Chapters 24 & 25: Comment by Hollis Robbins

Chapter 24:

Little Eva is dying and the reader cannot pull herself away.   In the last chapter, Eva’s mother diagnosed Eva as possibly consumptive, but does nothing.  Neither does Eva’s father, Augustine S. Clare, who seems to prefer to ignore the truth.  The scene opens with an image of St. Clare that suggests he is little different from his languid wife, Marie:  lounging on the verandah, “solacing himself with a cigar.”   St. Clare’s preoccupation with putting things in his mouth is also reminiscent of the hapless Shelby in the first chapter, lounging “in easy and even opulent circumstances,” eating oranges and drinking brandy with Haley.    You’ve seen this scene before, Stowe’s description suggests.  When an operation is run by a man such as this, it will all and badly.

Even as we worry about Little Eva’s health, Stowe employs a jocular tone at odd moments, such as the description in the previous chapter of Ophelia as having “rummaged” for a nearby Methodist church service to attend, accompanied by Eva and Tom (as driver).

The scene turns to Topsy, the emblem of mischief, who, though given to Ophelia as a present, seems still to belong to St. Clare, as her “master.”   Topsy captured the imagination of readers immediately.  What kind of creature was she?   The Rev. John Angell James of Birmingham wrote to Stowe in 1853 praising Topsy:  “Another character which has pleased me above most, is that little imp of wickedness and mischief, from which slavery had almost crushed out the remains of humanity. O my dear Madam, I rose in a kind of rapture from the wondrous and felicitous skill of the mind and pen which could make even poor Topsy start up at the touch of the magic wand of love, a new creature in Christ Jesus. What an illustration, thought I, is here, of a passage of Scripture which contain the true philosophy both of humanity and the Gospel – “I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of love.” Never was the motive power of man’s nature more beautifully illustrated. You have taught the world a new lesson, how man is to be reformed and governed, even when sunk by oppression and by crime into this lowest depth of degradation, by the omnipotence of God.”[1]

The rage that Topsy provokes in both Ophelia and Marie (who wants to have Topsy whipped “till she couldn’t stand”) is particularly unconventional in narratives about southern plantation.   Topsy is neither a sexual threat nor a political problem.  She is simply unmanageable.   She is the prototype of Kay Thompson’s Eloise or Beverly Clearly’s Ramona the Pest.[2]  Topsy is incorrigible.  She cannot be contained.    Even Ophelia has whipped her.

What is wrong with her?  “Spects it’s my wicked heart,” says Topsy in one of the more famous phrases in the book.   We see Stowe’s particular brand of pointed subtlety:  what does it matter anyway? “Laws I’s nothing but a nigger, no ways!”  as Topsy concludes.  The reader, like Ophelia, does not quite know whether to categorize poor Topsy as a good character, a sympathetic one, or a caricature.  She is an imp from another planet.

Even poor Eva cannot instill a sense of sobriety in the perfectly self-aware Topsy, though for a moment it seems that though heaven may have a chance at warming her heart.

Chapter 25

Chapter 25 opens with a quote from “Weep Not for Those,”  a poem by the Irish Romantic poet Thomas Moore (1779-1852). The whole of the poem is as follows:

Weep not for those whom the veil of the tomb,

In life’s happy morning, hath hid from our eyes,

Ere sin threw a blight o’er the spirit’s young bloom,

Or earth had profaned what was born for the skies.

Death chilled the fair fountain, ere sorrow had stained it;

‘Twas frozen in all the pure light of its course,

And but sleeps till the sunshine of Heaven has unchained it,

To water that Eden where first was its source.

Weep not for those whom the veil of the tomb,

In life’s happy morning, hath hid from our eyes,

Ere sin threw a blight o’er the spirit’s young bloom,

Or earth had profaned what was born for the skies.

Mourn not for her, the young Bride of the Vale,

Our gayest and loveliest, lost to us now,

Ere life’s early lustre had time to grow pale,

And the garland of Love was yet fresh on her brow.

Oh, then was her moment, dear spirit, for flying

From this gloomy world, while its gloom was unknown–

And the wild hymns she warbled so sweetly, in dying,

Were echoed in Heaven by lips like her own.

Weep not for her–in her springtime she flew

To that land where the wings of the soul are unfurled;

And now, like a star beyond evening’s cold dew,

Looks radiantly down on the tears of this world.

The second verse alludes to a lovely daughter of a British Colonel who died of a fever a few weeks after she was married.   By this point in the book, readers should not be surprised by the depth and meaningfulness of Stowe’s literary allusions.

But modern readers might be surprised at the specificity of St. Clare’s taste in home furnishings:  from the muslins to the Parisian floor coverings he designed himself, to the alabaster brackets above Eva’s bed.  Opulent circumstances indeed!  The excess is alarming.

Stowe compares Topsy’s aesthetic with St. Clare’s.  Topsy’s strange and mystical flower arrangement, “a brilliant and scarlet geranium, and one single white japonica, with its glossy leaves,” is simple, not opulent.  Yet, like St. Clare, she had created it “with an evident eye to the contrast of color, and the arrangement of every leaf had carefully been studied.”   Topsy’s natural aesthetic is the more meaningful to Eva.

Eve, in arguing with her mother about Topsy, suggests that Topsy cannot be held to the same standard of goodness because of her circumstances.   It’s easy, Eva claims, to be good, when “brought up as I’ve been, with so many friends, so many things to make me good and happy—and to be brought up as she’s been all the time till she came here!”   Her remark in this setting evokes Milton’s Areopagitica:  “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”[3]   Eva refuses to be a fugitive to slink out of the race.

The famous hair-cutting scene follows.  It had been foreshadowed, in proto-Chekhovian fashion, with Topsy cutting Ophelia’s bonnet trimming to pieces in the chapter before.[4]  In the nineteenth century, mourners were often given a lock of hair as a memento after their loved one passed.  Eva wants to decide beforehand who gets her hair.

Eva’s deathbed words to those gathered echo Christ’s words to his apostles at the Last Supper: “Little children, yet a little while I am with you” (John, 13:33). Stowe’s allusions ( to kissing the hem of her garment and to doves) emphasize the Christ-like character of Eva.  Tom and Mammy, trained in religion, know that the proper  response is “Amen” not sobs.

Little Eva, beautiful, holy, and doomed, has long been compared to lovely, holy, and doomed Little Nell, in Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop (1841).   Consider the scene from Chapter 53:

The child sat down, in this old, silent place, among the stark figures on the tombs–they made it more quiet there, than elsewhere, to her fancy–and gazing round with a feeling of awe, tempered with a calm delight, felt that now she was happy, and at rest. She took a Bible from the shelf, and read; then, laying it down, thought of the summer days and the bright springtime that would come–of the rays of sun that would fall in aslant, upon the sleeping forms–of the leaves that would flutter at the window, and play in glistening shadows on the pavement–of the songs of birds, and growth of buds and blossoms out of doors–of the sweet air, that would steal in, and gently wave the tattered banners overhead. What if the spot awakened thoughts of death! Die who would, it would still remain the same; these sights and sounds would still go on, as happily as ever. It would be no pain to sleep amidst them…..

Oh! the glory of the sudden burst of light; the freshness of the fields and woods, stretching away on every side, and meeting the bright blue sky; the cattle grazing in the pasturage; the smoke, that, coming from among the trees, seemed to rise upward from the green earth; the children yet at their gambols down below–all, everything, so beautiful and happy! It was like passing from death to life; it was drawing nearer Heaven.

Dickens himself was struck by the likeness, as he wrote to a friend’s wife in 1852:

In the matter of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I partly though not entirely agree with Mr. James.  No doubt a much lower art will serve for the handling of such a subject in fiction, than for a launch on the sea of imagination without such a powerful park; but there are many points in the book very admirably done.  There is a certain St. Clair [sic], a New Orleans gentleman, who seems to be conceived with great power and originality.  If he had not a Grecian outline of face, which I began to be a little tired of in him in earliest infancy, I should think him unexceptionable.  He has a sister too, a maiden lady from New England, in whose person the besetting weakness and prejudices of the Abolitionists themselves, on the subject of the blacks, are set forth in the liveliest and truest colors and with the greatest boldness.  She (I mean Mrs. Stowe) is a leetle unscrupulous in the appropriatin’ way.  I seem to see a writer with whom I am very intimate (and whom nobody can possible admire more than myself) peeping very often through the paper.   Further I descry the ghost of Mary Barton, and the very palpable mirage of a scene in the children of the mist; but in spite of this I consider the book a fine one, with a great and gallant purpose in it and worthy of its reputation.[5]

But for readers of this installment, the dying is yet to come.

[1] Published in Frederick Douglass’s Paper, April 1, 1853.

[2] Kay Thompson.  Eloise.  Illustrated by Hillary Knight.  Simon & Schuster, 1955; Beverly Cleary.  Ramona the Pest. Harper Collins 1968.

[3] Areopagitica: A speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the Parliament of England.  1644.

[4] “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Anton Chekhov in a letter to A.S. Gruzinsky (Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev) November 1, 1889.

[5] Charles Dickens, letter to Mrs. Richard Watson, 22 November 1852, (Graham Story, Kathleen Tillotson, and Nina Burgis, es.  The Letters of Charles Dickens, Clarendon, 1988.  6:807-8)

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents

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