The Complex Augustine St. Clare

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The Complex Augustine St. Clare

Adina Halpern


It can hardly be disputed that Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is a typological tale, compartmentalizing characters into archetypes in order to use them to serve specific functions in getting across Stowe's abolitionist message. The novel is symbolic and allegorical: it represents the institution of slavery and warns readers of its evils. Of course, these characteristics are inherently related to the attitudes of the antebellum South. The novel becomes even more formulaic when one looks at the two most essential elements of each character orientation towards Christian belief and actions and attitudes towards slavery. These two characteristics are intertwined in each character. There is one character whose relationship with these two traits perplexes me: Augustine St. Clare.

James Baldwin writes that Uncle Tom's Cabin is "a bad novel" because it stereotypes characters and portrays them and the institution of slavery in much fewer dimensions than was the reality. Jane Tompkins praises Uncle Tom's Cabin, arguing that the characters are larger than life. Opinions aside, the general consensus remains, and is also blatantly clear in any reading of the novel, that most characters in Stowe's novel are not complex and exhibit specific characteristics of slavery and different one-dimensional characteristics of different individuals involved in varying ways with the institution: the slave, the master, the mistress, the slave trader, the northerner, etc. Additionally, each of these characters has a different orientation towards religion which is blatantly connected with that character's opinions on and involvement with slavery.

Virtually every character in the novel fits into this formula. For example, Tom and Eva are both Christ-like Martyrs. Eva is a deeply religious child. Eva dies, and some time before this she tells Tom, "I can understand why Jesus wanted to die for us... I've felt that I would be glad to die, if my dying could stop all this misery. I would die for them, Tom, if I could" (240). Similarly, Tom, throughout the novel, appeals to the bible and encourages other people to look to it for guidance and solace. For example, his decision at the beginning of the novel not to run away when he discovers that he has been sold is largely to do with his acceptance of fate, and his belief that he will go to heaven.

Topsy is a "bad" slave child. Right from her entrance into the text, she steals from those who are kind to her. She is bitter and hateful towards the slavery system and she is completely miserable. This is because she has been so abused by slavery that is has almost taken away her humanity. Topsy also has no religious education: "'Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?'/The child looked bewildered" (210). But Topsy stops stealing and being so "bad" from living in the St. Clare household. This is, presumably, from a combination of her education, (and implicitly, religious education) from Miss Ophelia and from her interaction with the Christ-like Eva. Through Topsy, lack of religion is associated with being "bad."

Marie is very religious but she is blatantly cruel to her slaves. She is one of the representations of the cruelty of holding slaves. She truly believes that slaves are lesser beings than are white people. For example, she tells Ophelia, "Now St. Clare really has talked to me as if keeping Mammy from her husband was like keeping me from mine. There's no comparing in this way. Mammy couldn't have the feelings that I should" (151). Marie truly believes that slaves do not have as deep and complex feelings as do white people. Legree, too, represents the pure evil that can come of slavery. It is he who orders the brutal whipping of Tom which eventually results in his death. Like Marie, Legree uses the bible to justify his treatment of his slaves: "Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious,--didn't you never hear, out of yer bible, 'Servants, obey yer masters'? An't I yer master?"

Throughout the novel, the reader learns the religious beliefs and attitudes towards and involvement with slavery of virtually every character. To analyze each character in the book would be beyond the scope of this paper; however, the preceding examples give a clear indication of the typological categories that Stowe is representing. As with all of the other characters, Augustine St. Clare has an attitude toward Christianity and attitudes towards slavery: he believes in God but does not follow many church practices and he feels that slavery is harmful to the slavery but helpful to their masters; he understands his own hypocrisy in knowing the evil of the institution but still participating in it.

St. Clare does have a Christian religious education, and he does not disbelieve in the Christian bible and its teachings. He says to Eva, "O, Evangeline! Rightly named...hath not God made thee an evangel to me?" (157). However, St. Clare does not hold many of the qualities preached by American Christianity of the nineteenth Century. Most obviously, he does not attend church. Stowe describes Tom's paradoxical feelings towards St. Clare:

"Tom regarded his gay, airy, handsome young master with an odd mixture of fealty, reverence, and fatherly solicitude. That he never read the Bible; never went to church; that he jested and made free with any and every thing that came in the way of his wit; that he spent his Sunday evenings at the opera or theatre; that he went to wine parties, and clubs, and suppers, oftener than was at all expedient,--were all things that Tom could see as plainly as anybody, and on which he based a conviction that "Mas'r wasn't a Christian;"" (177).

