Chapter 19: Comment by Patricia Hill

Today’s installment opens with a continuation of a “serious talk” between Miss Ophelia and St. Clare.  St. Clare enlarges upon his previous characterization of his father and mother as polar opposites in temperament.  Their temperaments, he tells us, were inherited by their children; St. Clare’s twin brother Alfred is a born aristocrat like his father. St. Clare, in contrast, shares his mother’s more empathic nature. He associate her with sentiment, religion, and a democratic conviction of “the dignity and worth of the meanest human soul.”  St. Clare explains to Miss Ophelia that he took her words and example to heart, especially in recalling the lesson she drew from a painting of Jesus healing a blind man.  Her insistence that it was necessary for Jesus to put his hands on the blind man in order to heal him makes intimacy with the suffering a moral imperative. Stowe will later allude to this lesson in a scene where St. Clare confronts the physical recoil that marks Miss Ophelia’s racial prejudice.  Indeed, Stowe’s repeated insistence in the novel that barriers to cross-racial intimacy must be removed constitutes a theme critics have largely ignored. It is a matter that antislavery writing rarely addressed. Romantic racialism, while insisting as Stowe’s novel does, on the full humanity of the African, posited racial differences that supported a distanced benevolence, a spectatorial sympathy, rather than an intimate relationship, and did little to conquer racial prejudice.  Stowe goes beyond this spectatorial sympathy. Scenes throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin that depict cross-racial emotional intimacy are Stowe’s equivalent to St. Clare’s mother’s painting; we might read them as a series of variations on this theme.        Stowe’s understanding of the interaction of environment and temperament in shaping human personality emerges through St. Clare’s comparison of his own father with Miss Ophelia’s father.  St. Clare sees them as identical, possessing “just that same strong, overbearing, dominant spirit.” One, constrained by the democratic culture of a New England town, has his despotic tendencies curbed to the extent of joining the church and an abolition society and embracing democratic theory.  The other, in the context of Louisiana slave culture, is free to indulge his natural, aristocratic tendencies and act the despot.  The debilitating and degrading influence that slave culture has on the development of human personality is also at stake St. Clare’s argument about its effect on the master class and especially on their children.  He sees Eva’s angelic nature as all that has prevented her moral ruin.

In this serious talk on slavery, St. Clare serves as a vehicle for Stowe’s views.  Her use of a male persona to voice her own political, economic, and religious convictions works strategically on two levels.  It is a strategy she would later employ in her House and Home Papers sketches for the Atlantic Monthly where she speaks through the mask of a male narrator in order to render her opinions with the cultural authority of a man.  Here, St. Clare can speak convincingly on topics about which readers would not have expected a woman to be knowledgeable.  More important perhaps, as a Southerner, St. Clare can speak authoritatively about slavery.  That Stowe has him articulate such antipathy to slavery as he expresses in this passage works to serve her strategic goal of persuading Southerners to become opponents of slavery.  Her hope that this novel would change hearts and minds in the South was, of course, not realized, but one can admire the cleverness of the strategies she adopted to make a space for antislavery sentiment in the South as she depicts it. However, she seems to undermine her own stated purpose when she paints St. Clare as unable to mount any effectual resistance to slavery.  His capacity for empathy with slaves makes him incompetent as a planter, but this womanish sentimentalism seems also to have rendered him incapable of acting on his principles.

Nevertheless, he understands slavery from an intellectual and moral perspective. From his vantage point as a Southern slaveowner, St. Clare addresses a range of issues in the debate over slavery that would have been familiar to Stowe’s contemporaries.  He debunks excuses for slavery, which he asserts are made by Northerners who do not know what they say. He claims that Southerners know better than to believe that slaves are happy in their lot. He also, in what is a covert attack on the Northern religious agencies that supported missionary activities in the slave South, argues that religious instruction is destined to be virtually ineffective in ameliorating the lot of slaves or empowering them to resist the deadening and evil influences of slavery.  And he denounces as “humbug” the argument made by slavery’s supporter North and South that the Bible endorses slavery.

