Chapter 3: Comment by W.B. Allen

            To understand the chapter in which George Harris’s drama is shaped with reference to his character, one must set it against his initial introduction in chapter two, which presents the question of matriarchy. Appropriately, Stowe’s second chapter is entitled, “The Mother.” In this chapter we discover the ground and manner of the matriarchal pattern, but Stowe does not render her judgment of its capacity to mitigate the excesses of slavery until three chapters later. Shelby’s slaves had come to assume participation in a form of citizenship—let us call it partial citizenship—under Mrs. Shelby’s guidance.[1]  The purpose of the consideration of matriarchy is to judge how far the slaves can come to really enjoy citizenship. And it is further to reveal the consequences to the slaves themselves of accepting partial citizenship.[2]

We saw in chapter one that Shelby’s highest praise for his slaves was based on the influence of Mrs. Shelby’s moral guidance. Mrs. Shelby raised her slaves as if they were her own children—at least Eliza. And this included the effort to bring them to “maturity” unharmed by the ordinary dangers and temptations of human life. In chapter three Eliza reveals that Mrs. Shelby’s method in part relied on the inculcation of Christian precept and her determination to “make the condition of mine [slaves] better than freedom.”[3]  She regards the selling of Tom as “tearing him from all we have taught him to love and value.” These virtues include the “duties of the family, of parent and child, and husband and wife.” The very attempt to induce moral sensibility creates reciprocally binding moral ties. This is at least problematic in the case of Tom, who was already eight years old at the time Mr. Shelby was born and perhaps as old as twenty-eight by the time Emily became Mrs. Shelby.[4] It is important, therefore, to consider the characters and circumstances of the slaves independently of her account.

In listing the moral characteristics she sought to induce, Emily notably omitted any reference to political duties (although she does call Tom a “noble-hearted soul”). This is perhaps consistent with the Christian perspective from which she speaks. It is also consistent with the conception of partial citizenship. And when we learn from the slaves themselves what is the tendency of their morality, it is clear that the “condition better than freedom” is one from which the onerous burdens of civic duties have been lifted.

What ties the first five chapters together is the development of the slave’s connection to the political regime through Mrs. Shelby. Her crowning achievement in this regard was arranging the marriage of George and Eliza Harris. When George emerges as the chief subject of chapter two, it is clear that the reader will both come to know the truth about Eliza as a reflection of George and also to discern the character of Emily Shelby’s influence, the extent of the matriarchal influence. Indeed, nothing so dramatically if only symbolically suggests the extent of the matriarchal influence as the description of Mrs. Shelby’s planning Eliza’s wedding. At the time of the marriage he was employed at a factory, and “he had free liberty to come and go at discretion.” The initial introduction of George emphasized his intelligence and inventiveness. He spoke “fluently,” bore an “erect” carriage, and “looked so handsome and manly.” In almost every respect, at the time of the marriage, the reader sees in George Harris a man indistinguishable from the republic’s free citizens, on the surface.

It is the manifest incongruity of this virtual free man being owned by “a vulgar, narrow-minded, tyrannical master” that establishes the dramatic context for development of the character of George Harris. With all his “superior qualifications,” “this young man was in the eye of the law not a man, but a thing.” The application to George Harris of the novel’s original proposal for a subtitle alerts the reader to consider in his character the defect that is peculiar to slavery. And because this is all accomplished in the chapter that frames the relationship of Eliza and Emily, we discover what there is in matriarchy that allows it to suppose a state “better than freedom.”

In the eyes of some, George’s condition might have been viewed as better than freedom, though he was only indirectly under Emily Shelby’s influence. He enjoyed relative ease, leisure, and respect. It was this fact that induced his master to “reclaim” him. In a dramatic confrontation George welcomed this news with slave-befitting silence. It was the work of “a power that he knew was irresistible.” The gravest defect of George’s “happiness” was precisely this “knowledge” of an irresistible power. Whatever George may have thought previously, the fall from grace was the revelation of his untenable status.

