Summary and Analysis
In Chapter 37, the scene changes to a farmhouse in the Midwest, where the slave-catcher Tom Loker is being cared for by an elderly Quaker woman. Although sullen and bad-tempered, he knows that, if it weren't for the kindness of the fugitives, he would still be lying in the road, and so he reveals that George and Eliza and the others are being watched for in Sandusky (Ohio) and that Eliza should disguise herself. In accordance with Loker's advice, the fugitive party splits up, Eliza dresses like a man, and they dress Harry up like a little girl. In this way, they are able to safely make their crossing into Canada and freedom.
Chapter 38 returns to Legree's plantation, where Tom has gone back to work in the fields long before his wounds are healed. As day after grueling day passes, he becomes more and more discouraged. Tom feels his faith sorely tested, and although he prays, he has begun to feel that prayer is of no help. This is Tom's lowest moment, as he feels his faith slipping away from him. Suddenly, though, he is granted a vision of Christ, and his faith is restored.
One night, Cassy comes to Tom and says she has drugged Legree's brandy and asks him to kill Legree with an axe; she would do it herself, she says, but she feels she hasn't the strength. Tom refuses and tells her she must not kill Legree, for to do so would be to sell her soul to evil. Instead, he encourages her to take Emmeline and run away.
In Chapter 39, we learn that Cassy has been storing provisions as well as clothes for Emmeline and herself in the garret of Legree's house, which is reputedly haunted by the ghost of a slave woman who had died there after being locked up by Legree. Cassy has also arranged some things in the garret to make odd noises when the wind comes through openings. Legree, who is very superstitious, becomes more and more uneasy about the garret, and Cassy continues to encourage this. When Cassy and Emmeline finally make their escape into the swamp, pursued by Legree and others, the two circle back to the house and hide in the garret. There they plan to stay until Legree has exhausted the search for them in the surrounding country.
Legree's hunt, naturally, is unsuccessful and, believing that Tom knows where the women went, sends Quimbo to drag Tom to him. Tom, although he knows that he is facing death, refuses to tell what he knows about the escape. At Legree's command, Sambo and Quimbo beat Tom until he is nearly dead. Weakly, he says that he forgives Legree; then he faints. After Legree leaves, the two overseers are finally sorry for what they have done. When Tom regains consciousness, he tells them weakly that he forgives them, too, and they both break down and weep.
Chapter 41 sees the arrival of young George Shelby at Legree's estate. He has arrived to buy Tom back, but he has come too late: Tom is dying. George begs Tom to live, but Tom says the Lord is taking him home — and Heaven is better than Kentucky — and he makes George promise not to tell Chloe how he has died. Then, secure in the love of Christ, Tom dies.
For a long time, after the early popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin (both with ordinary readers and with critics) had passed and the book was out of critical fashion, its structure was said to be either haphazard or nonexistent. Because Stowe had, in a sense, composed as she went along, with the original publication in serial form, it was thought that she had given little thought to its formal structure. More recently, critics have recognized several elements of the book's structure. For example, its geographical movements, from the Shelby farm in Kentucky northward and southward, are seen to be thematically important; and its interruptions of one of the major plots with one or more chapters following the other plot are seen to follow a pattern (which one writer, Elaine Showalter, likens to that of a patchwork quilt; see the Critical Essays).
In the section just summarized, both geographical movement and plot interruption figure as important elements. The contrast between settings and situations is especially ironic, for Chapter 37 begins with a wounded man lying in bed, being tended by a woman, the same situation with which the previous chapter ended. But whereas in one case the scene is the dark, hot gin-house on Legree's hellish plantation, where Tom has been left to suffer by all but Cassy, in the other it is a cheerful, bright, relatively cool Midwestern farmhouse where Loker's assurance of recovery is due to the Christian kindness not only of the Quakers but also of the escaped slaves whom he had attempted to capture.
Another contrast is between the characters central to their respective plots. Tom lingers in the hopelessness and motionlessness of his captivity, slowly losing his faith, surrounded by people as hopeless as himself and taunted by his tormentor. Enclosed on all sides by impenetrable swamp, which has been described as full of insects and snakes, he is powerless to escape. In contrast, we see Eliza and her family, now safe in a network of others who will break the law to help them, easily eluding their would-be captors and traveling swiftly north across a great, free body of water into their own new life of freedom. This scene, which is the last glimpse we shall have of the Harris family until later in their lives, is a welcome relief from the atmosphere of the other plot, which has steadily grown more oppressive and hopeless. At the same time, having had this breath of air, this glimpse of freedom, we feel the hellishness of Tom's situation even more strongly when we return to it: After the narrator's introduction to Chapter 38, that chapter's first scene, with Legree playing the tempter, urging Tom to throw his Bible into the flames, is indeed infernal.
But immediately after we have seen Tom at the nadir of his faith, we are allowed to share his vision of Christ's crown of thorns changed to one of glory. We are reminded that Tom, in the gin-house, asked Cassy to read to him, from the New Testament, the story of the crucifixion. Now, in this vision of the resurrection, the mood of the novel lifts. Just as Tom now feels Legree powerless to hurt him, the reader, too, sees this satanic character somehow dwindling, becoming smaller, even faintly ridiculous, as he engages in silly chatter with his overseers about the fun of catching Tom should he try to escape — and especially as he falls stupidly into Cassy's trap for his superstition. In this section, the novel changes direction: Its climax is not Tom's death but his renewal of faith. After that moment, both Tom and the reader feel that his death is inevitable, and both accept it. But the balance of power has swung from Legree to Tom, and everyone — including Legree — knows it.
