Character Analysis Topsy


Topsy shares the honors with Uncle Tom, Little Eva, and Eliza (crossing the ice) as one of the book's headline characters, always pictured on early cover illustrations, pigeon-toed and googly-eyed, with her hair sticking up in a million pigtails, next to blonde and angelic Eva — the archetypal "pickaninny" standing beside the archetypal little white girl. Her line to Ophelia, "S'pect I grow'd" (in answer to the question, "Do you know who made you?") was itself for a long time the basis of a common saying: "[G]rowed like Topsy" became a humorous way of describing how something developed without any particular intention or plan. In the book itself, Topsy is hardly a major character on a par with Tom, George, Legree, or even St. Clare, but neither is she comic relief. Like Chloe, she is a real person whom Stowe sketched expertly in a very few lines, whom we care about because, apparently, Stowe cared about her. Unlike Chloe, Topsy is someone who has been so battered by slavery that she might almost have been called, with some justification, "The Child Who was a Thing."

Topsy enters the book filthy, bruised, and scarred, dressed in a gunny sack, eight or so years old, and saved from a life as a tavern scullion by St. Clare, who sees her as a sort of gentle way of chiding Ophelia; his cousin "loves" slaves in theory but recoils from them in the flesh, and she preaches education for them without consideration of what this might entail. Let us see, St. Clare seems to think, what she will do with this very real child. And Topsy is a very real child, terribly abused but with enough resiliency to be good-natured despite her "depravity" (as Ophelia terms it; she lies, steals, gets out of tasks by throwing the materials for performing them away, leads the other children — except of course for Eva — into creative mischief), and with enough innate intelligence to be a very quick study when she wants to be. She is what our age would call a "survivor" — a little girl who will manage, with any luck at all, to land on her feet at all times.

Topsy is also an example of what happens when human beings are treated as commodities. Her parents were breeding stock, no more or less, and she was raised on a farm like a herd animal, not knowing who her mother was or, probably, that she even had a mother, taught absolutely nothing that she could not learn from her own observation. Her only use (since she is not light-skinned and thus potentially "beautiful" to white men, and since she is not yet old enough to be worth much as breeding stock herself) is as physical labor. The couple from whom St. Clare got her obtained her, no doubt, at a bargain price, and had he not bought her to teach Ophelia a lesson (and, to be fair to St. Clare, to rescue Topsy from being beaten with a stove poker), she would have grown up knowing nothing but what she could find out in their service. Since children are more energetic and stronger than adults, she would probably have been resold at puberty (or traded in for a younger model). By 25 or 30, on a sugar or cotton plantation like Legree's, she would have been used up, broken down and toothless and utterly worthless, and finally (but probably not quickly enough for Topsy) dead. Physical and psychological resiliency is of value in people used as things; brains are not, especially in females who will never be expected to carry on a cultivated conversation or add a column of figures.

The physical abuse Topsy has endured is awful; the mental abuse — an absolute lack of expectation for her development — is worse; and worst of all is the spiritual abuse. Only Eva and Ophelia see Topsy as a child of God, and only Eva (at first) sees her as lovable. Topsy herself knows nothing of love — to her, the word literally describes how she feels about candy, nothing more. She has never been loved, she has never loved, she does not love herself. This is the real crime committed against Topsy, and it is (as Stowe allows Topsy to show) the crime that slavery commits upon humanity — not only slaves but all of those who participate in or support it: the subordination of love to profit. To show an adult who despises herself will, unless she truly is despicable, at best puzzle readers; to show a child who does will arouse the sympathy of all but the most hard-hearted. The guilt that Topsy must have aroused in readers goes far toward explaining why her character was reduced, in white American myth, to a figure of fun.