He had been able to repress every disrespectful word; but the flashing eye, the gloomy and troubled brow, were part of a natural language that could not be repressed,—indubitable signs, which showed too plainly that the man could not become a thing.

What George had previously sacrificed in the acceptance of “a power that he knew was irresistible” was the power to determine his own happiness. He had accepted the theoretical possibility that the despotic control of one man over another might be better than freedom.

Tom’s faith, on the other hand, is in fact as much the product of his own hands—vis-à-vis Emily’s teaching—as was his cabin. It is a singular dramatic fact that Tom, in the entire novel, offers not a single word of address to Emily Shelby (though she several times addresses him directly) and but one reflection, his dying expostulation: “Give my love to Mas’r and dear good Missis, and everybody in the place!”

The emphasis Tom placed upon the imperfections of human political efforts (which Emily comes to share only after tragedy intrudes upon her optimism) directly contradicts her matriarchal intentions. The protection she intended to provide her slaves depended ultimately on the Shelbys’s own prudence and on the existence of decent laws defending that prudence. And, of course, Tom’s appeal to differences in natures (when he counseled Eliza to flee, while he elected to submit to the sale) instead of prayerful submission was a silent rejection of the form of Emily’s teaching. The matriarchal plan turned on the possibility that some human beings could happily be the subjects of humanism (the moral graces of others), without themselves striving to acquire the humanistic character. The matriarchal plan failed to recognize the disqualification for full political standing as a liability. Tom does not directly contradict this, for he aims higher still.[5]

George Harris also rejected Emily’s teaching, but from a different perspective. In chapter three George liberates himself from his earlier thralldom and, in the process, explains the basis of his and his wife’s previous error. That installment, “The Husband and Father,” finds George cursing the birth of his son and cursing the fact that he had ever seen his wife. He loves them nonetheless but now realizes that they are not “his own”—and cannot be. The problem is not that they are “owned” by the Shelbys—which is problem enough. The problem is that George is “owned” and hence can have nothing of his “own.” Possession unlike use is entirely a capacity of freedom. Because freedom is a particular state or condition of the exercise of the will, and because will, itself, is rooted in reason, possession like freedom is an attribute of rational beings. What George has discovered, however, is that rational capacity is not the foundation of freedom or possession.[6]

George has no answer—in theoretical terms—for his discovery.[7]  That, in the end, is the great distinction between himself and Uncle Tom. He thinks only that he is illegitimately denied his freedom—the use of his reason. He does not know what the basis of that freedom might be—apart from the reason itself. He does not know that his master’s inferiority—weakness—is not in itself a moral defect and therefore a disqualification for ruling him. But he senses that the existing arrangement does violence to nature, as he is brought to curse child, wife, and life itself.

What’s the use of our trying to do anything, trying to know anything, trying to be anything? What’s the use of living? I wish I was dead!

Of all the many wishes that were beyond George’s power, in his circumstances, this is the one wish of the power to realize which he could in no way be deprived. But he is not merely whining. He is sensing—though ignorant—that human capacities must point to some end and are not in themselves the end of human endeavor. Rational capacity is not the basis of human freedom and possession because, as capacity, it points to a human end which itself is a source of those principles that defend human freedom and possession. If the human end were simply possession, or life for life’s sake, its connection with reason would be indefensible. Possession is not rational in itself any more than is freedom in itself rational. It is true that there are rational means to sustain life (one of which might well be to destroy slavery), but life in itself can not be thought rational on that account. Because he assumes a rational form for life itself, George’s despair is grounded in a fundamental optimism about the human condition.

It is perhaps this optimism that restrains George from the attempt to realize his wish for death. But he is in addition fortunate to have Eliza’s restraining influence work upon his soul. At this point (chapter three), they do not know that their own son has been sold. But they do know of the radical change in George’s condition. Thus Eliza greets him with a “why don’t you smile?” and a “look at Harry—how he grows” in this instance of by now infrequent visits. She sought to charm him with the very things that he had now come to curse. And his despair of living completed her shock: “dear George, that is really wicked.”

            George, we will soon see, is not unmoved by his own things. Nor does he fail to bring Eliza around to a less sanguine view. But he must first give an adequate response to Eliza’s counsel of patience and suffering obedience. It was her affirmation, “after all he is your master, you know,” which brought forth George’s detailed demonstration of Mr. Harris’s inferiority. When he compounds this judgment with the announcement that he has taken about as much “insult and torment” as “flesh and blood” can bear, Eliza despairs for the course he is likely to take. Where he questions the legitimacy of his master’s powers, she “always thought” it was her duty to “obey my master and mistress, or I couldn’t be a Christian.” George begins to win Eliza to his side—and, himself, to discover a single ground for restraint and opposition to tyranny—when he concedes the justice of her view.

 ‘There is some sense in it, in your case; they have brought you up like a child, fed you, clothed you, indulged you, and taught you, so that you have a good education; that is some reason why they should claim you. But I have been kicked and cuffed and sworn at, and at the best only let alone; and what do I owe? I’ve paid for my keeping a hundred times over. I won’t bear it. No I won’t!’ he said, clenching his hand with a fierce frown. (original emphasis)

George’s argument is a particular statement of that view of slavery, which sees a people of advanced civilization bringing improvement to a people in its nonage. In recognizing the validity of this claim, George reveals an essential flaw: “happy” slavery is perhaps acceptable precisely if it brings to the slave the same objectives he would seek in freedom. That George accepts this, even in the face of Eliza’s admission that her religion or civilization induces submission, is the fact that separates him from Tom.[8]

Nonetheless, in the present case this variant of contemporaneous humanism does serve to motivate a noble effort in the name of freedom. Even if the freedom consists only in being well fed, well clothed, and well educated, it can serve to avert the worst forms of despotism. That George Harris could find a ground for opposition to masters in Eliza’s ground for submission serves to prepare her for the test she will encounter: must she, on her master’s just claim, submit to the sale of her son? The perplexity George induces will make the answer to that question easier. George completes Eliza’s conversion with two facts, each of significance. The first is that he refused his master’s orders to drown his own pet dog—the only comfort he had in those dark days. Instead, he submitted to a flogging after having watched the master and his master’s son pelt the drowning dog with stones. George’s refusal to kill the dog is a counterpoint to Uncle Tom’s subsequent refusal to whip the slave-woman on Legree’s plantation. But George’s refusal is complexly tied up with his own connection with the dog—it was not a matter of principle or right, simply.

Again, Eliza counsels faith and righteousness—though now lauding George’s disobedience: “O, George, you didn’t do it!” She seeks to embrace a wider view of Christianity than mere submission, one which, promising right and good after much wrong and evil, can lend encouragement to human effort on behalf of right. But George denies that one can be a Christian under his circumstances. The promise of the good that follows evil is more readily believed by those “sitting on their sofas and riding in their carriages!” No, not even Eliza could strive for excellence, were she in George’s place. But, of course, she is in his place if her initial appeal to hearth and home is genuine! By introducing the second and last fact in this paradoxical manner, George reveals that he cannot curse wife, child, and life. He might die for them; he cannot commit suicide before them. He relates the worst and most revealing fact last of all (they are still unaware of the sale of their son, despite Eliza’s suspicion). Mr. Harris intends to prohibit George’s visits altogether and unite him to someone on his own plantation.

‘Why—but you were married to me, by the minister, as much as if you’d been a white man!’ said Eliza, simply. (original emphasis)

Eliza’s incredulity is a direct consequence of her moral sensibility. The tenuousness of the connections of hearth and home reveal more profoundly the import of the defect of partial citizenship. George now sees it correctly, though he would have accepted partial citizenship and thought it alright for Eliza.

After this George announces that he will escape. He receives no resistance whatever from Eliza. To “be free” or die becomes the necessary form of expression for the pre-conditions of humanity. George provides the answer to his own question about the reason of life. The entire pathos in his character centers on the identification of life with freedom. This is not a comprehensive answer, although it serves sufficiently to inspire particular exertions. As if to underscore the partial perspective in this view, Eliza gives final counsel. She agrees that he must go—but not for freedom! Instead, where she noted his inclination to wicked things earlier, she now notes that to remain would mean giving in to orders to sin—to commit adultery. She urges him to go to avoid sinning. At the same time, she urges him to avoid sin in going. Her conversion is not to George’s entire view of the conditions of human goodness: that is, the necessity to settle the question of life and the comforts of life before raising the question of goodness. She is rather converted to a broader Christianity. We might say she is forced to cast off the limits on her Christianity that her partial citizenship imposed. Hence, she is for the first time capable of opposing Christianity to “master’s” wishes.

Throughout the development of these characters there is a tension between the recognition of signs of nature—say, being at ease or in comfort—and the recognition of signs of humanity—that is, straining toward the possibility of human improvement even where it appears impossible. The materialism-spiritualism dichotomy cannot be substituted for this formulation, because the tension is created precisely by the necessary but ambiguous relationship of those two factors. Their connection with matriarchy’s hope for a condition “better than freedom” is seen in the transformation of Eliza’s submissiveness into manly righteousness. In that process, it seems that freedom must be viewed as a minimum condition of human goodness because of the connection between goodness and one’s own things. That is to say, the good that one is bound to by the reason of one’s relationships necessarily implies liberty sufficient to pursue it. Eliza will at no time speak of seeking freedom herself. Yet, she will do so—almost automatically—for the sake of achieving the good for her son. To insist that matriarchy can produce a condition “better than freedom” is to maintain tacitly that chance is superior to art in framing human institutions. By refusing to entrust her son to such chance, Eliza tacitly rejects the foundation of her own education and with it, her partial citizenship.[9]


[1] Stowe included extensive direct application of Tocqueville’s discussion of this theme in the chapter, “Domestic Manners,” of her last work, American Women’s Home, co-authored with her sister, Catharine Beecher Stowe.

[2] Stowe’s belief in the vital role women played in educating the young is widely acknowledged in the literature. See for example Loebel (“…the source of national and social repair is to be found in the nature of women. Women’s ability to love, and their role as the educators of the family in the home, can convert male brutality and lift the fallen.”) and Sawaya (“In Stowe’s and [Catharine] Beecher’s eyes, women have extraordinary power to control the fate of the nation because of their ability to control the home environment of the child.”) Loebel, “Legal Fictions,” p. 367. Frances Josephine Sawaya, “The Home Front: Domestic Nationalism and Regional Women’s Writing” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1992), p. 19. I also discuss this role for women in my article, “The Manners of Liberalism” (“The question [for Stowe] was not whether women would be the subordinate enforcers of traditional manners; it was rather whether the decisive form or content of the manners of liberalism would be the responsibility of women as, in other ages, it had been the care of aristocracy.” William B. Allen, “The Manners of Liberalism: A Question of Limits,” Improving College and University Teaching 30, no. 4 (1982): 167. Kimball echoes this comment: “Women replaced the influence of aristocracy…” Kimball, The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 77.

[3] Brown accurately perceives the limits of a slavery grounded in matriarchy; however, she somehow overlooks Stowe’s firm dismissal of this alternative. “Stowe replaces the master-slave relationship with the benign proprietorship of mother-child, transferring ownership of slaves to the mothers of America… In Stowe’s matriarchal society, slaves are synonymous with children because they lack title to themselves and need abolitionist guardianship… Uncle Tom wants not emancipation but this protective ownership: ‘the Lord’s bought me and is going to take me home… Heaven is better than Kintuck.’ By imitating God’s parental economy, mothers approximate heaven in their home.” Brown, Domestic Individualism, p. 32. Saunders likewise misses Stowe’s dramatic commentary on the vision articulated by Mrs. Shelby: “…Stowe places the argument that the slaves are unable to conduct their lives independently of their masters… in the mouth of a sympathetic southern character [Mrs. Shelby], then lets it pass without comment.” Saunders, “Houses Divided,” p. 418.

[4] In a dissertation that, overall, distorts Stowe’s message about patriarchal and matriarchal aspects of slavery, Saunders, nonetheless, accurately notes that “Even in his spiritual life, [Tom] is surprisingly independent of Mrs. Shelby’s ministrations.” Saunders, “Houses Divided,” p. 5.

[5] An intention that is overlooked by those who believe that domestic matriarchy is the ideal that Stowe urged in this novel and her other works.

Throughout the development of these characters there is a tension between the recognition of signs of nature—say, being at ease or in comfort—and the recognition of signs of humanity—that is, straining toward the possibility of human improvement even where it appears impossible. The materialism-spiritualism dichotomy cannot be substituted for this formulation, because the tension is created precisely by the necessary but ambiguous relationship of those two factors. Their connection with matriarchy’s hope for a condition “better than freedom” is seen in the transformation of Eliza’s submissiveness into manly righteousness. In that process, it seems that freedom must be viewed as a minimum condition of human goodness because of the connection between goodness and one’s own things. That is to say, the good that one is bound to by the reason of one’s relationships necessarily implies liberty sufficient to pursue it. Eliza will at no time speak of seeking freedom herself. Yet, she will do so—almost automatically—for the sake of achieving the good for her son. To insist that matriarchy can produce a condition “better than freedom” is to maintain tacitly that chance is superior to art in framing human institutions. By refusing to entrust her son to such chance, Eliza tacitly rejects the foundation of her own education and with it, her partial citizenship

[6] Several Stowe critics focus on this question of ownership, albeit drawing some errant conclusions in this regard. Brown, for example, finds as a central theme of the novel “the liberal tradition of possessive individualism, in which individual rights are grounded in the principle of self-ownership.” Brown, Domestic Individualism, p. 59. Riss states that Stowe approves certain instances of persons being “owned,” basing this assertion on the fact that George speaks approvingly of owning his wife when they are re-united and Tom speaks approvingly of being “bought and paid for” by his Savior. He concludes that “Stowe does not object to the principle of persons being owned but to the way that slavery institutionalizes the wrong kind of ownership” and that “In response to this significant moral problem at the heart of the slave system, Stowe proposes that biology can serve as the only reliable test for proper ownership.” Riss, “Racial Essentialism,” p. 532.

[7] “. . . who made him my master?. . . what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I’m a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand, —and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him,—I’ve learned it in spite of him.”

[8] Saunders recognizes that Stowe charts quite separate courses for the journeys of George and Uncle Tom; however, her characterization and assessment of their destinations is far from what Stowe intends. Saunders praises George’s valuation and eventual ownership of his own family and faults Tom for “thinking of himself more as a part of the larger plantation family than as the head of his biological family or a member of a community made up of slaves alone.” (424) The “larger family” Saunders refers to here is the plantation family and she says that “Throughout the book, Tom seems to choose his masters and their welfare over his own interests and those of his biological family.” (422) Because Saunders understands that Stowe has clearly made Tom the hero of the novel and because Stowe never re-unites Tom with his biological family, she concludes that Stowe had “difficulty in truly valuing the slave families and potential for black self-sufficiency they represent over the paternalistic plantation family and the hierarchical version of black/white relations it represents.” (394) Saunders, “Houses Divided.”

[9] Saunders misses Eliza’s tacit rejection of Mrs. Shelby’s teaching and her new found manly righteousness, stressing instead that Eliza’s virtues all seem to have come from “her attachment to and emulation of a white mother-figure. As a result, the virtues Eliza exhibits continue to be associated with the white race despite the fact that a biracial woman possesses them.” Ibid., p. 393.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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