Just as St. Clare does not act according to his religious beliefs, so too does he not approach slavery according to his beliefs about slavery if he did, he would not have any slaves at all. He tells Miss Ophelia, "I am one of the sort that lives by throwing stones at other people's glass houses, but I never mean to put up one for them to stone." He hypocritically recognizes the pure evilness of slavery, yet he continues to hold slaves for his own benefit. He rejects the idea exhibited by other characters that slaves enjoy slavery, proclaiming, "It's all nonsense to talk to me about slaves enjoying all this! To this day, I have no patience with the unutterable trash that some of your patronizing Northerners have made up, as in their zeal to apologize for their sins. We all know better" (199).

St. Clare does not blatantly profess that religion rejects slavery (as do, for example, the Quakers and Mrs. Shelbey), but he does blatantly reject the idea that religion justifies slavery:

"Now, when one speaks up, like a man, and says slavery is necessary to us, we can't get along without it, we should be beggard if we give it up, and, of course, we mean to hold on to it,--this is strong, clear, well-defined language; it has the respectability of truth to it; and if we may judge by their practice, the majority of the world will bear us out in it. But when he begins to put on a long face, and snuffle, and quote Scripture, I incline to think he isn't much better than he should be" (159-160).

Throughout his appearance in the novel, St. Clare recognized the unfairness of slavery and points out common humanity (feelings, abilities, etc.) of slaves and masters. During Tom's purchase, he ponders how much a human being is worth. As he is buying Tom, a slave, he wonders hypothetically how much money he would be worth. This forces white readers to think of whites and blacks on the same plane and to put themselves in the slaves' shoes. Throughout the novel, Stowe constantly asks her white northern readership what they would do were they in the slaves' position, forcing them to think of themselves and slaves on the same plane, an idea which now seems so obvious but at the time was probably radical. But when she does this, she often addresses the reader in the second person, for a minute stepping out of the narrative in order to call upon their support for her abolitionist cause. When Eliza and her son escape, Stowe literally asks the reader:

"If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning,--if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock till morning to make good your escape,--how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom,--the little sleepy head on your shoulder,--the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?" (44).

Although St. Clare's character fits into the two-dimensional formula exhibited by other characters, the dimensions of the two qualities explored in his character (religion and slavery) are more complex and interwoven than the other characters. It seems to me that the tensions and paradoxes that he tries to work out within himself in order to reconcile his ideas about religion and slavery make him a more believable character than most of the others. Slavery was an evil and cruel institution, but white Southerners were willing to be slave holders anyway in order to benefit themselves financially, etc. They manipulated the bible to justify the institution. St. Clare is a slaveholder aware of this contradiction. He urges readers to recognize it.

If any single character is telling the story of slavery, I feel that it is St. Clare. Stowe uses St. Clare in order to explain why slavery exists the way that it (in the antebellum South) does. I, a modern reader, would probably have been able to guess Stowe's purpose of writing the book, or at least her views on slavery, simply based on her portrayal of Augustine St. Clare. But Stowe uses much more blatant devices in order to get her message across. Almost everything that every character in the book says or does helps to get her abolitionist message across. Moreover, she often confronts the reader directly, exhibiting her experiences with the slavery system and urging through Christian arguments to abolish slavery.

So why am I so preoccupied with the character of St. Clare? He only exists in the novel as part of Stowe's abolitionist purpose. Perhaps it is because I am living in 2006. I already know that slavery was cruel, racist, and unjust and that is a huge understatement. What we can look at now is the possible reasons that slavery existed for as long as it did. St. Clare helps us with that.

The characters of Uncle Tom's Cabin are formulaic in that they represent the different individuals involved with the institution of slavery in different ways; specifically, they show the ways that different attitudes towards Christianity interact with attitudes towards slavery. It is my opinion that although Augustine St. Clare fits into this formula, his character is much more complex than the others. This could be because his explanation of slavery fits into my own understanding of the psychology behind the institution, which, in turn, might be because he fits in more with my twenty-first century ideas. Did Harriet Beecher Stowe intend for St. Clare to be a more powerful character than any other? Probably not. But in 2006, the our understanding of St. Clare helps to keep Uncle Tom's Cabin one of the "big books" in American literature.

Works cited:
Baldwin, James. "Everybody's Protest Novel," Notes of a Native Son (1949). [From class lecture and discussion.]
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York; W.W. Norton, 1994.
Tompkins Jane, Sentimental Power:Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," Glyph (1978). [From class lecture and discussion] [an error occurred while processing this directive]