Uncle Tom's Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe Summary and Analysis Chapters 33-36

Summary

Tom soon becomes familiar with what is expected of him on Legree's plantation. He is quiet, diligent, and — despite his disgust with what he sees — trusting in God and hopeful of somehow escaping this life. Legree hates him, for he recognizes Tom's moral superiority and sees that he cannot be manipulated. So Legree determines to break Tom's spirit.

One morning a strange woman appears in the field, working alongside Tom. The others jeer at her for having to work, saying they hope to see her flogged, but she works easily and efficiently. That same day, Lucy is obviously ill and in need of help, so Tom puts some of the cotton from his sack into hers. Sambo, overseeing them, kicks and abuses Lucy, and as soon as he turns away, Tom gives her all of his cotton. She protests, saying he'll be punished for this, and he replies that he is more able to stand that than she is. The strange woman, hearing this, gives Tom some of the cotton from her sack but tells him that he doesn't know the place; in a month, he will not be so kind.

That evening, Sambo tells Legree that Tom is helping Lucy and will cause trouble with the others. Legree tells his overseers that they will have to break Tom in. On the pretext that Lucy's cotton basket is underweight, Legree orders Tom to flog her; Tom refuses. Legree loses his temper and asks if Tom does not belong to him, body and soul. To this, Tom replies that Legree has bought his body but could never own his soul and says that Legree can't harm him. Legree gives Tom to Sambo and Quimbo to be punished.

In Chapter 34, Tom, injured and bleeding, lies alone in the gin-house, trying to pray. The strange woman from the field, Cassy, gives him water and dresses his wounds. She tells him he has been brave but that he must now give up; there is no God, she says, or if there is, He is set against them. The other slaves, she says, are not worth his suffering; they would turn against him in a minute. Tom says he has lost everything else, and he refuses to lose his soul. She tells Tom he will be tortured to death if he does not give up his resistance to Legree, and he replies that he will be dead then and beyond hurting. Then Cassy, thinking of Emmeline, tells Tom her own story.

In Chapter 35, Legree sits in his cluttered house, drinking punch and regretting having let Sambo talk him into punishing Tom, who now is unfit to work. Cassy hears him and sneers at him; she reminds him that he fears her, and with reason. The narrator tells us that Cassy has a sexual hold over Legree, but that he also fears her because he suspects she is insane, which in his superstitious mind amounts to possession. Cassy has taken Emmeline's side against him and has worked in the field for a day to prove to him that she doesn't fear his threat to send her there. Legree admits that he was foolish to have Tom whipped so severely but says he is determined to break Tom's spirit. Just then Sambo comes in with something he has found while flogging Tom; he says this is a charm Tom wears against feeling pain. Actually, it is the silver dollar given Tom by young George Shelby, together with the lock of Eva's hair. The lock of hair curls around Legree's finger and he screams in fear, throwing the thing into the fire. At this point Cassy goes out to tend Tom — the action of the previous chapter.

The narrator explains what has troubled Legree. It seems that he was well brought up in New England, by a kind, Christian mother, but he turned against her and went to sea, leading a life of depravity. His mother continued to pray for him, but when he next saw her he cursed her, choosing his sinful life once and for all. Soon he received a letter telling him of his mother's death and containing a lock of her hair. He was horrified, burning the hair and living in dread of his mother's ghost. Now, not knowing whose hair Tom had kept, he feared it as his mother's hair. His house begins to frighten him, and he tries to rouse Emmeline. She will not answer, however, and he is afraid to go upstairs after her. He starts up, but hears Emmeline singing about the Last Judgment; in fear and horror, he goes back downstairs. At last he calls in Sambo and Quimbo, and the three get drunk together; Cassy, returning, looks in at them and wonders if it would be sinful to kill Legree. She then goes upstairs to call upon Emmeline.

In Chapter 36, Emmeline is sitting up, frightened of the noise of the drunken men downstairs. She asks Cassy if they couldn't escape, but Cassy tells her this has been tried; even if one could survive in the swamps that surround the plantation, the dogs would find her. She implies that Legree has had would-be escapees burned at the stake. She tells Emmeline that the best thing for her would be to drink Legree's brandy, which would make it easier for her to give in to him — something she apparently has not yet done. (How Emmeline has managed to avoid Legree's advances so far is not explained, but one might infer that he wants to force her willing compliance, rather than simply rape her; also, it is implied that he is afraid of Cassy in this regard, as well as in other matters.)

In the morning, Legree wakes from a night of horrible dreams. Cassy comes into the room and tells him he had better leave Tom alone. She says she's done what she could for Tom; Legree paid $1,200 for him, she reminds him, and he ought to be more careful of his property. Legree sees the wisdom of this but says Tom will have to beg his forgiveness. Legree goes to see Tom, kicks him, and orders him to get on his knees and beg pardon. Tom refuses, saying he will do whatever work Legree orders but will not do what he knows to be wrong, though he be killed for refusing. Legree flies into a rage and knocks Tom down with his fist, but Cassy comes up behind him, and he remembers his fears of the previous night. Saying that he will break Tom eventually, Legree leaves. Cassy tells Tom that, now he has won Legree's ill will, the man will dog him until he has bled him dry.

Analysis

An early critic of the novel, Martin Delany (writing in 1853), suggested that a really heroic slave protagonist, unlike Tom, would have killed his master rather than have allowed him to accomplish his evil domination. This complaint is a traditional one against Tom and against the book itself; the phrase "Uncle Tom" has become a term of contempt, defined in Webster's New World College Dictionary as "a black whose behavior toward whites is regarded as fawning or servile."

Of course, had the fictional circumstances been slightly different — had George Harris been sold south, eventually to wind up on Legree's plantation — we know from George's response to his previous servitude and to Tom Loker's pursuit that he might have behaved in a way more acceptable to such critics as Delany; in fact, George's refusal to accept slavery and its laws is a response which Harriet Beecher Stowe imagined, approved, and rewarded (as shall be seen). But her central hero, Tom, is possessed of a strength that Stowe regarded as being of a higher order than George's strength: the strength of a true Christian (whereas George, originally unable to accept Christianity, originally in fact doubting the existence or at least the goodness of God, must be led by Eliza's faith and the help of the Quaker Simeon Halliday to believe at last in God's presence and eventual justice). Tom, while agreeing with his wife that forgiveness of one's persecutors is not natural, argued that God's grace enables one to overcome nature; this is exactly what Tom is able to do.

The theme of Christian passivity is not an easy one to accept, especially not in fiction, perhaps, when one would prefer to see a protagonist prevail physically against such a horrid antagonist as Simon Legree. But if the underlying conflict of the book is the battle of goodness against evil — specifically the evil of slavery, which functions by objectifying human beings, turning them into things — then goodness, personified in Tom himself, must prevail by refusing this objectification. This is what Tom does when he refuses to allow Legree to corrupt him, saying he absolutely will not do what he knows to be wrong. Those who say that Tom ought to have killed Legree argue a situational ethic (murder is generally wrong, but in this situation it would be right, since this person is likely to do serious wrongs in the future). In fact, that is what Cassy considers doing at the end of Chapter 35. But although to have Tom kill Legree (or to have Cassy kill him and save Tom the trouble) might have been a satisfying solution in some readers' minds, it misses the point. Tom cannot prevail over Legree by killing him but only by refusing to be used by him as an implement of Legree's evil. If Legree is able to make Tom do anything that Tom knows is wrong — even the murder of Legree himself — then evil, not good (objectification, not love, in this book's terms), has prevailed.

Nor is Tom's refusal the act of an "Uncle Tom" as the dictionary defines the term — a black sycophant to whites, a servile flatterer, a collaborator. Early in the novel, when Chloe urges Tom to run away (after learning that Shelby has sold him to Haley), Tom's refusal is based on the knowledge that, unless he satisfies Shelby's bargain, the entire estate — including its slaves, his wife and children among them — must be sold. Again, on Legree's plantation, Tom willingly accepts punishment rather than inflict punishment on another slave, Lucy. He refuses to be servile, a collaborator against his fellows — a role that Legree's two overseers have been forced and coerced into playing.

One of the most interesting characters in the book, appearing in this late section, is the woman Cassy, Legree's unwilling mistress, whose strength is related to her femininity in a more traditional sense. Cassy's sexual power over Legree is reinforced by his superstitious fear of her — a combination that seems also to have its effect upon the overseer Sambo and perhaps upon the other slaves in the field, who seem to resent this strangely beautiful woman but keep their distance from her. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in a critical work entitled The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), argue that Cassy turns a conventional Gothic female character (personified by "Bertha Mason" in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre) on its head. Certainly Cassy combines the sexual strength and vulnerability, along with the hint of dangerous madness, that defines many a Gothic heroine, and we shall see how she uses all of this to her advantage.

In the meantime, Cassy's story — one of the most developed of the book's embedded narratives, narrated by Cassy herself — interrupts the scene of Tom's suffering with another tale of suffering. Cassy's career of sexual slavery began, ironically, with a relationship that the young teenager believed was a marriage; she was sold by her "husband" to pay off gambling debts, incurred — again ironically — as a result of influence by a "friend" whose aim was to secure Cassy for himself. Cassy has already committed murder once; a justified homicide, she believes, for she killed her young infant to save it from a fate similar to that of her two other children, Henri (whom she saw for the last time as he was being beaten in a whipping establishment) and Elise, whom she believes was sold into sexual slavery. Cassy has attempted another murder, of the man who betrayed her "husband" and sold her children, and she is now considering the murder of Simon Legree. Perhaps Legree knows of her history of killing and knows that this act is said to become easier with practice. At any rate, he may be in control of whatever else happens on his plantation, but he is, to a certain extent, under Cassy's control.

But only to a certain extent — for Cassy knows Legree, knows how evil he is, and knows what he is capable of. Josephine Donovan ("Uncle Tom's Cabin": Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love, 1991) argues that Legree represents the worst of the book's materialists, a personification of the profit motive taken to its extreme. Indeed, this is an accurate reading of Legree as a character; but, unlike Haley, whom Shelby described for his wife as someone who would sell his own old mother without blinking, Legree knows exactly what his devotion to profit means, has chosen it freely (in rejecting his mother and her prayers), and is in love with it to the ruin of himself and everyone over whom he has power. One passage from the New Testament that Stowe does not have her characters or narrator quote, but that she must have been aware of as it applies to Legree, is I Timothy, 6:10: "For the love of money is the root of all evils . . . ." Legree's love of profit, which may have begun in him as innocently as it began in any of this book's characters (for example Shelby, whose unlucky investments in the market forced his sale of Tom and little Harry), has progressed into an insatiable hunger. Cassy characterizes him correctly, at the end of Chapter 36, as that direst of Gothic monsters, a vampire.

Glossary

camphire i.e., camphor, a chemical compound with a strong characteristic odor; as spirits of camphor, often used as a stimulant.

"Servants, obey your masters" Ephesians 6: 5: "Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ . . . ."; (see also Titus 2: 9: "Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect . . . ."); these passages were frequently cited as New Testament authority for slavery.

gin-house an outbuilding sheltering the cotton gin, a machine for separating cotton fibers from the seeds.

pallaise a pallet, or thin mattress.

convent i.e., convent school; a boarding school for girls run by Catholic nuns.

punch a mixture of alcoholic spirits with water or fruit juice and sugar, often heated.

inly i.e., inwardly, within one's mind or spirit.

necromancy black magic; sorcery.

"I am the root and offspring of David, and the bright and morning star" Revelation 22:16: "'I Jesus have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright morning star.'"

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