Several details of this section call for particular attention. Cassy's determination to kill Legree — the nadir of her captivity — comes after Tom has regained his own spiritual equilibrium, and he is able to save her from doing so. There is no question that his concern here is for Cassy herself, rather than for Legree. She must not kill the man, Tom tells her, because of the cost to her immortal soul. Tom is speaking (and Stowe speaks through him) in spiritual terms, but as is so often the case, his point is a psychological one as well. Cassy's life, during which she has been used for sex until she is almost used up, has turned her forcibly away from love, and Tom knows this. But, as he also knows, God is love; to live in love is to live in God, and to turn away from one is to turn away from the other. To murder Legree would be the ultimate act of turning away, for Cassy, from any possibility for her own happiness.
Instead, what Tom suggests for her is a specific act of love: the attempt to take young Emmeline away from Legree's brutality. Tom knows that the women's actual chances of escaping are very slim — he has no way to see ahead of time what Cassy's plan will be or whether it will succeed. But he knows that death incurred in such a loving act will be infinitely preferable for both women, spiritually and psychologically, to even a long life after killing Legree, which life would be lived in the emptiness of bitter hatred. In his own life, Tom has undoubtedly seen many people whose existence was centered upon bitterness and vengeance — old Prue, in New Orleans, was such a one — and he knows how debilitating this sort of emotion is to people who carry it.
As Tom's new vision, his clarity of faith, has affected Cassy, so too it affects Sambo and Quimbo, the up-to-now nearly demonic henchmen of the devilish Legree. Never characterized in depth, these two have simply been described as men whom Legree uses against each other and his other slaves. Now, when they apparently suddenly turn into Christians after mortally injuring Tom, we may be inclined to disbelief. In fact, however, we may see not only a spiritual but also a psychological validity in Sambo and Quimbo's change of heart, just as there is for Cassy's sudden clarity of mind.
Although we know nothing about these men's lives before their coming into Legree's literal possession, we may assume that Legree selected them for some strength of character as well as physical capabilities; perhaps they both held out against him for nearly as long as Tom did, or perhaps they quickly saw that their only chance for survival was to collaborate with him — as Cassy urged Tom to do, and as Tom, without the strength of his religious faith, might well have done. Still, Sambo and Quimbo have been witness to the dramatic conflict between Tom and Legree, and they — like the others — have seen Tom's recent rise in strength along with Legree's diminishment. At some point, if the situation were allowed to continue, the two overseers themselves would almost certainly have decided to turn against their master and toward Tom; only the fact that they have been manipulated into conflict with each other has kept them from doing so. It is not so implausible, then, that after their combined violence against Tom has been unsuccessful, and after Legree himself has given up, these two men should at last recognize Tom's superior strength — superior to Legree's strength and superior to their own. And they are bound to recognize that strength's source in Tom's spirit, in his Christian faith. Their "conversion," then, is first of all an acknowledgment of respect for the man himself and beyond that — because of who Tom is — an admission of allegiance to his God.
In a wholly different vein, some readers may find another incident from this section slightly implausible: Eliza's successful disguise as a man, allowing her to escape. True, the ploy of having a young woman pretend to be a man in order to slip through whatever lines she must slip through was used often enough in sentimental literature that we might be forgiven for seeing it as a somewhat unrealistic cliché. After all, we ourselves would never be fooled by such a "disguise": A lovely and very feminine-looking person like Eliza, with her hair cut short and wearing a well-fitted jacket and trousers, would look exactly like what she was — a young lady in a pant-suit. We might not even notice that she was actually dressed in "men's" clothes. But in fact, women in the nineteenth century managed to disguise themselves this way, successfully, with some regularity. In a time when women never wore anything faintly resembling "men's" clothing, when they always wore waist-pinching corsets, long full skirts, and elaborately artificial hairdos topped by elaborately artificial hats, no one had to look at anything but the costume to determine the gender of the person wearing it. And so, apparently, no one did.
"The earth shall be dissolved . . . . / Than when we first begun" These are verses from the hymn "Amazing Grace."
"What have we to do with thee, thou Jesus . . . ?" Matthew 8: 29: "And behold, they cried out, 'What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?'" (The speakers are demons, whom Jesus is about to drive out of two men and into a herd of swine.)
"sift ye as wheat" Luke 22: 31: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat . . . " (Jesus, speaking to his disciple Simon Peter, at the Last Supper.)
"a land of darkness and the shadow of death" Job 10: 20–22: "Are not the days of my life few? / Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort / before I go whence I shall not return, / to the land of gloom and deep darkness, / the land of gloom and chaos, / where light is as darkness."
stiletto a small dagger, having a slender, tapering blade; or, a small, sharp-pointed instrument for making holes in cloth, etc. (Cassy's stiletto might plausibly be either, but the second sense seems more likely.)
flambeaux (French) lighted torches.
Bryant i.e., William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878), U.S. poet and journalist.
curveting making leaps, as in equestrian exhibitions (a curvet is a movement where the horse rears, then lifts both back legs into the air just before the front legs come down); here, the implication is that the horses and riders are anxious to be off on the hunt.
"Into thy hands I commend my spirit!" Jesus' dying words on the cross; see Luke 23: 46: "Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!' And having said this he breathed his last."
"instrument of torture" i.e., the Cross.
Eternal Rock i.e., Christ, the "Rock of Ages" (see, for example, I Corinthians 10: 4: "[A]nd all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ").