Chapters 38 & 39: Comment by Denise Kohn

In Chapter 38, Stowe returns to the harrowing plot of Tom and Cassy on Legree’s plantation, which she had briefly interrupted in Chapter 37 with the story of George and Eliza’s final passage on the Underground Railroad to Canada. While the freedom of the Harris family provides readers with much-needed catharsis, the juxtaposition of their happiness in Canada to the horror of slavery in Louisiana heightens the nightmarish world of Legree’s plantation. Stowe further underscores the contrast between the fates of George and Tom through the chapter titles. While Chapter 37 is titled “Liberty,” Stowe titles Chapter 38, “Victory,” to suggest that the ultimate freedom is the victory of the Christian afterlife. Stowe employs juxtaposition again in Chapter 39, “Stratagem,” the other chapter in this week’s installment, which details Cassy’s daring plan to run away. While Stowe celebrates Tom’s heroic faith, which allows him to triumph over Legree, she situates his story of Christian suffering within the context of the Harris family’s successful escape and Cassy’s bold wit and cool bravery.

In the title and epigraph to Chapter 38, Stowe references 1 Corinthians 15:56-57: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the largest sense, Tom’s victory, then, is the victory of Christian salvation over death and hell. Tom’s victory, however, is multi-faceted. In Chapter 38, his faith gives him a personal victory over his psychological despair and the physical brutality of slavery on Legree’s plantation.  Deprived of even the most basic food and sleep, Tom no longer has time or strength to read the Bible and begins to wonder if  “God had forgotten him.” Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Stowe shows how slavery affects even the strongest and most devout—for if Tom can lose sight of his faith, how can anyone, especially women like Cassy who have been subjected to years of drunken sexual abuse, be expected to sustain belief?  Yet when Legree tries to tempt Tom with the promise of an easier life and tells him to “hold to me,” in other words to serve and believe in Legree’s power rather than God, Tom bravely refuses.

At this point, Tom’s belief is rewarded through his ecstatic vision of the figure of the bleeding  Christ whose crown of thorns transforms into rays of light. Tom’s vision of the suffering and glory of Christ foreshadows his own martyrdom, but it also reflects Stowe’s theme that the lowly on earth will sit at the throne of God in the afterlife. The image is one of divine justice—a reminder to readers not only of God’s love but also conversely of his retribution—if Jesus beckons Tom to sit next to him on the throne, then his oppressors will surely be damned.  After his vision, Tom transcends all earthly emotional and physical pain, and through his words and deeds he becomes like a minister to the other slaves on the plantation. On a psychological level, Tom’s vision and the power it brings him represents Stowe’s own belief in spiritual visions and the power of images—she said she was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin by her own vision of a dying slave.

Stowe continues to emphasize her themes of liberty and victory as Tom refuses to help Cassy  kill Legree, even though Cassy uses both moral and political logic to argue that Legree’s death would bring freedom to the people of the plantation. For Tom, the means do not justify the ends, and victory is more than liberty. Instead, victory means loving your enemies, Tom explains, an impossible task for mere “flesh and blood” that is nonetheless made possible through faith, at least for Tom. Loving thine enemies, in this context, is depicted not as passive suffering but a spiritual battle to be actively won. Stowe strives to show that Tom’s heroism is that of the New Testament, rather than the Calvinist vengeance of the Old Testament. The themes of victory and freedom are also emphasized in the songs that Tom sings in this chapter, “Amazing Grace” and “When I Can Read My Title Clear,” in which the idea of a “title clear” and safely reaching “home” conflates both spiritual victory and personal liberty for slaves. For Tom, a “title clear” means his salvation, while for George Harris and Cassy, a “title clear” must also mean self-ownership and freedom from slavery on earth.

Stowe has often been criticized for creating Tom as a submissive, passive character, so it is  important to note that after his vision, Tom has earned a new title—rather than being called “Uncle” as a sign of both familiarity and respect, Cassy begins to call him “Father” Tom, a name that emphasizes his ministerial role, especially since Cassy was educated in a convent. Indeed, Tom’s priestly qualities are emphasized through his ecstatic vision and his ascetic devotion to the people of the plantation; he seems to have accepted the fact that he will never be reunited with his own family. Stowe does not want readers to see Tom’s actions as servile passivity; instead, she depicts him as performing the work of a minister, a true man of God. The novel’s theme that the world’s real priests and ministers are the lowly in life—not educated and ordained men—would become a major theme for Stowe throughout her career, especially in The Minister’s Wooing.

So while Tom achieves victory and the ultimate liberty through New Testament love,  Stowe shows that others must find liberty in life in order to achieve victory over death. Cassy has been unable to pray since she lost her children, and a lifetime of enslaved concubinage has destroyed her childhood faith.  Though Tom argues against killing Legree, he encourages Cassy to run away with Emmeline, and Tom’s own faith in miracles gives Cassy the belief in her own daring plan for freedom. Tom exemplifies Stowe’s romantic racialism and her belief that African-Americans naturally embraced faith, but she depicts Tom’s choice of transcendent suffering as an unthinkable solution for women subjected to sexual slavery.

While Tom achieves ascendency over Legree through faith, Cassy achieves it through the power of her agency and intellect. Stowe wants to call attention to gender reversal in her juxtaposition of Tom and Cassy to show that self-sacrifice and action are not inherently gendered qualities. In the story of Cassy, Stowe also plays upon other literary and cultural tropes, and though Cassy is a relatively minor character, she is one of the novel’s most memorable. Her strategy is as daring as it is brilliant: make Legree believe the attic is haunted, and then pretend to run away, return to the attic and hide, and finally escape to freedom.  In her subplot of Cassy and Emmeline, Stowe plays with the popular genre of the gothic romance that told stories of frightened young women trapped in haunted houses by scheming men. In this case, the young Emmeline, who seems incapable of much action herself, is rescued by her co-captive Cassy, rather than a handsome male hero. Cassy also knows how to use popular fiction to influence Legree, whereas in the typical gothic romance, it is the ingenue who is often spurred to believe in the supernatural by sensational stories. Stowe also reverses typical scenes of a young woman who is scared by the gaze of her dark captor; Cassy repeatedly frightens Legree just by looking at him. The  strength of Cassy’s gaze signifies her power and superiority over  Legree—she can hide and watch Legree from above in the safety of the garret. Ironically, she hides in in the place where families store possessions they no longer want, and indeed, Legree means to replace Cassy, who is legally his possession, with Emmeline. But rather than a story of female rivalry, Cassy represents the novel’s theme of maternal strength in her relationship with Emmeline, even though Cassy must more often be severe, not simply tender, to save her.  The ultimate irony, of course, is the reversal in the roles of captor and captive as Legree is trapped psychologically by Cassy’s creative stratagem. Her ability to control Legree through his fear of ghosts also reverses cultural stereotypes of African-Americans as superstitious and whites as spiritual; whereas Tom finds strength in his belief in Christ, Legree is driven further into drunken madness by his belief in ghosts.

Ultimately, Chapters 38 and 39 reflect Stowe’s belief in the power of the spiritual and secular written word to change people’s lives.  Tom is saved through his knowledge of New Testament theology in the Bible, while Cassy is saved through her knowledge of the plot devices of popular fiction.

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