Simon Legree and His Realm of Darkness

February 4, 2019 by Essay Writer

‘During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens . . . [I] at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher’ (317). Edgar Allan Poe’s opening sentence in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ captures a dark, gloomy, mysterious, and desolate aura that characterizes gothic literature. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe chooses to incorporate similar gothic images in her novel by portraying Simon Legree as a devilish character, and associating him with grotesque images. Her descriptions of Simon and his plantation reflect themes that are often depicted in gothic novels such as disorder, decay, and darkness.When we first meet Simon Legree, his features depict him as a monster. Stowe describes him as ‘short, broad, and muscular’ with a ‘bullet head,’ ‘shaggy,’ ‘hairy,’ ‘very dirty,’ and ‘garnished with long nails, in a very foul condition’ (334). Here, Stowe does not paint the image of a human, but describes a beast. Stowe’s portrayal of Simon as a dirty and claw-like beast becomes very fitting as the novel continues, and the reader is introduced to Legree as a corrupt and cruel master of his slaves.In her novel, Stowe chooses to progress into the gothic realm of Legree rather than immediately flooding the pages with dark images. She begins with the beast-like characterization of Legree, and then concludes her introduction to Simon Legree with a passage that foreshadows her next chapter, ‘Dark Places.’ Stowe writes, ‘The boat moved on, — freigthed with its weight of sorrow,–up the red, muddy, turbid current, through the abrupt, tortuous windings of the Red river . . .’ (342). Here, Legree and his newly purchased slaves are traveling along this river, and Stowe chooses to associate their travel with the color red. Red symbolizes the doom that the newly purchased slaves will face while living with Simon Legree. By flooding the passage with imagery of a red river, it becomes clear that Stowe’s writing was influenced by Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Here, a red river of blood surrounds the seventh circle, the place where violent sinners are kept. Stowe seems to suggest that Legree himself, surrounded by the red river, is a violent sinner. Also, one might argue that Stowe’s red river contains the blood of slaves that have died by the hands of their cruel masters. By making an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, Stowe associates Simon Legree with both the devil and hell. To enhance the gothic imagery of death, doom, and evil, Stowe also uses words such as the ‘turbid current,’ ‘abrupt,’ and ‘tortuous windings’ to foreshadow the hell that she will introduce to the reader in the next chapter.In the following chapter, Stowe’s use of gothic imagery becomes extremely vivid. Stowe opens the chapter with a quote stating, ‘The dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty’ (343). Here Stowe makes her first connection between gothic imagery and slavery. The ‘habitations of cruelty’ refers to all the plantations in America that are run by slave owners like Legree, and cruelty, coupled with darkness, contribute to Stowe’s definition of the gothic. She then chooses to focus on Legree’s plantation, and how his plantation lives up to the quote that opens the chapter. Stowe describes the road to Legree’s house as ‘winding through dreary pine barrens, where the wind whispered mournfully . . .’ (343). Stowe’s choice of words, such as the whispering wind and the winding roads, paints an eerie gothic picture quite similar to the openings of Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Alighieri’s Inferno. Also, it is plausible to associate this dark image with Simon Legree, considering that this winding dark road that he is traveling on leads to his plantation.When we reach Simon Legree’s house, Stowe introduces us to a once smoothly shaven lawn that has been transposed by ‘ornamental shrubs’, ‘frowsy tangled grass,’ a ‘ground littered with broken pails,’ and ‘other slovenly remains.’ (345). Here, Stowe evokes disorder, a theme that is quite common in gothic novels. In Wuthering Heights, a well-noted gothic novel, Emily Bronte’s villain, Heathcliff, lives in an older castle-like house that is full of cobwebs, cluttered with utensils, and characterized by broken shutters. The disorder described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only reflects the lawn, but also symoblizes the disarray within Legree’s plantation. Furthermore, the fact that there was ‘once a smooth-shaven lawn,’ and that ‘what once was a large garden was now all grown over with weeds,’ shows that the Legree’s plantation has not always been gothic-like, but has grown to become a forsaken place once Legree took over the plantation. The description of the plantation, covered with weeds and shrubbery that continue to grow during