Miss Ophelia Prays for Protest: Northern Responsibility in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to her own epiphany concerning the immorality of slavery, which accompanied the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. Indeed, she developed a novel worthy of protest literature. With each character and scene depicted throughout the book, Stowe leaves no stone unturned as she appoints blame for the immoral situation across the United States. The author’s use of a character from the North, Miss Ophelia, aids in the novel’s ability to effectively protest slavery as well as the deep-seated prejudice against blacks in America. Miss Ophelia acts as an effective example of the validity of Stowe’s argument that it is not the solely the responsibility of the South to eliminate the system of slavery, but also that of the North.
Miss Ophelia St. Clare is, without a doubt, the most complicated female character in the novel. She is Mister St. Clare’s pious, hardworking, abolitionist cousin from the North and she is educated, independent, ambitious, and motivated by a certain sense of duty. Since she is single, and beyond marrying age, she agrees to accompany Mr. St. Clare to his Louisiana home to care for his daughter Evangeline and attend to the housekeeping while his wife Marie St. Clare is “ill.” The reader first begins to develop a relationship with Miss Ophelia as she arrives in the South and meets the servants on the St. Clare plantation. She states that she is horrified by little Eva’s ability to kiss African Americans as she “afterwards declared fairly turned her stomach” (193). Miss Ophelia admits that she is prejudiced when she says to Mr. St. Clare, “Well, I want to be kind to everybody, and I wouldn’t have anything hurt; but as to kissing-“ (193) she claims she could never bring herself to come in such close personal contact with a slave. Even though she considers herself an abolitionist, Miss Ophelia is still prejudiced against blacks. Readers might initially respect Ophelia’s work ethic and devotion to principle as they follow her around the St. Clare home where she “in a few days, thoroughly reformed every department of the house to a systematic pattern” (236), but Stowe uses her to satirize the subtle racism of the North. Stowe seems to think that there were many people like Miss Ophelia who did not like slavery but could not think of blacks as people. She is able to write about such problems through Miss Ophelia. The author recognized that many Northerners were eager to tell the South how to handle the institution of slavery and quick to condemn Southern practices, but those same Northerners were often unwilling to personally interact with blacks. For example, upon hearing the story of Prue’s life and death, Miss Ophelia interrogates St. Clare, “Thought so! –an’t you going to do anything about it? Haven’t you got any selectmen, or anybody, to interfere and look after such matters?” (244), but she does not actually intend to do anything about it herself. It seems to be Stowe’s opinion that too many abolitionists want the slaves to be freed, but sent away or otherwise kept at a distance. In other words, they are content with black people as long as they aren’t required to meet any of them personally. Stowe has pointed out that the abolitionists of the North are also racist and uses the character of Miss Ophelia to symbolize the hypocrisy of the Northerners in regards to slavery in the South.
On various occasions, Miss Ophelia discusses slavery with Marie and Mr. St. Clare. She questions them as to why they keep slaves and reminds them of their Christian duty in regards to the treatment and education of their slaves. During her first conversation with Marie concerning the servants, she asks, “Don’t you believe that the lord made them of one blood with us…Don’t you think they’ve got immortal souls?” (201). She is especially curious as to why Mr. St. Clare continues to keep slaves despite the fact that he believes doing so to be wrong. Miss Ophelia even goes so far as to divulge her own philosophy on the treatment of slaves: “You ought to educate your slaves, and treat them like reasonable creatures, — like immortal creatures, that you’ve got to stand before the bar of God with. That’s my mind” (204). Eventually, St. Clare gives Miss Ophelia a young slave girl to educate, Topsy. The woman’s initial repulsion at the sight of Topsy can be viewed as a criticism of the hypocrisy of Christians. “–Something [about her appearance], as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, ‘so heathenish,’ as to inspire that good lady with utter dismay” (261). At first, she is unsure about taking part in the upbringing of a slave girl, but she soon decides that it’s her duty: “’Well, it might be real missionary work,’ said she, looking rather more favorably on the child” (262). It is a strange experiment in which St. Clare teaches Ophelia about slavery by giving her a slave of her own. St. Clare allows Miss Ophelia to educate and treat Topsy according to her own philosophy without any interference.
While Miss Ophelia is teaching Topsy how to make a bed in the manner that she prefers, she catches Topsy stealing and demands a confession. However, she is horrified to learn that Topsy will lie even in confessing to things she hadn’t actually done, “Why, Missis said I must ‘fess; and I couldn’t think of nothin’ else to ‘fess” (268). Later, Miss Ophelia is humbled when Topsy admits that she knows Miss Ophelia can’t stand to love her or be touched by her even though little Eva is able to: “No; she can’t bar me, ‘cause I’m a nigger! -she’d soon have a toad touch her!” (302). In the course of her interactions with Topsy, Ophelia learns the difficulties involved in teaching slaves who have been brutalized and subjugated their whole lives. She also quickly discovers her own secret racism, “I’ve always had a prejudice against Negroes… and it’s a fact, I never could bear to have that child touch me; but I don’t think she knew it” (302). Miss Ophelia attempts to do the best she can in teaching Topsy household skills and the catechism, but is in reality entirely disgusted by the little girl and hates touching her. As a result, all of her strict discipline fails. The child only begins to change when little Evangeline offers Topsy her unconditional love.
It becomes clear that, aside from her personal contradictions, Miss Ophelia is truly an honest woman. She realizes where she is in the wrong, understanding that Evangeline’s innocent love has succeeded in curbing Topsy’s wild ways where all her stern discipline has failed: “Well, she’s so loving! After all, though, she’s no more than Christ-like… I wish I were like her. She might teach me a lesson” (303). Topsy is rendered despondent after Evangeline passes away because the only person who has ever shown her love and kindness is gone, and Miss Ophelia promises that she will try to love her: “Topsy, you poor child,’ she said, as she led her into her room, ‘don’t give up! I can love you, though I am not like that dear little child. I hope I’ve learnt something of the love of Christ from her. I can love you; I do, and I’ll try to help you grow up a good Christian girl” (317). It is in that moment that she wins Topsy’s heart.
Miss Ophelia demands that St. Clare fill out the paperwork necessary to sign Topsy over to her in order to secure Topsy immediately as Ophelia’s legal property. She declares that she wishes to eventually take Topsy back to New England and make her a free woman: “I want her mine, that I may have a right to take her to the free states, and give her her liberty, that all I am trying to do be not undone” (326). After St. Clare’s untimely death, Miss Ophelia returns to Vermont with Topsy in tow; the young girl becomes a pious, dedicated member of a Christian community in the North, and eventually a missionary. Miss Ophelia finally becomes a true Christian as her attitude towards Topsy changes. She recognizes the evil of a system that inflicts such emotional and physical damage on human beings such as Topsy. Stowe’s message to her Christian readers becomes clear; they are hypocrites until they realize that allowing slavery to exist in their country is a reprehensible sin.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Miss Ophelia clearly comes to represent “the very best of Northern people” as she is the only Northerner to take a focal role throughout the novel. In other words, she stands for those who pride themselves on being virtuous, hardworking, and clean of conscience. However, Stowe displays these people as somewhat harsh and lacking love or warmth. They insist on following a strict moral code, but do not do so in a kind or loving manner. As an example, Miss Ophelia is a Christian, but not Christ-like the way Tom and Eva are. She relies on her rationalized thoughts rather than her emotions to make decisions about her life and political beliefs.
Miss Ophelia’s character also functions in the story in another important way, by demonstrating how slavery threatens women’s household concerns. The scene where Miss Ophelia attempts to reorganize and set Marie St. Clare’s house in order becomes pivotal in understanding Stowe’s vision for a morally correct universe. In Stowe’s world, slavery was wrong because it was an outrage on the family life. Just as the waste in Dinah’s kitchen offends Miss Ophelia’s sense of an appropriately organized household, so slavery offends her morality. As a result of Miss Ophelia’s character, it can be argued that kitchens become a metaphor for social conditions in the North and South. In Ophelia’s mind, kitchens in the North are an epitome of economy and cleanliness, corresponding to the North’s moral stance on slavery. However, in the South, kitchens appear to be disorganized and wasteful just like the institution of slavery, which is bound to be ultimately destructive for everyone involved in it. It can then be said that Stowe used the character of Miss Ophelia to link the political sphere with the domestic sphere. She effectively confronts not only the government in the South, but also the households of the North. Stowe was aware that her audience would be primarily white women, and she effectively plays on their feelings of uneasiness and guilt over the treatment of slaves. With the help of the character Miss Ophelia, she is able to specifically address the Northern white women who could help with the abolitionist movement, but don’t believe that they can make a difference. Stowe used Ophelia’s condemnation of the slavery system to show Northern women that others feel the same guilt and doubt about the institution.
Miss Ophelia St. Clare effectively helps Stowe to make her protest against slavery. This character allows Stowe to address white Northern women by practically placing them in her novel alongside the characters in other strands of the narrative. Miss Ophelia’s revelation, inspired by Evangeline and Topsy towards the end, is the revelation that Stowe is begging her readers to undergo. Miss Ophelia validates Harriet Beecher Stowe’s arguments as an educated Christian woman in favor of not just abolition, but equality as well.
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Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to her own epiphany concerning the immorality of slavery, which accompanied the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. Indeed, she developed […]