the remainder of the novel.

[1] Cf. Pauline Hopkins’s story, “Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice,”

1901-02; sculptor Edmonia Lewis’s “Hagar in the Wilderness,” 1868;  Romare Bearden & Henderson, Harry. A History of African-American Artists from 1792 to the Present, Pantheon Books (Random House), 1993;  Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, Eds.  Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell, Westminster John Knox Press (March 2, 2006).

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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