Legree’s reign, makes me imagine dark clouds slowly casting shadows over a place of doom. To contribute to this dark picture, Stowe also writesof flower pots ‘with sticks in them, whose dried leaves showed they had once been plants’ (345). Along with the encroaching weeds and shrubbery, the leafless sticks represent deterioration and decay.Stowe furthers the somber description of the landscape when she introduces the reader to Legree’s castle-like home. She writes, ‘some windows stopped up with boards, some with sheltered panes, and shutters hanging by a single hinge,–all telling of coarse neglect and discomfort’ (345). Here, Stowe paints a picture of an abandoned ghost house. The disorder introduced to the reader in the description of Legree’s landscape remains vivid in the shattered window panes and the broken shutters. To summarize these features as ‘coarse neglect and discomfort’ implies ambiguity. She seems to offer that these conditions apply not only to Legree’s home, but also to Legree’s relationship with his slaves on the plantation. For instance, the character of Cassy, like the leaves on the plants outside, loses its beauty and liveliness while under the reign of Legree. Cassy, once an extremely attractive young woman, has a ‘dark wild face’ with traces of wrinkles and heavy black eyes. Cassy, like the landscape of the plantation, has become the product of Legree’s cruelty and neglect. In Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ the house of Usher possesses Roderick Usher by causing him an immense amount of mental derangement, and eventually swallowing him in the house’s ‘crack.’ Roderick and Cassy have become objects of decay, and their features resemble those of a gothic character.While describing the inside of Legree’s home, Stowe once again focuses on disorder and decay. She writes, ‘it had once been hung with a showy and expensive paper, which now hung mouldering, torn and discolored, from the damp walls’ (370). Like Cassy and the landscape of the plantation, the inside of Legree’s home is deteriorating. To contribute to the gothic descriptions of the home, Stowe describes the smell that inhabits Legree’s plantation as a ‘peculiar sickening, unwholesome smell, compounded of mingled damp, dirt and decay.’ The smell of Legree’s home clearly evokes death. Stowe describes a smell that one typically associates with a morgue, or even a gross anatomy class. Stowe then adds to this deathly feeling by stating, ‘though the weather was not cold, the evenings always seemed damp and chilly in that great room . . .’ (370). Stowe describes a place that cannot retain warmth, no matter what the weather. Also, adjectives such as ‘damp’ and ‘chilly’ have a negative connotation, and they contribute to the gothic theme that Stowe portrays in her writing.Furthermore, to enhance the gothic theme, Stowe portrays Simon Legree as one who remains consumed with the ghost of the dead slave in the garret2E Stowe writes, ‘He heard her open the entry doors that led to the garret. A wild gust of wind swept down, extinguishing the candle he held in his hand, and with it the fearful, unearthly screams; they seemed to be shrieked in his very ear’ (406). Here, the screams that ‘seemed to be shrieked in his very ear’ allude to the fact that Legree’s thoughts cannot escape the legend of the ghost in the garret. Cassy, realizing that Legree is terrified of the ghost in the garret, emphasizes the gothic theme of the novel by staging ghost-like images and noises. ‘It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it!–something white,gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garmets. It stood still by his bed;–a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, ‘Come! come! come!’ (425-426). Cassy, covered in a white sheet, stages a ghost-like figure to toy with her master’s weaknesses. These ghost-like images eat at Legree’s consciousness and eventually cause him to have a mental breakdown. The haunting of characters, such as Legree, remains a common feature within gothic literature. For instance, in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the occasional piercing screams and laughter of Bertha Mason, the madwoman residing on the third floor, leads to Jane Eyre’s conclusion that a ghost haunts the estate. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Jane Eyre employ images of the supernatural and the mysterious in order to create an atmosphere of fear and suspense that is typical of gothic literature.Stowe’s choice of words, her use of dark imagery, and the implementation of the supernatural contribute to the gothic theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Simon Legree and his plantation represent the cruelties of slavery, and by emphasizing darkness and the supernatural in her writing, it becomes clear that Stowe’s intentions were to cast a shadow upon slavery as well.

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