Chapters 31 and 32: Comment by Susan M. Ryan

In this installment of Stowe’s novel, Tom has arrived at the Legree plantation, dispirited and physically exhausted. It’s the end of a typically long workday, which timing allows Tom to witness the ways in which overwork and abuse have affected Legree’s slaves, the “sullen, scowling, imbruted men and feeble, discouraged women” trudging in from the fields to grind their meager share of corn. As a means of underscoring the slaves’ degradation, Stowe’s narrator emphasizes the plantation’s systematic destruction of domesticity—readers have already learned from the previous week’s offering that Tom is disappointed to find that his new master will not even provide him with the refuge of a neat, quiet little cabin—instead, he’s assigned to a filthy shack, where he’ll sleep on a dirt floor among similarly arranged strangers. Stowe further emphasizes the disintegration of home life in her description of the evening meal—instead of preparing and sharing food as families, Legree’s slaves subsist as competitive, atomized beings, hostile toward one another by habit and necessity. Hardship has isolated them, left them bereft of affiliation. Here Tom’s habitual, constitutional benevolence intrudes: he grinds corn and revives the cooking fire on behalf of two weary women, (re)awakening in them a “womanly kindness” that leads them to make his dinner while he reads aloud from the bible.

Tom’s first night at the Legree plantation sets the stage for spiritual trials to come. He’s already struggling with despair; Stowe describes him as sitting “alone, by the smouldering fire, that flickered up redly in his face,” suggesting that the hellish qualities of the world Legree and slavery have created might engulf even Tom. But this “disconsolate” figure, as Stowe describes him, is not in fact beyond spiritual comfort—that night he dreams of (or is visited by?) Eva, whose “deep eyes” exude “rays of warmth and comfort” that go directly to Tom’s heart. The pattern thus established, of despair and spiritual renewal, will be repeated with increasing intensity across the narrative’s next several installments.

The following chapter, the action of which takes place a few weeks later, introduces the desolate and embittered—but still powerful—figure of Cassy, whom readers have previously encountered only via a glimpse of her “wild” face and her unidentified voice from within Legree’s house. It becomes clear by the end of the installment that Legree is setting a trap for Tom, in which the latter will be forced either to beat another slave or be beaten himself.  But the pseudo-cliffhanger with which the segment ends carries no real suspense. Tom’s Christ-like forbearance and penchant for self-sacrifice are so well established by this point in the narrative that the reader cannot imagine his failing Legree’s diabolical moral test.  Tom’s trajectory, in other words, entails no more uncertainty than do scriptural accounts of Christ’s passion. The point is not what ultimately happens to Tom—that most readers steeped in the New Testament could readily guess—but rather the ways in which his gentle resistance and brutal murder allow Stowe to emphasize the cruelties of slavery and the redemptive power of Christian faith.

The real suspense of the Legree chapters lies instead with Cassy, whose admixture of rage, grace, and despair renders her an intriguing figure not just for readers but for Tom as well. Stowe herself seems to have recognized Cassy’s salience—when her serialized narrative was published in book form, the only change introduced in this segment was that the previously untitled chapter was named after this enigmatic new character. Cassy will relate her personal history to Tom in the next installment, replete with tragic mulatta flourishes and a bracing dose of homicidal rage. But hints of her complex and morally ambiguous history emerge even here: Tom is drawn to her apparently elevated status, her grace, her bearing, while the other field hands resent her and the drivers are clearly afraid of her. It’s difficult to know what to make of this bitter, superior, despairing figure. Clearly she has suffered, but she’s also to some degree complicit with the plantation’s structures of violence and power—“I’ve power enough yet,” she warns one of the drivers, “to have you torn by the dogs, burnt alive, cut to inches. I’ve only to say the word.” And yet she demonstrates a spark of good will, even care-taking, toward others. She repeatedly places cotton she’s picked into Tom’s basket in the hope that she can protect him from the punishment he’s courting by helping a weak, ailing fellow slave. Cassy’s moral sense, Stowe suggests, may be obscured, but it isn’t dead.

Not surprisingly, Cassy’s complexity has garnered a great deal of scholarly interest.  She’s proven integral to many examinations of the tragic mulatta figure, though her inclination toward violence separates her from the trope’s milder, more self-effacing figures. Cassy is vital, too, for thinking through Stowe’s manipulations of genre. As Teresa Goddu and others have shown, Stowe uses Cassy as a means of interlacing the gothic and the sentimental, rendering her central to our understandings of the novel’s tonal mixing and strategic appropriations of various literary modes.[1] But Cassy also embodies the problematics of black female rage; the novel positions her as a force of mayhem, vengeance, criminality, risk—an elegant version of Nat Turner, if you will—even as it positions her as a suffering being in need of redemption.

As occurs with Stowe’s other threatening characters, Cassy’s rage is neutralized before it can morph (once again) into overt violence. (By way of comparison, see Stowe’s 1856 novel Dred, whose title character threatens retributive bloodshed, only to be murdered before he can follow through.) Cassy’s redemption—or taming, depending on one’s point of view—occurs in two phases, each of which is underwritten by her powerful, if dormant maternalism. First, her caretaking impulses toward Emmeline, Legree’s newly purchased victim, impel her toward a brilliantly duplicitous escape rather than murderous retribution. Second, her ultimate, therapeutic absorption into the George/Eliza Harris household establishes her in the novel’s final segments as a benign and loving, if improbably passive figure, given her history. If the first of these plotlines is thrilling, the second seems like a rather bland ending for such a risky character, as she is soothed, pacified, even anesthetized, by her newfound domestic emplotment. This conclusion is troubling on political as well as narrative grounds. As Jeanne Elders Dewaard has argued, “the very concept of domestic serenity that Cassy enjoys at the novel’s conclusion, portrayed as a microcosm of ideal American life, depends on banishing her defiant body to the swamps, outside legal boundaries of personhood.”[2]

But to return to the February 5, 1852 installment: at this point in the narrative, nothing about this outcome seems foreordained. Cassy’s benevolence and her rage erupt in more or less equal proportions, leaving readers with no clear idea which of several paths she will take. We know how Tom will respond to Legree—it’s Cassy’s unpredictability that lends these mid-winter chapters some narrative heat.


[1] Teresa Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), esp. pp. 141-44; see also 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 J. Sundquist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 107–34.

 

[2] Jeanne Elders Dewaard, “’The Shadow of Law’: Sentimental Interiority, Gothic Terror, and the Legal Subject ,” Arizona Quarterly 62.4 (2006): p. 24.

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