Instead, St. Clare insists that slavery is an exploitative economic system that operates just as the English industrial system does where power lies with an aristocratic or capitalist class that appropriates the labor of the working classes. Critics have rarely noticed the acuity of Stowe’s economic analysis; what she says here displays the extent to which her antislavery stance relies on more than mere domestic sentimentalism.  St. Clare argues, however, that although the living conditions of slaves may be no worse that those of English laborers, slavery is worse because it is more blatant in its denial of human rights, and more damaging to the master classes because of the more intimate contact between master and slave than between factory owner and industrial worker. Nevertheless, in St. Clare’s extended comparison of slavery and wage labor in England, Stowe grants more ground to this defense of slavery argument than most supporters of abolition.  Indeed, her linkage of antislavery to the “mustering among the masses, the world over” suggests a reading of antislavery in the context of the European political upheavals of 1848 that few antislavery activists shared. This view of a world wide rise of the working classes is one that Stowe continued to hold through the war years; her commitment to recognizing the dignity of labor would ultimately shape her politics during Reconstruction.

Following all this serious talk, Miss Ophelia and St. Clare join Marie and Eva for tea. Here we once more see Marie playing the role of unsympathetic slave mistress.  Given what we have just heard, we are struck with how miserably St. Clare is matched in his marriage.  Unmoved by Prue’s death, Marie announces that some slaves are so bad they can’t be broken.  This claim leads St. Clare to counter with a tale of his success in breaking an incorrigible slave.  He does this, in a scene that we should read as a version of the painting of Jesus and the blind man, by taking him into his own room, binding up his wounds, and, when he is healed, offering him his freedom. Eva, sobbing over this tale as she has over Prue’s death, models once again for the reader the ideal Christian’s response to the horrors of slavery.  Stowe’s own theology has been described as sentimental incarnationalism, a theology which, Thomas Jenkins argues, “emerged in the 1840s as an effort to make God more emotional and expressive” in contrast to the God of neoclassical theism whose main characteristic was serenity. According to Jenkins, “the basic difference between neoclassical and sentimental characterization turned. . . on the depiction of love. Neoclassical benevolence was a fusion of reason with love; sentimental sympathy was a fusion of pity with love. . . . God, through Christ, came close to humans in a very tactile way–‘not casting the humblest penitent away, but pressing him close to his bosom.’”[1]  For Stowe, Christ’s intimacy with human suffering and human sufferers modeled the way Christians ought to feel and respond to the manifest suffering that slavery generated.

As the tea party ends, Stowe breaks into the narrative and addresses her readers directly; she apologizes for neglecting her main plot and her title character. This apology is rather disingenuous, since the plot is clearly not the point of Stowe’s fiction.  As today’s installment makes clear, her fiction is a vehicle allowing her to engage publicly in the debate over slavery. However, we are invited briefly to observe Tom in a scene where Eva discovers him attempting to write a letter home.  The two friends struggle over this composition, naively imagining that it will lead to Tom’s redemption by the Shelbys and his return home. St. Clare interrupts and offers his services in writing and posting the letter.  This brief interlude ends inconclusively, and Stowe somewhat abruptly wraps up the installment with a comment on Miss Ophelia’s compulsive housekeeping.  She makes it clear that Miss Ophelia is scorned by St. Clare’s slaves who “agreed that she was no lady.” Stowe tells us that the whole household found this specimen of New England womanhood decidedly “curis.” While one might read this as another facet of the comparisons between North and South developed earlier, the final sentences suggest that Stowe, herself an indifferent housekeeper, shared the disdain for Miss Ophelia’s obsessive industry.  As the story moves forward, Stowe will develop more fully Miss Ophelia’s deficiencies and her struggle to overcome them.  Presenting her New England abolitionist as less than perfect (and making the abusive overseer a Vermonter as we learned in the last installment) is yet another part of Stowe’s strategy of undercutting sectional antagonisms in the hope that her fiction might lead to a national revulsion toward slavery.

[1]Thomas E. Jenkins, The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 57.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: