Chapter 31: Comment by Les Harrison

With Tom’s arrival at the Legree plantation in chapter 31, “Dark Places,” the action of the novel moves to the third and final setting in Stowe’s symbolic geography of the United States under slavery. As Jane Tompkins once noted: “Ultimately, there are only three places to be this story: heaven, hell, or Kentucky”(1). Thus far we’ve already seen Kentucky on the Shelby plantation, and, while New Orleans under slavery is a dark place in its own right, particularly for slaves such as Old Prue, the presence of Little Eva made the St. Clare household a heaven-like respite on Tom’s journey to his cavalry at the Legree plantation.

There are two important elements to the “darkness” which envelopes the Legree plantation. On the one hand, there is the palpable air of malign neglect with which Stowe characterizes the plantation. Keeping with Stowe’s theme of the threat Slavery poses to domestic happinesses of all types, her initial description of the Legree’s grouns emphasizes its former status as a beautiful and well-ordered home, with a “smooth-shaven lawn,” “ornamental shrubs,” and “what had once been a conservatory.”

Here, and in her subsequent description of the the house’s “desolate and uncomfortable” appearance, its boarded-up windows, and, finally, at the close of this installment, the revelation of a “dark wild face” at the window (later revealed to be Cassy), Stowe begins her deployment of the gothic setting and other gothic elements which will characterize events in the final chapters of the novel. Writing specifically about Stowe, as well as other authors, Teresa Goddu situates the American gothic tradition “within specific sites of historical haunting, most notably slavery,” noting that, “American gothic literature criticizes America’s national myth of new-world innocence by voicing the cultural contradictions that undermine the nation’s claim to purity and equality” (2). Stowe’s use of this gothic machinery will reach its culmination in chapter 42, “An Authentic Ghost Story,” in which Cassy and Emmeline, dressed as ghosts, haunt the Legree plantation en route to their escape to the north, contributing in no small measure to Legree’s untimely demise in the process.

On the other hand, there is a much more practical aspect to the “darkness” which surrounds the Legree plantation. As the epigraph from Psalms informs the reader, part of the danger faced by Tom on the Legree plantation is its remoteness. This aspect of the danger posed by the plantation is subsequently given voice to by Cassy two chapters later: “Here you are, on a lone plantation, ten miles from any other, in the swamps; not a white person here, who could testify, if you were burned alive, — if you were scalded, cut into inch-pieces, set up for the dogs to tear, or hung up and whipped to death.” This aspect of the setting re-activates the status of Stowe’s novel as fictional expose, a novelized accounting of “life among the lowly.” Stowe’s emphasis of the remoteness of the Legree plantation echoes a similar point made in the Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845). In noting relative mildness of slavery in an urban setting as opposed to life on a plantation Douglass comments: “A city slave is almost a freeman, compared with a slave on the plantation. He is much better fed and clothed, and enjoys privileges altogether unknown to the slave on the plantation. There is a vestige of decency, a sense of shame, that does much to curb and check those outbreaks of atrocious cruelty so commonly enacted upon the plantation. He is a desperate slaveholder, who will shock the humanity of his non-slaveholding neighbors with the cries of his lacerated slave” (3).

This chapter also contains another strong echo of Douglass’s Narrative in the scene where Legree demands that his slaves sing him a song as they walk from the steamboat landing to the plantation. In response to Legree’s shouting-down of Tom’s Methodist hymn, one of the slaves responds with a nonsense song whose forced merriment conceals a “depth of woe.” Recounting the singing of similar nonsense songs on the plantation, Douglass comments that he has, “sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (4).

Finally, Tom’s arrival at the Legree plantation signals a final and important transformation in his character. In general, the arc of Tom’s character development in the novel is a progression from Uncledom in Kentucky where Tom is an esteemed member of the slave community, through Sisterhood in New Orleans where he spends most of his time cloistered with Stowe’s little Evangelist, and into his role of Father Tom ministering to the forsaken slaves on Legree’s plantation. It is on the Legree plantation, in his role as Father Tom, preaching to his fellow slaves, refusing to be an instrument of Legree’s evil, sacrificing himself so that Cassy and Emmeline can escape, that Tom will fulfill his role as an African-American Christ figure.

Notes

1Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790 – 1860 (New York: Oxford, 1986), 138.
2. Teresa Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, (New York: Columbia UP, 1997), 10.  For an overivew of gothic elements in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see Karen Halttunen, “Gothic Imagination and Social Reform: The Haunted Houses of Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe,” in New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Eric Sundquist (New York: Cambridge UP, 1986), 107 – 134.
3. Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, in The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader, ed. William L. Andrews (New York: Oxford UP, 1996), 49.
4. Douglass, Narrative, 37-38.

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