Chapter 34: Comment by Patricia Hill

Today’s installment, with its Byronian epigraph, offers a fascinating account of the power of memories associated with material objects.  Stowe uses Legree’s horror at seeing the ringlet of Eva’s hair to segue into Legree’s personal history. Uncle Tom had kept the ringlet, along with the dollar George gave him on parting, in a paper suspended by a black cord around his neck. Sambo, who calls it a “witch thing,” informs Legree that such items were acquired to ward off the pain of beatings such as the one Tom had just endured.  Stowe was aware, as she makes clear in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that African religious culture included a belief in spells, “fetish and obi,” and “the evil eye.” In the Key she suggests that this reflects a “peculiarity of constitution” in the African race. But the reader knows, of course, that Sambo is wrong is assuming that Tom kept these objects about his person as anything other than cherished mementoes of people he loved. And Legree’s reaction reveals a susceptibility to belief in witchcraft that is not racially delimited. In this passage from the novel, Stowe offers a psychological rather than a racial explanation for the ringlet’s powerful effect on Legree. She also sets the stage for Cassy’s successful strategy of haunting Legree.

We learn that Legree’s pedigree is divided; born inNew Englandto a devout Christian mother and an abusive father, Legree rejects the better element in his nature inherited from his mother in favor of his father’s legacy of brutality. In contrast to a common trope in sentimental fiction where sainted mothers’ dying prayers and disembodied spirits guard sons against vice, Legree strikes his mother senseless and burns the lock of hair sent with a message of love and forgiveness when she dies. Stowe tells us that Legree was haunted thereafter by dreams of his mother despite his most strenuous efforts to erase her memory. Stowe uses this to make a rather abstruse theological argument about how a God of love and a God of wrath can coexist in the same divine being. She posits a “necromancy of evil” that turns an emblem of perfect love into an instrument of torment. Both the mother’s lock and Eva’s ringlet are mementoes of such perfect love, of the Christ who inhabited them both. The persistence of memory—especially dark memories–and the inability to forget at will are triggered by the fetish object as the Byronian epigraph suggests. Legree attempts to bury these memories, initially in his plan to gratify his lust with Emmeline and then, when the hymn she is singing about the judgment day triggers another image of his mother, by calling Sambo and Quimbo to join him in drunken carousing.

The picture Stowe paints by detailing Legree’s history is of a man who has chosen evil and who willfully does evil. His character allows Cassy to contemplate murder.  Her rumination on whether it would be “a sin to rid the world of such a wretch” prepares the reader to accept Cassy’s efforts to do just that. Stowe is not quite endorsing murder but she has already presented Cassy’s killing of her infant as understandable, even as an expression of maternal love in the distorting context of slavery. What slavery has done to Cassy is also a central concern in today’s installment. It has clearly hardened her, but it has not reduced her power.  Stowe’s description of her as a “strong, impassioned woman” who can maintain influence over “even the most brutal man” explains her ability to manipulate Legree.  Cassy stands up to Legree; she criticizes him with impunity because he is afraid of her. Stowe tells us that he fears her because the “hideous yoke” of slavery had made her liable to fits of raving insanity. It is this element of slave-induced insanity that seems to give Cassy permission to contravene the moral code that Stowe would ordinarily insist upon in a sympathetic character. What this passage also reveals is Cassy’s pride and her cleverness. Cassy sees in Legree’s reaction to the ringlet a superstitious weakness that makes him vulnerable.  She will find a way to exploit that weakness in a way that this passage foreshadows.

