For the modern secular reader the death of Eva is one of the most problematic sections of the novel. Its overt religiosity and hyperbolic sentimentality make it alien to the modern critical temper. Conversely, for the nineteenth-century reader this scene was one of the most popular. Indeed, in stage version of the work the subtitle was changed to “Or, the Death of Eva.” (The original subtitle had been announced in the National Era as “Or, the Man That Was a Thing,” but it was changed by the time of publication to “Or, Life among the Lowly.”) Eva’s death was thus elevated to nearly equal status with the story of Tom.
Nevertheless, even for the contemporary reader the scenes of Eva’s dying still have a strangely moving effect, despite their hackneyed aspects—testimony to Stowe’s powers of vivid dramatization. Consider, as an example, the wrenching moment when Eva’s father St. Clare, watching her gasp for breath in “a spasm of mortal agony” turns away in anguish, grasping out for Tom’s hand, “scarce conscious of what he was doing,” crying out heartbroken at his child’s distress. Tom holds St. Clare’s hands “between his own” “with tears streaming down his dark cheeks.”
But beyond one’s emotional reaction, and lest one dismiss her as a sentimentalist stereotype, it is important to understand Eva within the theological context of the novel as, like Tom, an exemplar of Edwardsean Calvinism. Eva is one of the elect, a saint blessed with a kind of intuitive emotional understanding, perception, and wisdom beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
In his “Treatise Concerning Religious Affection” (1746) American theologian Jonathan Edwards explained the type: “All who are truly religious are not of this world, they are strangers here, and belong to heaven . . . and the[ir] nature is a heavenly nature.”1 Intensely emotional religious experience—the “holy affections”—is seen as a “visible sign” that one is of this elect. And love, according to Edwards, is “the fountain of all the affections.”2
When Tom first sees Eva on the Mississippiriverboat “she seemed something almost divine . . . he half believed he saw one of the angels stepped out of his New Testament.”3 Her appearance is described as being of an “unearthly radiance” (382). She expresses a “strange unworldly wisdom” (385) and her “whole heart and soul seemed absorbed in works of love and kindness” (98). “Always dressed in white, she seemed to move like a shadow through all sorts of places, without contacting spot or stain” (231).
In her final moments Eva acts like a saint bestowing blessings on her followers, giving them talismanic tokens of her being—curls from her hair—essentially saints’ relics, and effecting, through the power of her love, metanoia, a conversion or change of heart, in Topsy, hitherto seen as incorrigibly wicked.
Tom and Eva as members of the elect form a special bond. “To him she imparted those mysterious intimations which the soul feels.” Like her he seems in touch with an “other” world and has a preternatural ability to intuit the spiritual processes—“the bridegroom,” “the messenger,” and “the angels”—that accompany her death, which is seen as a transition “into the Kingdom,” rather than an end to life. “But at midnight—strange, mystic hour—when the veil between the frail present and the eternal future grows thin—then came the messenger.”
Eva’s final words, “love-joy-peace,” which taken realistically would seem improbable coming from a five- or six-year-old girl, further betoken her spiritual status, suggesting that she has passed into a heavenly beyond, her rightful place in the Calvinist cosmos.
We also see in this chapter the Calvinist belief in an omnipotent and inscrutable deity in the exchange between St. Clare, expressing his usual skeptical agnosticism, and Ophelia where the latter reminds him that God has “a right to do what he will” and that our duty is to accept this resignedly.4
Other issues that should be commented on in this chapter include Stowe’s characterization of the slaves as a “susceptible race.” Some see these kinds of generalizations, found throughout the novel, as racist, but more accurately, they represent what George Frederickson termed “romantic racialism”5—the notion that races and ethnic and regional groups exhibit certain common identifying features. Stowe did believe African-Americans in general to be “natural” Christians; “susceptible” in this context is intended as a positive trait, meaning “empathetic,” “sensitive.”
We also have in this chapter a glimpse of Marie, Eva’s mother, a selfish, ruthless creature who treats her personal slave Mammy with relentless oppression. Next to Simon Legree Marie is probably the most despicable person in the novel. Stowe seemed concerned to apportion evil and good equally among the various ethnic groups and genders, so that not all white women are good, not all white men are bad, etc. Indeed, there are examples of each in every group in the novel.
Ophelia, the northern cousin, another important character, is seen here at Eva’s deathbed, exuding the practical competence of a New Englander, set throughout in contrast to southern indolence and irresponsibility (examples of generalization by region). Ophelia is another who is touched by Eva’s goodness and love, enabled thereby to overcome her own racism.
Where today’s nonreligious reader may find these scenes off-putting or at least perplexing, Stowe’s underlying message still resonates, seeing the compassionate love Eva embodies as redemptive. In the end, as Stowe urges in her conclusion to the novel, “an atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being” (624), and that circle of compassion provides a powerful countervalence against “the sophistries of worldly policy” (624), which justify such evils as slavery. Indeed, her whole purpose in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin was to awaken sympathy for the slave in the northern reader and thereby build momentum for abolition.
- As cited in Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 367 n.53.
- Sydney A. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 303.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 231. Further references to this edition follow in the text.
- Stowe did not consistently accept the Calvinist idea of predestination but believed that social environment strongly affects behavior and that humans have free will. See further discussion in my Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love (1991; rev. ed. 2001).
- George Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (New York: Harper, 1971).