Cry Me a River

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Cry Me a River

Jorge Rodriguez

There are at least thirty-five instances in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' in which one character or another cries, sobs, or sheds some tears. The purpose of all this crying, however, remains somewhat unclear to the reader as not even one of these characters finds the answer to their problems or happens to get what they want thanks to their tears. Since crying proves to be utterly unproductive throughout the novel we are left to wonder what the use of crying is. It would be simple enough to suggest that they all cry to relieve painful emotions and to consequently 'feel better'. As true as this may be, there still seems to be more involved in the process motivating someone to break down in tears. Upon further review of such instances in the novel, one discovers that when a character starts to cry he or she is being threatened by a situation of utter despair. Crying is completely useless to these characters as it does not restore their hope and does not provide them with any relief for their suffering or escape from their problems. Therefore, when we read about one of them desperately sobbing, we can accept their tears as a manifestation of sheer defeat.

The first time we witness Uncle Tom crying is just after Eliza has informed him that Mr. Shelby has sold him: "He leaned over the back of the chair, and covered his face with his large hands. Sobs, heavy, hoarse and loud, shook the chair, and great tears fell through his fingers on the floor: just such tears, sir as you dropped into the coffin where lay your first-born son" (Stowe, p. 34). He does not cry in hope that his tears will restore his happiness again, he cries precisely because he's lost all hope. Uncle Tom had just decided that it was not fitting for him to attempt to escape with Eliza and by choosing to stay to be sent with the trader, the only thing left for this slave is the despair of knowing that he is doomed to be separated indeterminately from his family and loved ones.

We see him crying for very similar reasons once he has been bought by St. Clare while he contemplates the possibility of sending a letter home: "the mail for him had no existence, and the gulf of separation was unbridged by even a friendly word or signal. Is it strange, then that some tears fall on the pages of his Bible, as he lays it on the cotton-bale, and, with patient finger, threading his slow way from word to word, traces out its promises?" (p. 125). Again, Uncle Tom cries not because he expects his tears to miraculously bring him closer to his family and he is not redeemed after he finishes sobbing. He cries simply because he acknowledges that he has been defeated by the distance keeping him away from his loved ones and by his condition as a slave.

Another character who cries out of despair when she realizes she has been defeated is little Eva who, knowing her death is near, tries to encourage the slaves at her house to become good Christians by reading the Bible: "'O, dear! you can't read,— poor souls!' and she hid her face in the pillow and sobbed, while many a smothered sob from those she was addressing, who were kneeling on the floor, aroused her" (p. 251). When little Eva becomes aware that none of those slaves who are so dear to her are able to read, she looses all hope that her friends will be saved. She consequently cries as she knows that everything is lost as she cannot do anything that will guarantee the salvation of such slaves and that their redemption is no longer in her hands.

The loss of a loved one seems to be the common factor present in all those characters who cry upon witnessing the death of another: Miss Ophelia and Marie cry when Eva dies, all of St. Clare's slaves sob when their master comes home mortally wounded, and Master George cannot help the tears in his eyes as he watches Uncle Tom pass away. But although all these characters welcome defeat with tears as they know death takes away their loved ones forever, their dying friends and/or relatives face their end without shedding one tear as they have hope in the after life. Eva, St. Clare, and Uncle Tom are all empowered by their Christian faith not to fear death and to become victims of utter despair, but to welcome the possibility of another better life in heaven.

While little Eva lies in her deathbed during her final moments, it is said that "a bright, a glorious smile passed over her face, and she said, brokenly,—'O! love,—joy,—peace!' gave one sigh, and passed from death unto life!" (p. 257). Her father, although he did not live his life with as much faith as his young Christian daughter, asks Uncle Tom to pray for him and as he is passing away, it is accounted: "Just before the spirit parted, he opened his eyes, with a sudden light, as a joy and recognition, and said 'Mother!' and then he was gone!" (p. 256). Even Uncle Tom, the most pious believer and most loyal servant of the Lord in the novel, is described in his death scene as to "with a smile, he fell asleep" (p. 363). The faith in the afterlife that these three characters posses provide them with hope at such a crucial moment and consequently prevents them from crying as they do not perceive death as the ultimate defeat.

Despite all his faith in the Lord, Uncle Tom is seen crying while he prays for both little Eva and St. Clare while they lay in their deathbeds. When the former is passing way, Uncle Tom "with tears streaming down his dark cheeks, looked up for help where he had always been used to look" (p. 257). Furthermore, when St. Clare is bleeding to death, he obeys his master's final wish as it is said that "Tom did pray, with all his mind and strength, for the soul that was passing... It was literally prayer offered with strong crying and tears" (p. 275). Does this mean then that Uncle Tom lost all hope in Christianity during these two moments as he figured that his prayers were useless in saving his friends' lives? As the good Christian he was, Uncle Tom knew that the lives of his two dear friends were no longer in his hands, but that it was God who now would decide over their lives. Although he was defeated in his attempts to save them, Uncle Tom cried because Eva and her father would no longer be with him, not because he feared they would be left out of Heaven after they left this mortal world.

Uncle Tom's faith is actually so strong that it empowers him with hope even in the most adverse of situations when he is under the cruel oppression of Simon Legree. Even after being abused, tortured, and whipped, he does not loose his faith or break down in tears as he has hope that whether he lives or dies, the Lord will always look after him. When Legree confronts him about it, Uncle Tom responds: "I an't a grain afeard to die. I'd as soon die as not. Ye may whip me, starve me, burn me,—it'll only send me sooner where I want to go" (p. 330). His faith in Christianity is such that it keeps him comforted in the most abominable of situations, when any other would have already despaired and accepted their defeat with tears.

Another case in the novel in which hope enables a character to hold up her tears is present in the episode on board of the boat going down the river when Haley sells the only son of one of the women he hoped to sell as a slave. It is described that when this mother realized that she had lost her son forever, "the woman did not scream. The shot passed too straight and direct through the heart, for cry or tear. Dizzily she sat down. Her slack hands fell lifeless by her side... the poor, dumb-stricken heart had neither cry nor tear to show for its utter misery. She was quite calm." (p. 113). Like Uncle Tom lost in Legree's plantation, this woman had nothing left but utter despair without her only son and joy. She, however, did not give into tears as he saw some hope further ahead, although not in religion. By jumping into the river and committing suicide, she had a chance to end her suffering and acted upon it.

Eliza, like this mother on the boat, is one of the few character in the entire novel who when confronted by a threatening situation, instead of becoming a victim of useless tears, opts to take some action to avoid defeat. Upon hearing that her son Harry will be sold, it is mentioned that "no tear dropped over that pillow; in such straits as these, the heart has no tears to give,—it drops only blood, bleeding itself away in silence" (p. 31). Instead of wasting time crying, she grabs her son and escapes, not even stopping to lament her hopelessness when trapped between a frozen river and her pursuers, but instead, "with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on the raft of ice beyond. It was a desperate leap—impossible to anything but madness and despair" (p. 52). There is no doubt that Eliza was a desperate woman and that her situation as a fugitive runaway with a child in arms offered her very little hope of surviving or escaping. But recognizing the uselessness of crying, she acts to change her fate and not be defeated.

Her husband George is one of the other few examples of characters who are not overcome by weeping. When his master's abuse becomes intolerable, he makes a run for it and when his family is in danger, he says: "am I going to stand by and see them take my wife and sell her, when God has given me a pair of strong arms to defend her? No; God help me! I'll fight to the last breath, before they shall take my wife and son. Can you blame me?" (p. 164). Both George and Eliza see their endeavors pay off as they gain their liberty in the end. Had they decided to remain sobbing and lamenting their desperate situation, they would have been defeated by tears blinding them from seeing the little hope they still had.

Although these few characters strongly revolt against crying, thus avoiding being trapped by its worthlessness, most of the other characters present in Stowe's novel are victimized by tears. As it was previously stated, the novel does present over three dozen instances when to one extent or another, a character sheds some tears. Why are so many passages in the novel devoted to describing these episodes if crying is as pointless as it has been demonstrated to be? Since the uselessness of weeping is due to its acceptance of defeat, the novel seems to make use of this to help us sympathize with these suffering characters. Therefore, the text of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', by recognizing that tears are a manifestation of hopelessness, accounts numerous instances where someone cries desolately or sobs uncontrollably to help readers in their effort to empathize with such characters.

Work cited:
Harriet Beecher Stowe. 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. 1852; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York; W.W. Norton

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