Eva’s ringlet is not the only material object that Stowe utilizes to great effect in this passage. Drawing on a species of moral environmentalism, she also sketches Legree’s plantation house, his material environment, as a product of his moral decay. This is a technique that Stowe has perfected in earlier chapters. The novel contains sketches of other emblematic domestic interiors that testify to their owner’s character and habits.  The double-effect diorama of Uncle Tom’s cabin shows first the cabin’s exterior, wreathed in multiflora rose, and then transports the reader to the interior where a piece of carpeting (on which “Aunt Chloe took her stand as being decidedly in the upper walks of life”) and a bed covered with “snowy spread” mark out one corner as a “drawing room,” a mark of refinement that is echoed in the “very brilliant scriptural prints, and a portrait of General Washington, drawn and colored in a manner which would certainly have astonished that hero” that hang over the fireplace. (UTC, I: IV)  A rather humbler bed, a rough bench and a rheumatic table reflect Tom’s simplicity, while the presence of the carpeting signifies his elevated status within the slave community.  The subjects of the prints testify to his Christianity and his patriotism.  The exotic, orientalized architecture of the St. Clare residence in New Orleans evokes the conventions of popular harem tales to convey, despite its fairy-tale beauty, the subtly corrupting atmosphere that truly makes Eva’s purity a “moral miracle.”  Eva’s bed-room at the more casual lake villa is described in elaborate detail as furnished in a style “that had a peculiar keeping with the character of her for whom it was intended.” (UTC, II:XXVI)  This room is sacralized by the “communion” service at which Eva distributes her ringlets to the servants as tokens of remembrance; it is where she will die her spectacularly perfect death.  From the rose-bud border on the floor matting that had been made in Paris to St. Clare’s design to the marble vases perpetually filled with fresh flowers, from the sculptured angel on an alabaster bracket over the head of the bed to the statuette of Jesus receiving little children and two or three  “exquisite paintings of children,” the room expresses Eva’s ethereal nature.

The Birds’ parlor with its cheerful fire, rug and carpet, and shining tea-set identify Mary Bird a domestic woman presiding over a genteel establishment.  The Halliday’s spotless, inviting kitchen, with its homely, old-fashioned rocking chairs, bespeaks Rachel’s serene motherliness.  Miss Ophelia’s New England home, with its “wide, clean rooms, .  . . where everything is once and forever rigidly in place” and even the books “stand side by side in decorous order,” is an exact analogue of the woman whose habits made her “the living impersonation of order, method, and exactness” as a housekeeper and whose “theological tenets were all made up, labelled in most positive and distinct forms.” (UTC ,I:XV)  By stark contrast, Dinah’s kitchen, with its drawer stuffed promiscuously with nutmegs, hair grease, old shoes, and a bloodied damask table cloth, and dirty dishes cluttering the pastry table,  testifies to her status as a “self-taught genius . . . positive, opinionated and erratic, to the last degree” who manages to produce glorious dinner and superb coffee “out of chaos and old night down there in that kitchen.” (UTC, I:XVIII )   (Mrs. Stowe’s own house-keeping was less than systematic; one senses that she relishes Dinah’s victory over Miss Ophelia’s efforts to introduce order.)

Such ideal or at least benign domestic interiors have their awful counterpart on Legree’s plantation.  There the slave quarters are rude shanties, “mere shells, destitute of any species of furniture, except a heap of straw, foul with dirt, spread confusedly over the floor, which was merely the bare ground,” that house not families, but “a pretty smart heap o’ niggers to each on ‘em.”  The plantation house, like the grounds “littered with broken pails, cobs of corn, and other slovenly remains” and weed-choked gardens that surround it, is a site of desolation and decay with boarded-up windows, shattered panes, and crooked shutters.(UTC,II:XXXII)  But it is the sitting room that reveals the utter desecration of domesticity.  Stowe writes in today’s installment that “It had once been hung with a showy and expensive paper, which now hung mouldering, torn and discolored, from the damp walls, The place had that peculiar sickening, unwholesome smell, compounded of mingled damp, dirt and decay. . . . The wall-paper was defaced, in spots, by slops of beer and wine; or garnished with chalk memorandums, and long sums footed up, as if somebody had been practising arithmetic there.” The chaos here is not productive; there are no “clarin’ up times” like Dinah’s. Such a house, harboring a history of unspeakable violence and ocular evidence of present vice, where the remnants of a supplanted gentility moulder and the calculations of the commercial world intrude, is ripe for the ghostly legends that Cassy exploits in her haunting of Legree.

 


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