Jane Tompkins has influentially argued that the Quaker woman Rachel Halliday is “God in human form,” and that “The Quaker Settlement,” Chapter XIII of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, provides a utopian, millenarian vision of women’s ability to reform the nation through the power of matriarchy located in the kitchen. Women’s power, in Tompkins’s formulation, is sentimental power—the power of feeling—and it has the potential to do significant “culture work.”
In that context, what are we to make of bitter, violent Cassy, who tells Tom, even as she nurses him, that she has lost her faith in God and has committed infanticide—a crime, she states, that was no crime at all, but instead a liberation of her baby son from slavery. Anticipating the historical Margaret Garner, who killed her baby daughter in 1856, Cassy had experienced enough of the horrors of slavery to feel justified in her action, even as she suggests that it was the loss of her religion that allowed her to act as she did. Tom’s steadfast Christianity to some extent keeps him from acting in violently rebellious ways, though as we see in the continuation of Chapter XXXII, it does not keep him from being rebellious. Hardly the acquiescent “Uncle Tom” of twentieth-century caricatures, Tom, in the spirit of Christ, calmly but firmly tells the demonic Legree that he refuses to flog an elderly slave woman. Thus we have what can seem to be a paradox: that Tom is termed “unresisting” in the final sentence of that chapter even as he resists. In her depiction of the unresisting resistant Tom, Stowe addresses the paradoxical nature of Christ Himself, whom she similarly depicts in her 1853 poem “Caste and Christ” as simultaneously peaceful and militant. Though Tom ultimately refuses Cassy’s entreaties to assist her with a violent escape from Legree’s plantation, the linking of Tom and Cassy points to their similarities, both as rebels and Christians.
As Cassy nurses Tom in Chapter XXXIII, Tom attempts to convert her to his Christian vision. But were she to “convert” at that moment, she would not have been able to escape with Emmeline and wreak havoc on the plantation. Stowe needs to keep her empowered by keeping her a doubter. The dialogue then becomes more a monologue as Cassy tells her life history, which recapitulates some of the earlier stories of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Mr. Shelby, her lover and the father of her children went into debt, which makes Cassy vulnerable in the way of Uncle Tom, as she is eventually sold to Legree. Prior to that, however, we see how black women are vulnerable in ways that black men are not: She is purchased by her lover’s cousin, who basically wins her as part of a gambling debt and then sells off her children and makes her into his sexual slave. As she puts it, “he made me as submissive as he desired.” She snaps mentally when he keeps her from her children (or becomes enraged in the way of a sane person who hates to see her children suffer), and attempts to kill him with a bowie knife. Nowhere in the novel is there any suggestion that Stowe condemns her for that; and there is little sense that she condemns Cassy’s subsequent decision to kill the baby son that she eventually has with the kindly Captain Stuart.
Cassy will eventually rediscover her Christianity; and there is every indication by the end of the novel that Stowe envisions her as saved. In other words, the Victorian Harriet Beecher Stowe presents a woman who is multiply raped (the clear implication of what happens after the cousin of the beloved white father takes “possession” of Cassy) and the acknowledged killer of one of her children, who nonetheless by the novel’s end lives happily ever after in salvific grace. What I want to suggest here is that Stowe, by making Cassy irreligious at the start, gives her the latitude to act out her rage against the patriarchal institution, and patriarchy itself (as embodied by Legree) in ways that point to the existence of other forms of female power capable of doing cultural work. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously identified the figure of the rebellious “madwoman” haunting the Victorian novel (see their seminal The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination ), and the rebellious Cassy, who eventually plots her escape with the enslaved Emmeline from a second-story attic-like room, fits the bill of the “dark” woman who can be read in dualistic relationship to the more conventional Rachel Halliday.
Cassy’s rebelliousness emerges in large part from the violation of her body. Much more frankly than Lydia Maria Child, whose 1842 “The Quadroons” can be taken as an important source for the chapter that Stowe would come to call “The Quadroon’s Story,” Stowe addresses issues of sexuality in slave culture, suggesting that sisterhood, as with the alliance between Cassy and Emmeline (which has a mother-daughter feel as well), can be understood as an effort literally to resist the impinging sexual force of the male body. Stowe also suggests, through Cassy’s fierce black eyes and Legree’s evident fear of his former sexual slave, that there is an unsettling power lodged in a resistant female sexuality.
By the time Cassy concludes telling her story and returns to a religious dialogue with Tom, she is described as in a “frenzy.” Stowe keeps Cassy somewhat frenzied in subsequent chapters until she can do her own form of cultural work, which is very different from the cultural work of the white Rachel Halliday. In some respects, Stowe can seem even more invested in Cassy’s rage than in Rachel’s genteel motherhood; there is a darker, less conventional Stowe that comes through in her affirmative depiction of Cassy. Stowe gives fuller voice to black resistance in her second antislavery novel, Dred (1856). Whereas Tom will eventually refuse Cassy’s request to kill Legree with an axe, Dred shows himself quite willing to kill for his and his fellow slaves’ freedom. The trajectory from Cassy to Dred (via Tom’s refusal to become a Dred figure) points to Stowe’s surprising investment in black revolutionary violence.
 Jane Tompkins, The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 142.