Holy Infant, Patient and Mild: Children as Images of Christian Goodness

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Holy Infant, Patient and Mild: Children as Images of Christian Goodness

Jillian Davis

Among the many tactics Harriet Beecher Stowe employs to inspire readers of Uncle Tom's Cabin to abolition, the most effective is her citation of theology. Throughout the novel, she emphasizes that to degrade another human being, and to treat him as chattel, is incompatible with Christian teachings, and as such, so is the institution of slavery. She urges the reader rather to do the truly Christian thing; to take in and care for the helpless, to stand up for the oppressed, and to give due respect and dignity to all people, as they too are the "children of God". In order to enact this kind of behavior, Stowe suggest a need to return to innocence, to the unwavering conviction so often found in young children, and by way of example, assigns truly Christian behaviors primarily to those in her story who are children.

The first example of a good, Christian character (at least, among the white classes) in Uncle Tom's Cabin is none other than George Shelby. While his mother is certainly a kind and pious woman, and his father is a decent man who trusts his slaves and treats them well, they still do own slaves, and they still do sell slaves, a behavior which, debt or not, Stowe says is unchristian and therefore unacceptable. It is only George who, upon hearing Tom is to be sold, attempts to make the matter right in spite of the circumstances being stacked against him. Swearing up and down to Tom that he will, one day, bring him home again, George is advised by his friend to "be a Christian, like yer mother. 'Member yer Creator in the days o' yer youth" (88). And in what Stowe might call true Christian spirit, George is thus inspired to say to Haley, "I should think you'd be ashamed to spend all your life buying men and women, and chaining them, like cattle!" (88), to which Haley replies, "So long as your grand folks wants to buy men and women, I'm as good as they is; 'tan't any meaner sellin' on 'em, than 't is buyin'" (88). Stowe's point, of course, is that neither buying nor selling humans is "good"; George too knows this, as expressed in his retort ("I'll never do either, when I'm a man; I'm ashamed, this day, that I'm a Kentuckian" (88).), as he asserts his Christian sense of right over what the law tells him is his due, yet he can do nothing then to fight it.

It is not until George is older, and fully in command of himself and his father's affairs, that he is able to do what he knows in his heart to be right, declaring, "I will do what one man can to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!" (365). True to his word, he frees the slaves his father had kept, despite the fact that, at that point, it was unclear whether or not he and Mrs. Shelby had managed to pull themselves out of debt. Furthermore, he offers to hire all his former slaves, at an individually determined salary, so that those who had cared for him might continue to support their families, and to educate them in the ways of their freedom, as was their right in his eyes (379).

The second character who truly exemplifies "Christian" behavior is, obviously, little Eva. From the moment she is first introduced, her virtues are extolled to the utmost, beginning with her empathic and charitable nature, as described on page 127: "Often and often she walked mournfully round the place where Haley's gang of men and women sat in their chains...sometimes she would lift their chains with her slender hands, and then sigh wofully [sp]...Several times she appeared suddenly among them, with her hands full of candy, nuts, and oranges, which she would distribute joyfully to them..."

Later in the chapter, when St. Clare asks Eva why he should buy Tom from Haley, she replies, "I want to make him happy" (130). This simple, childish answer is nevertheless the sum of Stowe's argument; that all people have the right to live in such a way as is enjoyable to them.

As the novel progresses, and the reader becomes acquainted with the St. Clare household, there comes a point where Miss Ophelia, horrified by the genial intimacy that seems to be blossoming between Eva and Tom, speaks to her cousin about it. In reply, he explains, "Custom with us does what Christianity ought to do; obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice" (154). Eva maintains this attitude throughout her life, behaving familiarly and lovingly with all the servants, caring for their needs (such as when Mammy complains to her of chronic headache, and Eva suggests to her mother that Mammy be the one to rest, on page 148), and ministering to them, both personally (as in the case of Topsy, whom she teaches of love and begs to be a good, Christian woman while, as Christ had once done, she lays hands upon the girl in question (245-246)) and as a group (when she lies dying, and impresses upon all her father's slaves, indeed her friends, that they "must be Christians...remember that each one of you can become angels...Jesus will help you. You must pray to him..." (251).). Furthermore, she impresses upon others the necessity of doing as she has done; when her cousin beats his servant, Dodo, while visiting with her, Eva implores him, "...the Bible say[s] we must love everybody...do love poor Dodo, and be kind to him" (237).

Little Eva's death, as it follows, became a symbol of the ultimate goodness and sacrifice, reminiscent of the death of Jesus. She died to save the souls of the people she loved, and to set into motion events which would lead Cassy, Em, George, and Eliza to a happy family reunion, even at the cost of her dear Tom's life. She became the ultimate icon, an exemplification about all others of the kind of selflessness that, according to Stowe, it was every Christian's duty to seek. Eva's own father puts it best, when he says, "It wouldn't be the first time a little child had been used to instruct..." (246).

The third child in Uncle Tom's Cabin who personifies the sort of good, moral, Christian characteristics that Stowe encourages in her readers, is, surprisingly, Topsy. Certainly, she does not begin with these qualities; rather, through the love and guidance of Eva, she comes to strive for them (246), eventually achieving them to such an end that she is made a missionary to the people of the newly formed Liberia (377). It is through her struggles that Stowe provides a roadmap for any reader who might be similarly floundering, as well as for those who, desiring to make a change in themselves and perhaps their nation by pursuing further their Christian duty, might face similar experiences.

Children are, according to Stowe, both wonderfully simple and amazingly creatures. They take things at face value, are often set in their ways, and can be difficult to reason with at almost any stage. And yet, they have the capacity for wisdom beyond their years, for seeing truths and making simple things that their adult counterparts make difficult with politics and propriety. As such, what better vessels could Stowe have picked to convey her messages of Christian love and goodness to her audience? Through the children in her novel, readers may be made to see the simplicity of right action, and how, if right action is performed, right thinking and right feeling will follow, to the betterment of the whole individual, enabling them to become truly Christian and, simultaneously, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth by achieving fellowship with all men.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1994.

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