Summary and Analysis
Two years have passed; Tom has learned from the Bible to be content with what he has, and he has become closer to Eva. While the family and servants are at the St. Clare summer house on Lake Pontchartrain, Eva tells Tom she will die soon, and he realizes she is growing pale and thin. Ophelia, too, has noticed Eva's illness, but St. Clare refuses to see or admit it. Marie, however, is oblivious to her daughter's condition.
St. Clare's brother, with his 12-year-old son Henrique, visits at the summer house. Eva and Henrique are going riding. Henrique beats his young groom (another 12-year-old, a slave named Dodo) with his riding whip for a minor offense. Eva calls her cousin wicked and cruel, which surprises him: He has a quick temper, and beating is what one does to slaves. Watching this exchange between their children, St. Clare and his brother get into a discussion about slavery. When the children return, St. Clare is alarmed to see that Eva is feverish and short of breath. Eva tries to make Henrique promise to love Dodo and be kind to him, and, although Henrique finds the idea of loving a slave a strange one, he says he will try to do so for Eva's sake.
Eva now becomes so unwell that her father is forced to call in a doctor. Eva's symptoms abate after a couple of weeks, but although St. Clare takes this for a hopeful sign, the doctor, Ophelia, and Eva herself know that she is dying. Eva tells Tom that she wishes she could give her life for all slaves. She tells her father that she wishes he would free his slaves, for, if anything should happen to him, they would be in bad hands. She makes St. Clare promise that he will free Tom as soon as she dies, and she tries to make him promise to free all his slaves and work for abolition. At last, St. Clare seems to believe that Eva is truly dying.
On a following Sunday, Ophelia finds Topsy cutting up Ophelia's things for doll clothes. She says she doesn't know how to make the child behave; Marie suggests sending her out to be whipped. Topsy admits to St. Clare that she guesses she was just born bad, and Ophelia says she gives up. Eva draws Topsy aside and finds that Topsy has never loved anyone, has never been loved. Eva tells Topsy that she loves her, and so does Jesus. St. Clare, watching the children, tells Ophelia she will never get anywhere with Topsy until she can touch her, and Ophelia admits she wishes she were more like Eva, who is Christ-like.
Eva's illness, a gradual decline, has had its onset at some point during the two-year period between Chapters 21 and 22, and now the stage is set for the sequence of events that will move Tom closer to the climax and denouement of his story. Eva's illness, however, is only a signal that a change is coming, for her family and for Tom. Her illness can hardly be said to precipitate the events that come later, but merely to precede them (for, as we shall see, the actual cause-and-effect sequence of events that takes Tom away from New Orleans is something upon which Eva herself could have had no effect). Thus the first function of Eva's illness and slow decline, in terms of the novel's fictional integrity, is to reveal Eva's character, which in a very basic way is unlike that of any of the other three children portrayed in these chapters.
One would probably have to have lived during the nineteenth or perhaps the early twentieth century, in the United States at least, in order to understand the nature of popular response to the illness and death of a child. This subject was widely used in all kinds of literature, from popular songs to children's stories, its pathos exploited for all the tears it could draw forth. The popularity of verse, songs, drama, and fiction based on this subject, at a time when infant and child mortality was still so high that most families lost at least one child to disease or accident, may seem to us almost perverse. In one sense, this popularity was part of a widespread and rather creepy nineteenth-century sentimentalizing of death, something that has been explained in various ways.
In another sense, however, as Stowe's biographer Joan D. Hedrick explains (citing earlier writers, including Nina Baym), the phenomenon was partly in response to a decrease in infant mortality: Middle-class parents had begun to invest more emotion in their young children when there began to be a greater likelihood that they would survive infancy. Children began to be regarded as valuable in a new way as children and as individuals, rather than just as potential adults or even as workers whose efforts would help to support the family. In this new outlook, the child who died (or the child who was sickly and regarded as unlikely to live) became a "special child" (in Baym's and Hedrick's phrase): He or she was seen as a gift sent from God, perhaps a messenger, not meant to live long but intended to have a specific impact on the lives of others. Such a belief, as Hedrick and Baym point out, must have been of great comfort to bereaved parents, and it is this kind of child whose death is celebrated in popular literature.
This "special child" is portrayed in Uncle Tom's Cabin as Eva (Evangeline, an angel or heavenly "messenger"). Eva's illness and eventual death do not cause her effect upon others, for Eva inspires love in everyone around her (except perhaps for her mother, whose narcissism is so complete that she is unable to love anyone else) even before she falls ill. Her mortal illness is simply a signal of her specialness, inevitably following other signals such as her sometimes un-childlike seriousness and her deep unhappiness at the unhappiness of others. We are supposed to recognize that, as Tom will tell Mammy, the Lord has marked Eva as His own.
Moreover, as a "special child" in the context of popular sentiment, Eva is also special in the specific context of this novel. She is "The Little Evangelist" whose work in this world is to spread the message of love (the message of the New Testament, the message of Christ) in regard to slavery, which both generally and particularly is a sin against love. Eva has told Tom that she wishes she could give her life for slaves, whose own lives are made so unhappy by their condition. In the sense that her life has a special purpose, she is indeed giving it for that purpose, as Tom will give his. Inasmuch as Eva is a symbolic figure in the book, she serves as a figure for love and sacrifice. She is a Christ-figure (as John the Baptist in the New Testament foreshadows Jesus), for Eva's giving of herself precedes and signals Tom's giving of himself.
In these four chapters, too, Eva is one of four very different child characters whose interrelationship is thematically significant. The two girls, Eva and Topsy, are (as dramatists and illustrators have always seen) almost emblematic of an ironic difference between southern children of slavery, a difference that is presented less dramatically (and perhaps more realistically) in the opposition of the two young boys, Dodo and Henrique. The opposition represented by Eva and Topsy is strikingly obvious. Here are two young, pre-adolescent girls, living in the same household. One, Eva, is the only child of the head of the household, pampered and spoiled, given the best education money can afford (we assume; this is never shown), loved lavishly by everyone around her. Eva is indeed a member of one of the first generations of children so singled out for affection and attention, a new kind of child for whom the odds of living past infancy are greater than ever before. The other little girl, Topsy, is nothing that Eva is, has nothing that she has. She does not remember her parents, does not even realize that she had parents. Far from being an only child, she was bred and raised among a herd of children like a farm animal. Instead of being pampered, she was beaten; instead of being taught, she was put to work. She has never been loved. The cause of this almost polar distance between the two girls is slavery; the emblem of the distance is their skin color. Little wonder, then, that "Topsy and Eva" became nearly a standard motif in white American myth, Eva pale and delicate with fine, golden hair (transformed from "honey brown" as Eva's hair is described in the novel), Topsy sturdy and black as coal. Little wonder that the mythical Topsy became a happy, comic child.
The opposition presented by the characters of Topsy and Eva was real, common, and accepted by the proponents of slavery. An earlier generation, for whom their own children were little more than potential inheritors of their parents' wealth, charged with carrying on the family name (or, among middle and lower economic classes, potential supporters of their aged parents), might understandably have regarded the children of slaves, who were after all merely objects, simply as smaller objects. But how, Stowe seems to ask, can people who love and honor their own children show such dishonor, such failure of love, to these others? The question thus presented by Topsy and Eva is central to this book. One result of the situation illustrated by these two girls is Topsy's moral ignorance, her possible choosing of evil over good (as old Prue chose rather to go to hell than literally to serve in heaven). Another possible result is illustrated by Marie: the child who sees herself thus unreasonably favored may, reasonably enough, conclude that she is of supreme worth.
Unfortunately, Stowe could not show this danger to Eva realistically; rather than let this beloved child run the very real risk of growing up like her mother, the writer allowed her little heroine to be touched by God as a special child whose specialness was shown in her love for the injured and oppressed. Worse, Stowe could not even show Topsy as she was likely to have been, had this been a realistic portrait; for sad and ignorant as Topsy is, she is endowed with a spark of energy and resistance that must have been very rare among such. Nor is Topsy incorrigible; a word of love from saintly Eva is all it takes to change Topsy's direction.
More realistic is the same opposition as it is portrayed in the two boys Henrique and Dodo. Both handsome, intelligent, bright children, one is beginning to learn that he may safely use the other as an outlet for his frustrations and treat him, on a personal, physical level, worse than he would be allowed to treat a dog or a horse. The other is beginning to learn that his own feelings, his individuality, the potential that he is aware of within himself, are worth nothing at all in the world he is destined to inhabit.
"The grass withereth — the flower fadeth" Isaiah 40: 6–8: "A voice says, 'Cry!' / And I said, 'What shall I cry?' / All flesh is grass, / and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. / The grass withers, the flower fades, / when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; / surely the people is grass. / The grass withers, the flower fades; / but the word of our God will stand for ever."
literary cabinet i.e., a bookcase, and, by extension, its contents; Tom's "only literary cabinet" is his Bible.
"one who had 'learned in whatsoever state . . . .'" Philippians 4: 11: "I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content."
"that soft, insidious disease" i.e., tuberculosis.
spirituelle (French: spirituel) showing a refined nature.
canaille (French) the mob, rabble; a term of contempt for the common people.
St. Domingo the present-day island of Hispaniola; a slave rebellion there resulted in the formation of the country of Haiti.
sans culottes (French: literally, "without breeches") revolutionaries; a term of contempt applied by French aristocrats to the poorly equipped members of the French Revolutionary army, who substituted pantaloons for knee-breeches.