Back in New Orleans, Tom has duties formerly assigned to Adolph, who has been stealing too much from St. Clare. Tom worries about the state of St. Clare's soul, specifically about his occasional drinking bouts, and finally speaks to his master about this, obtaining St. Clare's promise to mend his ways.
A woman named Prue, who sells hot bread to the St. Clare kitchen, complains about her hard life. Tom hears Prue's story (she was forced to allow her last child to die) and reports it to Eva, who is deeply affected. A few days later, the kitchen staff learns that Prue has been beaten for drunkenness and has died of her injuries. Ophelia, hearing this, asks St. Clare if there is nothing he can do; he tells her that the law will not intervene in such a case. Ophelia asks him how he can defend such a system, and he answers that he does not defend it. For the first time, Ophelia is able to get her cousin to discuss the subject of slavery seriously.
St. Clare's opinion about slavery can be summed up as follows: I have inherited this wrong and can do nothing to right it. People with power always have and always will make unfair use of those without power, and the system of slavery in the southern United States is only one example, albeit an extreme example, of that truth. My efforts to end the system would do no good. Thus, the best I can do is to behave as humanely as possible within the system, treating the slaves I "possess" as well as possible and not blaming them for the faults that the system imposes upon them.
In Chapter 20, St. Clare brings home a small black girl of eight or nine years, whom he presents to Ophelia. His cousin is none too pleased, but St. Clare says the little girl, called Topsy, was being abused by her owners who were using her as help in their tavern. After Ophelia cleans the child up, she finds that Topsy's back is covered with scars and calluses from beatings. She dresses the child and begins to question her, only to find that Topsy knows absolutely nothing about her own history or anything else. She was raised, she says, by a speculator; the servant Jane explains that children are often taken as infants and raised for the market.
In Chapter 21, the scene shifts back to the Shelby farm in Kentucky. Mrs. Shelby tells her husband that Chloe has heard from Tom, and she asks when he will be able to buy Tom back. Shelby says it is not possible. Chloe, having overheard, tells Mrs. Shelby that she knows of a confectioner in Louisville who would hire her at a good wage, and Mrs. Shelby agrees that Chloe may go.
Two embedded narratives appear in Chapters 18 through 21, one the story of the unnamed, supposedly incorrigible slave freed by St. Clare, whose life was subsequently saved by the man at the cost of his own life. The first embedded narrative is Prue's story, again featuring a mother from whom every child has been taken. One difference in Prue's case is that the woman had one more child, after being sold away from the master who had taken each of her others, but Prue's new mistress required Prue to leave her sick baby, and the child consequently died. This embedded narrative becomes especially effective when we learn of Prue's death, a horrifying death not only because of the physical circumstances but because Prue has told Tom she would rather go to hell than to heaven, if heaven is where white people go. By Tom's (and Stowe's) lights, as we know from the episode of St. Clare's drunkenness, Prue's chances of salvation are bleak; thus on top of everything else slavery did to this poor woman, it has endangered her soul's salvation.
The first three of these chapters, although Ophelia's experiences take center stage, are more concerned with St. Clare's opinions, as Ophelia insists that he reveal them. The friendly but sharp exchanges between the two cousins become a method by which Stowe can voice many of the different arguments concerning slavery that were current when she wrote. St. Clare's argument was a common one, no doubt, not only among intelligent and thoughtful slaveowners, but even among northerners who disapproved of the system. It rests on two premises: first, that there is a difference of degree, not kind, between American racial slavery and the sort of oppression of the powerless that has always taken place everywhere in the world (nineteenth-century England is given as an example); second, that I know, as an individual, that I myself cannot end this oppressive system, so the best (in fact the only) action I can take is to behave decently within the system.
The first of these premises, in fact, may or may not be correct; certainly the oppression of the English working class was horrifying in the 1850s, and certainly other slaveries (even other racial slaveries, some of them "more terrible," statistically speaking, than that practiced in the United States) have existed and perhaps will exist in the future. On the other hand (as George Harris might have pointed out), the slavery practiced in the United States, with its related laws, was perhaps the first to be practiced in a society whose constitution and professed beliefs should absolutely have prohibited it. But even if the first premise were true, its relevance is questionable. From an ethical Christian point of view (which was Stowe's point of view), wrong is wrong even if everybody does it. And St. Clare's second premise, of course, is defeated by the same ethical imperative: Right is right, and even if you know you cannot accomplish it, you must try.
St. Clare's voicing of this flawed argument signals a deepening of his character, of the relationship between him and his slaves (especially Tom), and of the tension that will lead to the book's climax. Tom, apart from his singing hymns to Eva, trying to comfort Prue, and communicating with his family in Kentucky, appears hardly at all in these chapters, and yet his first specific action reported in Chapter 18 is a significant one: After helping Adolph to carry St. Clare into the house one night, Tom speaks to his master about the endangerment St. Clare causes to his soul with such behavior. St. Clare, as we are given to understand, could hardly care less about his soul, and although he might be thought to feel some shame at being falling-down drunk in front of his daughter, the child is fortunately in bed by the time he arrives in this condition, which is apparently not an infrequent occurrence. But he is touched by Tom's concern, promises to reform, and keeps his promise. This development strengthens what we already know of Tom's and St. Clare's characters: Tom, a courageous Christian, is able, humbly but at a real risk to his life, to try to do good for someone who holds absolute power over him. St. Clare is not merely indulgent of his slaves out of laziness tinged with guilt but actually does respect them as human beings, respecting Tom even when he does not share Tom's beliefs.
The incident also has a significance that we might call mythic and that signals a growth in power for Tom that is ironic but also more than ironic. In St. Clare's basically secular culture and time (and to some extent still in our own), many men traditionally delegate matters of morality and religion to their wives (which, in fact, reveals how little importance they actually attach to such matters, despite what they may say or even think they believe). But by delegating moral authority to women, Western (especially "Christian") secular culture has shaped itself in some interesting ways. There has long been a tendency, for example, for people to regard such Christian strengths as Tom exhibits as somehow unmanly, as weaknesses in fact, causing nominal Christians either to reject religion entirely or to ignore the main teachings of its holy book, the New Testament. At the same time, those who practice those teachings (or who act in accordance with other spiritual or mystical beliefs that honor passivity, non-retribution, and non-violence) are able to and often do exercise a powerful influence that may be misunderstood but cannot be denied by the majority culture. This is the sort of power that Tom is beginning to exercise over St. Clare, a power that would, under other circumstances, have been exercised (with less effect) by the women in his life, except that his mother (who once did exercise that power) is dead, his wife has no interest in doing so, and his daughter is still too young. This power, now wielded by Tom, will at last save St. Clare but will not do so in time to save (in the worldly sense) Tom himself.
Another facet of one of the book's important themes, the effects of slavery upon family and morality, is illustrated again in Chapter 20 within one of the major plot lines, in the introduction of a new character, young Topsy. As a character, Topsy's basic function in the novel seems to be much the same as her function in the St. Clare household: to force Ophelia's growth from a kind of sounding board for her cousin's cynicism (and an audience for Marie's meanness) into a conflicted and then, finally, a stronger person — in terms of the novel, a stronger character. St. Clare has noted Ophelia's self-contradictory position on slavery: her disapproval of the system, her concern for the education of slaves, especially for their moral education, but also her aversion to his slaves as people.
Ophelia believes that these Africans and African Americans are children of God, and that they are her brothers and sisters in Christ as well, or so she is eager to make them. But she does not want to touch them, and St. Clare has noted her aversion. She shudders when Eva kisses Mammy or climbs onto Tom's knee, and it seems that Ophelia's aversion may be related to skin color, for Tom is dark-skinned. It is a particularly insidious form of racism, one that seems to have little to do with a belief in the inferiority of members of another race, but rather with a physical fear of what is different. Significantly, it seems most often to affect people who have lived entirely apart from members of another race. This is probably to some degree a sexual fear, and it may be significant that Ophelia is an unmarried woman, in middle age, raised in a physically strict home. If this is truly what Ophelia finds troubling, it is a bias not unique to her, or unfortunately to her time. It is, however, a bias that St. Clare does not share.
St. Clare brings Topsy home partly in order to tease his cousin and partly to see what Ophelia will do with the child, who incorporates both facets of Ophelia's self-contradiction: Topsy is absolutely ignorant, and she is very dark-skinned. (Of course, to use a child as a kind of human guinea pig in this fashion might have been seen as unnecessarily cruel even in the 1850s, but Stowe has made it clear that Ophelia is a kind woman, that St. Clare is well aware of her kindness, and that in buying Topsy St. Clare saved her from owners who abused her both physically and mentally.) So Topsy's effect upon Ophelia, although it is not an immediate effect, is eventually to force the middle-aged spinster to confront her own racism.
For the time being, however, Topsy illustrates with horrifying psychological accuracy one of the problems that America's racial slavery created. She is a child who was taken from her own parents in infancy, raised on what amounted to a child-farm, nursed and cared for minimally by other slaves who had so many children to nurse and care for that they had neither the time nor the inclination to teach the children anything. Traditionally, Topsy has been considered a sort of comic character, saying she wasn't born but "just growed"; in fact, Stowe's portrait of the child is tragic. Topsy knows nothing about how old she is or how long she has been with her most recent owners. Topsy is anything but stupid, but her ignorance is abysmal, and both St. Clare and the chambermaid Jane assure Ophelia that there are lots of others just like her, living life as best they can from day to day, waiting for death or for the millennial day, expected or longed for by others, but which they themselves are not even prepared to comprehend, when they will no longer be slaves. But Topsy does know one thing: She is a "nigger," and she has been told this often enough to realize what it means in her society. And she has one set of skills: She is an accomplished thief, a liar, a "wicked" girl who is rather proud of her own wickedness, for it is the only thing at which she has ever been able to excel.
At this point in her life, Topsy is not a sinner; even Ophelia discerns that the child doesn't know she shouldn't lie and steal, doesn't even realize what "wickedness" really is (and therefore isn't really very good at it). But she stands, at eight or nine years old, on the brink of real self-consciousness, and at this point there is nothing to make her choose good over evil. Ophelia, who believes (as almost everyone did in her time) in a judicious use of physical punishment in child-rearing, thinks that perhaps she will have to whip the child; St. Clare remarks that, as Topsy is used to being beaten with a stove-poker, such whippings as Ophelia is prepared to deal out will probably not get Topsy's attention.
This section of the book ends with the receipt of Tom's letter in Kentucky, where Shelby shows his true colors at last, telling his wife irritably that he doesn't know when (or, he implies, if) he can afford to buy Tom back according to his promise. Again, Mrs. Shelby wants to help, but does not extend herself too far to do so. One suspects that modern readers will judge Mrs. Shelby more harshly than Stowe's original audience probably did. Most nineteenth-century Americans, even those who firmly believed that the treatment of human beings as property was a moral outrage, found nothing amiss in the statement that a wife "belonged" to her husband — as of course she still did, in a legal sense, not being able as a married woman to own property or make binding contracts. Still, Mrs. Shelby is here contrasted with Chloe, who plans to work for four dollars a week until she can raise the thousand dollars or so it will take to buy her husband back from St. Clare. (Of course, she will not be buying his freedom, for the wages she makes will legally belong, as she herself does, to Shelby.)
Joseph in Egypt the biblical Joseph (Genesis 37–50), sold as a slave into Egypt, became Pharaoh's trusted servant.
"cost and come to" i.e., outgo and income; budgeting.
meum tuum (Latin) mine and yours; Adolph is said to be confusing what property is his and what is St. Clare's.
"it biteth like a serpent . . . ." Proverbs 23:31, 32: "Look not thou upon the wine when it is red, when it giveth his colour in the cup, when it moveth itself aright. At the last it biteth like a serpent, and stingeth like an adder."
Magna Charta or Magna Carta; literally great charter, which King John of England was forced to grant, guaranteeing certain civil and political liberties to his barons, in 1215; here "Magna Charta times" means medieval days, days of lords and serfs.
Muses in Greek mythology, the goddesses that sponsored the arts and artists; "domestic Muses" would be the (humorously imagined) goddesses who oversee household arts like cooking.
vertu or virtu; artistic objects, such as curios, antiques, etc.
"Sisyphus or the Danaides" Greek mythological figures; Sisyphus is doomed in Hades to roll a heavy stone uphill, only to have it always roll down again; the Danaides are condemned in Hades to draw water forever with a sieve. These allusions are to anyone who must do an endless, pointless task.
the Fates in Greek and Roman mythology, the three goddesses who control human destiny and life.
"Stay me with flagons . . . ." The Song of Solomon, 2: 5: "Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of [with] love."
"When, in the course of human events, . . . " the opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence; St. Clare is parodying this document.
Solomon biblical king of Israel: he was noted for his wisdom.
non sequitur (Latin) a conclusion or inference which does not follow from the premises from which it is drawn; a remark that has no bearing on what has just been said.
dies irae (Latin) day of wrath; Judgment Day, or, by extension, any solemn day of reckoning.