Chapter 26: Comment by Josephine Donovan

”Felt Him in my soul, mass’r; feel Him now” is a touchstone sentence, one of the most important in the novel.  Here Tom succinctly expresses the religion of the heart endorsed in the Great Awakening (1740-43), a religious transformation and revival movement that swept American culture of the day, rearticulated in the Second Great Awakening (1797-1831), in which Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent figure.  Under this doctrine one’s inner emotional state is the key to one’s salvation.  The elect are those who experience God directly, deeply, and emotionally.  Intellectual knowledge counts for little, what matters is to “feel Him in [one’s] soul,” as Tom does—and as Eva, the other avatar of Edwardsean Calvinism in the novel, does as well.

The theological discussion between Tom and St. Clare in this chapter is an interesting example of Stowe’s use of dialectical argument.  Indeed, it is striking how many theological discussions occur in the work and how many of the dialogs between people are constructed as antitheses—one position counterposed in opposition to another.  (Stowe received early training in dialectical thinking and in fact taught rhetoric for several years at Hartford Female Seminary, so she was well versed in conventional rhetorical devices such as antithesis, according to which much of the narrative structure of the novel is arranged.)

In this discussion Tom expresses the doctrines of Edwardsean Calvinism whereas St. Clare takes the opposite view, that of the agnostic or even at times atheist.  Tom exudes an emotional faith, “a love of Christ that passeth knowledge.”  It is a wisdom “hid from the wise and prudent and revealed unto babes,” which enables him, uneducated and unsophisticated, to see and feel what St. Clare cannot.  This despite—or because of—the fact that Tom is largely illiterate.  St. Clare has to read scripture to him as Eva had (though Tom is seen learning to write and read elsewhere in the novel).

As a Christian or indeed as a Christ-figure, Tom is willing to sacrifice his own life to save others, as he does in accepting his original sale by Shelby (which saves his own family and other Shelby slaves) and at the end in enduring torture and death to save Cassy and Emmeline.  Here he claims he would willingly die to save St. Clare’s soul.

St. Clare, on the other hand, verges on a nihilist position:  “there is no more Eva—no heaven—no Christ—nothing.”  Finding no physical evidence of a deity or afterlife, he can find no grounds for belief.  He challenges Tom thus:  “How do you know there’s any Christ, Tom?  You never saw the Lord.”  “How do you know that, Tom?” he persists.  St. Clare finally reveals that he simply doesn’t “believe the Bible.”  He is agnostic:  he doesn’t “disbelieve” but he doesn’t believe either.

Tom’s empathy and compassion for St. Clare mark him as an exemplary Christian, which was, I believe, Stowe’s intention.  But at times Tom’s behavior in this scene may seem overly servile, which has led to the stereotype of the character as an “Uncle Tom” (a stereotype that is in may respects undeserved, especially considering Tom’s heroic refusal to capitulate under torture, seen in the final episodes).  Nevertheless, when Tom exults in the fact that the Lord brought “light and joy” into his heart after he was sold away from his family, one might feel this to be a too passive response to a grotesque personal injustice.

St. Clare’s attitude toward Tom, while admiring and respectful, is still condescending, calling him “boy” throughout and dismissing him at the end of the chapter when he tires of the discussion, with Tom silently obeying.

The chapter comes in the aftermath of Eva’s death and shows the effects of her passing on various characters:  Topsy for whom Eva’s love proves redemptive; Ophelia who has learned to love Topsy following Eva’s example; Marie, Eva’s mother, continuing the selfish, histrionic behavior seen heretofore; and St. Clare, deeply and perhaps mortally wounded by her loss.  Here, as she often does, Stowe counters stereotypes, showing the mother’s grief to be shallow and narcissistic, where the father’s is profound and shattering.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents


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