You Go, Girl: Cassy and Baldwin's Categorization Theory

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You Go, Girl: Cassy and Baldwin's Categorization Theory

Steph Herold

In his essay titled "Everyone's Protest Novel," James Baldwin asserts that Harriet Beecher Stowe prevents her characters from becoming fully human by limiting them to categories.* He discusses the stereotypical qualities apparent in characters such as Uncle Tom, Eliza, Topsy, and George, but neglects to mention Cassy, Simon Legree's mistress and slave. Cassy challenges Baldwin's depiction of the novel's characters as lifeless and predictable, refusing to conform to her conventional role as a slave, as a woman, or as a Christian. While Stowe may have limited the actions of other slaves in the novel, the inclusion of a character as compelling and clever as Cassy in Uncle Tom's Cabin suggests that Stowe, despite Baldwin's fierce claims, indeed leaves some space, albeit very narrow, for the complexities and ambiguities of human nature.




By giving Cassy the dual role of Legree's sexual counterpart and his physical "property," Stowe intermingles the power of sex and politics of slavery. Because of their sexual connection, Cassy maintains an unparalleled amount of influence over Legree unattainable to other slaves on the plantation. She does not call him "Mas'r," and even goes as far as addressing him by his first name without any reprimand from Legree, subtly illuminating the influence she has over him. Stowe bluntly reveals Cassy's capability to manipulate Legree, saying, "...yet so it is, that the most brutal man cannot live in constant association with a strong female influence, and not be greatly controlled by it," (348). Stowe is not only informing her readers of Cassy's unique abilities, but is also hinting that her readers have the capacity to influence even the cruelest of husbands if they are first strong women themselves.




Unlike a typical slave mistress, Cassy uses her authority over Legree to create ripe circumstances for her escape to freedom. Cassy teases Legree into suspecting that there are ghosts and other foul, freakish creatures in the garret near where she sleeps, scaring him from ever entering the place, even with guns. She manipulates the noises and appearance of the loft, and when Legree questions the source of the noise, Cassy taunts him with, "'...sleep in that room...fire your pistols, do!'" ( 349). Stowe even confesses to the readers, "...[because of] the game that Cassy played with Legree...[he] would sooner have put his head into a lion's mouth than to have explored that garret," (350). Cassy has a keen sense of Legree's vulnerabilities, using her intellect to concoct a situation that exploits his fear. This astuteness is completely denied to other female slave characters in the novel. Topsy is cast as an "other," distinguished by her incorrigible behavior and obsessive devotion to Miss Eva, lacking completely in intellectual endeavors. Likewise, Eliza's mind is solely focused on saving the life of her child, and while she uses a few clever tricks such as dressing her baby boy as a female, she requires the help of others such as her husband and kindly Quakers to complete her journey to independence. Stowe allows Cassy to redefine her role as a slave and as a woman, enabling her to pave her own road to freedom. This highlights the intricacies Baldwin so desires in the makeup of Stowe's characters.




In addition to employing her skills of manipulation, Cassy goes another step further than her peers by taking concrete, calculated action against Legree's reign of terror. Instead of merely fleeing into the countryside of the South, Cassy and her friend Emmeline hide away in the garret, even as Legree and his team of slaves scour the countryside for the escapees. Unlike the impulsive escapes of Eliza and George, Cassy's was premeditated days in advance, a practice uncharacteristic of the "typical" slave, thought to be irrational and illogical. Cassy has clearly spent extensive amounts of time planning this act, evident as she explains the plan to Emmeline, saying, "'Don't you know that they must have their chase after us, at any rate? The way of the thing is to be just this: We will steal out of the back door...Sambo or Quimbo will see us. They will give chase...'" (351). She goes on for a long time, elaborating on their stay in the garret, the length of time they should spend inside as opposed to outside the garret, etc. In making Cassy so sensible and intelligent, Stowe separates her from the "dull-witted slave" archetype, allowing Cassy to transcend the categorizational boundaries established in other parts of the novel.




Stowe further differentiates Cassy by disassociating her from two predominate female qualities passivity and sentimentality. After first meeting Tom, Cassy confides in him her desire to physically harm Legree, asking Tom to perform the act because she lacks the necessary brute strength. When Tom refuses on moral grounds and asks Cassy to wait for Legree to receive his punishment from G-d, Cassy exclaims, "'Haven't I waited? Waited till my head is dizzy and my heart sick? [...] His time's come, and I'll have his heart's blood!'" (344). Instead of letting go of her goal because a man cannot assist her, Cassy takes on the responsibility of committing the action herself, separating her from the characteristic male-dependent, submissive women of the novel. Moreover, Cassy displays very little sappy sentimentality towards those around her, using her powers of reasoning and logical comprehension instead. As Cassy and Emmeline are hiding in the garret together, Emmeline attempts to get emotionally closer to Cassy by holding her hand. Instead of warming up to her companion, Cassy snaps, "'Don't!...you'll get me loving you; and I never mean to love anything, again!'" (356). Cassy denies herself the opportunity to become emotionally attached to Emmeline, placing her desire to survive the situation over her yearning for personal connection. This quality completely disconnects her from the other women of Uncle Tom's Cabin who are, for the most part, obsessed with becoming emotionally involved in each other's lives.




Stowe makes Cassy religiously ambivalent, separating her from the fervent piousness of many of the other slaves. While characters such as Uncle Tom, Eliza, and George seem so secure in their faith in Christianity, Cassy immediately confesses disbelief based on her atrocious experience as a slave. She confesses to Tom, "'Father Tom, I can't pray, I wish I could. I never have prayed since my children were sold [...] when I try to pray, I can only hate and curse...'" (345). Cassy expresses a desire to come to a spiritual understanding, her intellectual comprehension of her life as a slave prevents her from logically believing in any kind of supreme being or divine justice. In this way, Cassy articulates a different religious dialogue than previously found in the novel, claiming that her bitter reality has too strong a hold on her to allow her to believe in the possibility of a greater good. Stowe does not stop here, however, and allow Cassy to become the atheistic archetype. After discussing her lack of faith further with Tom, Cassy exclaims of religion, "'Father Tom, I'll try it!'" (346). Cassy refuses to be defined by her previous opinions, allowing the words of others to influence and change her decisions. Her religious views are constantly in flux, a fluidity that pushes Cassy further over the edge of originality in terms of character qualities in Stowe's novel.




Clearly, Cassy is an unconventional woman who refuses to conform to the requirements of her status as a slave, female, or religious person. Thus Cassy's mere existence in the novel disproves Baldwin's suggestion that Stowe confines her characters to stereotypical roles. In occupying the hazy spaces between definite categories of self, Stowe permits Cassy to embody a rich compilation of truly human characteristics, not simply stereotypical "type" qualities. Cassy becomes an instrument through which Stowe encourages her audience to embrace the difficulties of being human, empowering the readers to participate in the struggle against slavery despite the conflicting elements of their personal backgrounds.




*Baldwin, James. "Everyone's Protest Novel." Cited in Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY, 1995. p. 495-501.


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