Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Ophelia St. Clare

Probably the most complex female character in the novel, Ophelia deserves special attention from the reader because she is treated as a surrogate for Stowe’s intended audience. It is as if Stowe conceived an imaginary picture of her intended reader, then brought that reader into the book as a character. Ophelia embodies what Stowe considered a widespread Northern problem: the white person who opposes slavery on a theoretical level but feels racial prejudice and hatred in the presence of an actual black slave. Ophelia detests slavery, but she considers it almost necessary for blacks, against whom she harbors a deep-seated prejudice—she does not want them to touch her. Stowe emphasizes that much of Ophelia’s racial prejudice stems from unfamiliarity and ignorance rather than from actual experience-based hatred. Because Ophelia has seldom spent time in the presence of slaves, she finds them uncomfortably alien.

However, Ophelia is one of the only characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who develops as the story progresses. Once St. Clare puts Topsy in her care, Ophelia begins to have increased contact with a slave. At first she tries to teach Topsy out of a sense of mere duty. But Stowe suggests that duty alone will not eradicate slavery—abolitionists must act out of love. Eva’s death proves the crucial catalyst in Ophelia’s transformation, and she comes to love Topsy as a human being, overcoming her racial prejudice and offering a model to Stowe’s Northern readers.