Uncle Tom's Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe Summary and Analysis Chapter 15-16

Summary

The narrative is interrupted for the history first of Augustine St. Clare and then of his cousin Ophelia. At the St. Clare home, St. Clare says Tom is to be the coachman. They are greeted by the household slaves, including the butler, Adolph, and "Mammy," who had been Eva's (and her mother's) nursemaid and is now Marie's personal servant. A few days later, St. Clare tells Marie that his cousin Ophelia is to take over the burden of housekeeping, and Marie begins to complain about how tiresome and troublesome the slaves are. Her complaints reveal that she makes unreasonable demands. Marie continues to instruct Ophelia on the ins and outs of the household, what she perceives to be the deceitful and lazy nature of slaves, and the "strangeness" of Eva, who puts servants on an equal level with herself; she says that St. Clare won't let her send the slaves out to a whipping-house. St. Clare returns and remarks ironically that their slaves' laziness is certainly unforgivable, considering the example that he and Marie set for them.

In the courtyard, Eva plays with Tom, which offends Ophelia. St. Clare points out Ophelia's hypocrisy; she wants to free the slaves, send them to Africa, and let missionaries deal with them because she herself is a racist. Ophelia admits there is some truth in this, and St. Clare tells her that slaves have so little good in their lives that he would be wrong to begrudge them the love and friendship of his little daughter, who is a true democrat.

At dinner on Sunday, Marie tells St. Clare about that day's sermon, on the subject of order and distinctions in society (a justification of slavery) as ordained by God. St. Clare says slavery is for the convenience of slaveholders. If slavery were to become bad for the economy, he says, preachers would preach against it. Eva comes in, saying she has been listening to Tom sing hymns. She reads the Bible to him; he sings hymns to her. St. Clare says he has heard Tom praying for him, and Ophelia remarks that she hopes her cousin will take Tom's prayer to heart.

Analysis

Chapters 15 and 16 slow down the action of the novel for description and background information, including embedded narratives of St. Clare, Ophelia, Marie, and Mammy. Except for St. Clare's story, these are very fragmentary, but all contribute to the novel in various ways. Part of the reason for the slowing of the action in this part of the novel, as critics have noted, was Stowe's unfamiliarity with New Orleans (whose descriptions she got from one of her brothers who lived in that city); at this point, as her main plot moves out of the familiar Ohio Valley, the writer seems to hesitate slightly. But she will pick up speed later.

Mammy's story, like those of other slave characters, illustrates the theme of slavery's effect upon the family, the separation of wife from husband, mother from children. Of course other kinds of loss and separation must have been just as common, and in fact the embedded narratives of "John, aged thirty" and George Harris and his sister Emily deal with men's separation from wife and sister. However, most of these embedded narratives are emotionally affecting from a woman's point of view, especially that of a mother. Perhaps this was inevitable, since Stowe was a woman and a mother who had recently lost a child at the time of writing the book. But this apparent bias may also be due at least in part to the fashionable sentimentalizing of the mother-child relationship common in the mid-nineteenth century and to the fact that many of Stowe's readers were women. Stowe was accustomed (as her narrator's asides to female readers suggest) to working on women's emotional and moral consciousness in her writing; women's political impact could not be direct, but women could make their convictions felt by exerting pressure on their male relatives, as the earlier Senator Bird episode illustrates.

The three adult members of the St. Clare family are interesting in different ways as they function variously in the novel. Cousin Ophelia is a stereotypical New England spinster who serves as a foil to St. Clare in their several long discussions of slavery in a further chapter. St. Clare himself is a conventional Romantic "hero" whose cynical materialism will be in conflict with Tom's spiritualism. And Marie, the spoiled and fast-fading southern belle, exemplifies many of the wrongs of slavery; she is a woman horribly and completely corrupted by the institution.

So far, Ophelia appears only as a stand-in for the reader, allowing the family and situation to be introduced to us as they are introduced to her. Her description and behavior reveal her as very much a conventional type, the small-town New England spinster, brisk and energetic, a sharp-tongued, slightly grim Calvinist. Inasmuch as the type had its basis in fact, Stowe would have been familiar with more than one woman resembling Ophelia, and we feel her presence as a kind of snappy contrast to the languid Louisianans. But although the author seems to approve of Ophelia's energy (even while gently mocking it), she sees the woman's shortcomings as well and allows us to see them, especially as St. Clare points them out to her. As much as any of this novel's characters, Ophelia will develop as her experience broadens.

Ophelia's cousin St. Clare (called both Augustine and Auguste), important as he is in the book, will not really develop as a character: He will change, eventually, but it will be a change forced upon him from the outside and one that the reader will fortunately not be called upon to believe in for very long. At this point, early in his career in the novel, St. Clare appears also as a conventional type, this one a type from literature: the fashionable "Byronic" version of the Romantic hero. He is cynical, careless, handsome, polite, rich, and impeccably dressed. His cynicism lifts only when he interacts with someone he senses is truly good (a rarity), especially an uncorrupted child. He is attractive not least because we feel a dark brooding quality, laced with potential violence, lurking just below the surface. His history makes plain the reasons for all this: His heart has been broken. He has been forced to forsake the woman he truly loved, although (as we will learn in a later chapter) he carries her miniature portrait and a lock of her hair always next to his heart. And while another woman might have healed this wound, he has had the misfortune to marry Marie. This is the difference between, for example, Eliza's George Harris (as a Romantic type) and St. Clare: George is domesticated, softened, and tamed by his love for Eliza and hers for him, whereas there is no one but Eva to soften and tame St. Clare.

St. Clare is able, because of his cynicism and because of the "outsider" status that his Byronic character brings with it, to voice antislavery arguments although he owns slaves. He can discern, and comment upon, the hypocrisy of "colonizationists" like Ophelia and also the hypocrisy of the so-called Christians who defend slavery, and he serves the novel's thematic purposes in both cases. This is a difficult tightrope for a character to walk if he is to maintain anything like integrity; Stowe has solved the problem by making St. Clare constitutionally lazy, ironically distanced from his own situation, and saddled with Marie, who would certainly never stand for her husband's freeing of his slaves.

Marie, the wife with whom St. Clare is unfortunately saddled, is in some ways the most interesting character in the book, certainly the white female character upon whom the white female author spends her most intense (and mostly vitriolic) energy. A modern reader, especially before meeting Marie, may be inclined to sympathize with her at first, upon learning that St. Clare married this beautiful, rich girl in a fit of rebound after (he thought) being jilted by his real love. But Marie is hopelessly corrupt, so much so that she does not have our sympathy for long. An only child, the narrator tells us, Marie was spoiled first by the fondness of her parents, later by the attentions of suitors (for she was, after all, rich, beautiful, and socially desirable), and always by the attendance of slaves who apparently lived only to serve her. Now, bored and unhappy in her marriage, Marie occupies herself by alternately dressing up fashionably and going to bed with "sick headaches." She is sure that she is very unwell. Her husband ignores her; her daughter finds her puzzling, and she spends her life making her slaves miserable.

Marie's primary function in the novel is to exemplify the spoiled, thoughtless slaveowner, the person who without blinking an eye can treat other people like dirt because they are "black" and she is "white." This racial distinction is all but fictional in the case of Marie and some of her light-skinned servants, but it serves to define them for her (in the racial slavery that defines her and her culture) as bad, lazy, stupid, by definition inferior.

Marie also serves in the novel to illustrate the slaveowner whom slavery ruins as surely as it injures any slave. She is an absolute narcissist; having learned from infancy to see her servants as objects, she sees everyone as an object, even her own child. She is really ill, but her illness is of the spirit. She is full of hate, much of it self-hatred; her constant headaches may be seen as punishment she unconsciously inflicts upon herself (for not having achieved the elusive happiness she grew up thinking was her birthright and for her belittlement and cruel treatment of her servants, which she cannot consciously recognize but which she must acknowledge on some level). Her headaches may also be seen as one of the only forms of feeling possible for Marie, who is incapable of real love or even of real grief, as shall be seen.

Above all, Marie's unhappiness seems to be symptomatic of a sort of sadomasochistic relationship that she carries on with several of her hapless servants, especially Mammy (who also suffers from frequent headaches) and Rosa (who is an attractive and relatively carefree young woman). Significantly, these servants are women; Marie might be seen to have projected herself onto them somehow, or perhaps only to recognize, unconsciously, their potential relationship to her not as objects but as human beings. But to sense that possible relationship must be intensely frightening to someone like Marie, and so the actual relationship, as she shapes it, is this: They make her suffer, and she makes them suffer.

Glossary

Huguenot any French Protestant of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

hartshorn ammonium carbonate, used in smelling salts, so called because formerly made from deer antlers.

sick-headache migraine (or any headache that causes nausea).

Sandwich Islands former name for the Hawaiian Islands.

colonizationist one who supported the abolition of slavery with concurrent colonization of Africa by freed American slaves.

arabesque a complex and elaborate decorative design of intertwined lines suggesting flowers, foliage, animals, etc.

distingue (French) having an air of distinction; distinguished.

opera-glass a small binocular telescope.

daguerreotype a photograph made by an early method on a plate of chemically treated metal.

vinaigrette a small, ornamental box or bottle with a perforated lid, for holding aromatic vinegar, smelling salts, etc.

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