"Blinking" to a Better World: The Theories of Malcolm Gladwell as applied to Uncle Tom's Cabin

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"Blinking" to a Better World: The Theories of Malcolm Gladwell as applied to Uncle Tom's Cabin

Laine Edwards

In his 1855 slave narrative My Bondage and My Freedom Frederick Douglass writes that the "slaveholder, as well as the slave, is the victim of the slave system [...] Under the whole heavens there is no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character, than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave" (54). While reading the final few chapters of Uncle Tom's Cabin Douglass' words came back to me and I began to think about the ways in which Harriet Beecher Stowe is commenting not only about the victimization of slaves, but also the victimization of slaveholders. Through the characters of St. Clare, Miss Ophelia, and Simon Legree, Beecher Stowe portrays slaveholders who are aware of the immorality of the slave system (however subconsciously), yet still continue in the practice of owning other human beings. St. Clare claims, "bad as it is for the slave, it is worse, if anything, for the master" (Beecher Stowe 201). Both he and Miss Ophelia are particularly aware of sin incumbent in slavery, however, they essentially ignore their initial feelings and convince themselves that what they are doing is in fact beneficial to the slaves they own. I was confused by their ability to so effectively persuade themselves until I read the introduction to Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. Gladwell's theory that we, as humans, believe that the best decisions are made after a long and careful thought process seems directly applicable to the way St. Clare and Miss Ophelia were able to convince themselves that the beneficial elements of slavery outweighed the negative. Using the experiences of St. Clare, Miss Ophelia and Simon Legree to support the statement made by Douglass, I want to explore the theories put forth in Blink to understand why those three characters were able to convince themselves to perpetuate a system that deep down they knew was so inherently wrong.

Throughout his 1855 narrative Douglass gives example after example of the masters he has served whose very nature has changed due to the negative effects of owning another human being. St. Clare appears to have had experiences similar to Douglass' in that members of his family are defined by the slave system to which they subscribe. Douglass writes that a "man's character greatly takes its hue and shape from the form and color of things about him" (54) and St. Clare explains this phenomenon to Miss Ophelia by giving the example of their fathers. He says to Miss Ophelia, "this whole business of human virtue is [...] for the most part, of latitude and longitude, and geographical position, acting with natural temperament" (198). It is only by chance that St. Clare's father settled in Louisiana while Miss Ophelia's father chose to live in New England. St. Clare recognizes that the ability to be a slaveholder has little to do with predisposition and is far more dependent on environment. St. Clare furthers this point by expounding on the differences between he and his brother Alfred. Alfred is able to be a successful slaveholder because he grew up under the tutelage of their father. St. Clare, on the other hand, spent most of his childhood learning the sensibilities of his mother and growing to value the people that served him as individuals rather than slaves. Although Miss Ophelia adamantly denounces slavery, she is not exempt from Douglass' prediction. She grew up in the North and has therefore adopted the sentiments and feelings towards slavery as those around her. Yet, as St. Clare so aptly points out, although she denounces slavery and believes that slaves should be taught to live as free Christians, she herself is not willing to undertake the work required to bring about this change.

In the character of Simon Legree Beecher Stowe presents an extreme example of the way slavery negatively affects a master. Legree occupies the other end of the spectrum from St. Clare and Miss Ophelia. He treats his property in the worst manner and his behavior towards Tom is of the cruelest nature. It is in his interactions with Tom, however, that Legree begins to feel the smallest glimmers of guilt about his actions. In the instant before Legree beats him to death Tom admonishes Legree, telling him that his sins will be with him forever. For a split second Legree understands the finality of Tom's words. Yet, "it was but a moment. There was one hesitating pause, - one irresolute, relenting thrill, - and the spirit of evil came back, with seven-fold vehemence" (Beecher Stowe 358). Legree has only brief moments of clarity in which he understands the immorality of his actions, yet just like St. Clare and Miss Ophelia he continues to subscribe to a system that he knows to be inherently sinful.

St. Clare, and particularly Miss Ophelia, remark over and over again about the sinful nature of slavery and condemn those around them who brutally mistreat their slaves. When reading of their disgust at the slave system, it puzzled me as to why the cousins still remained active participants of the system. Both St. Clare and Miss Ophelia own other human beings, and regardless of their gentle treatment they are still perpetuating what they speak out against. St. Clare, however, seems to resolve this discrepancy within himself through a number of arguments. He agrees with his brother Alfred "when he says that his slaves are better off than a large class of the population of England" (Beecher Stowe 200). He later claims that while he does not believe that slaves should be held for money-making, it does not seem "quite" so bad to use them to help spend his money. Miss Ophelia is equally as guilty when it comes to convincing herself that while slavery is wrong, slaves are actually better off in the system than out of it. When presented with Topsy as a gift, Miss Ophelia does not free the girl according to her anti-slavery sentiments, but instead takes on Topsy as a challenge. Like St. Clare, Miss Ophelia believes that slaves are inferior and too uneducated to survive without the aid of their masters. Miss Ophelia therefore agrees to educated Topsy and teach her how to be a good Christian, however, she continues to use Topsy as a slave and abuses her like one as well.

The discrepancies between the beliefs and the actions of St. Clare and Miss Ophelia baffle me. They both seem to be able to "talk the talk" but are completely incapable of "walking the walk." This inconsistency nearly ruined the book for me because in class we had equated Harriet Beecher Stowe with Miss Ophelia. For the writer of an anti-slavery novel to preach about the sin of slavery, yet write her main characters as continuing to accept the system, undermined her entire anti-slavery message. It was not until I read Gladwell's introduction to Blink that Uncle Tom's Cabin regained some of its credibility. Just as Frederick Douglass claimed, slavery victimizes both slave and slave master. Both St. Clare and Miss Ophelia recognize this, and Simon Legree perfectly exemplifies this victimization. Why, then, do these seemingly aware characters continue in a path of self-ruination by owning slaves? Applying the theories put forth by Gladwell in Blink, however, I can begin to understand how and why the characters of Uncle Tom's Cabin continue to support slavery.

Gladwell claims that we "believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time possible in deliberation" (14). Both St. Clare and Miss Ophelia clearly place more worth on their deliberations than their gut instincts. Their conversations together regarding slavery are well informed and they both have ideas and theories about the means necessary to end the system. Regardless of whether or not they are aware of it, St. Clare and Miss Ophelia subscribe to the idea that thinking things through is always the best way to make judgments. Rather than listen to their gut instincts, they value the long and arduous thought process through which they reason that it is better to keep their slaves than set them free. They effectively talk themselves out of what they know to be moral and right.

Reading Gladwell, I can identify with his insistence that we often place too little value on our snap judgments and therefore resort to long, carefully thought-out decisions. St. Clare and Miss Ophelia suffer from the same mistrust of their gut instincts and as a result an entire household full of slaves suffer. Perhaps if St. Clare and Miss Ophelia had had the opportunity to learn that "decisions made very quickly can be ever bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately" (Gladwell 14) they would have freed their slaves according to what their gut instincts were telling them was moral and right. Gladwell believes that if more value was placed on first impressions and snap judgments that the "we would end up with a different and better world" (Gladwell 17). In the case of the slaveholders in Uncle Tom's Cabin, listening to their instincts would have created a better world for the slaves in their possession.

Works Cited

Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. Ed. William L. Andrews. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Gladwell, Malcom. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. (2005).

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