The next morning, when Mrs. Shelby rings the bell for Eliza, she receives no answer. Realizing what has happened, Mrs. Shelby thanks the Lord. She rejoices that Eliza has fled rather than permitting her child to be taken from her. Mr. Shelby laments the escape, however, fearing that Mr. Haley might think he has helped Eliza to run away in order to avoid selling the boy.
Haley arrives to take Tom and Harry. Hearing from the other slaves that Eliza has run off with her son, he barges into the house, confronting Mr. Shelby with the news. Mr. Shelby asks him to be more polite in Mrs. Shelby’s company. The men talk for some moments, Mr. Shelby becoming more and more repulsed by Haley’s coarse manners. Finally, Shelby asks several of the slaves to ready a horse for Haley, who intends to ride in pursuit of Eliza. The slaves take as long as possible, and then hide a beechnut under the saddle, in such a way that any weight on the saddle would cause the horse great annoyance. Mrs. Shelby tells Sam, one of the slaves, to show Haley the road and escort him on his way, but cautions not to ride the horses too fast, ostensibly because one of them was recently lame. When Haley sits on his horse, the colt feels the beechnut and throws Haley off, and the whole place erupts into chaos, delaying the man for some time more. By the time the horses are ready again, it is nearly lunchtime. Sam suggests that Haley may need to eat before the journey, and Mrs. Shelby, overhearing, emerges to invite Haley in to dine.
When Eliza leaves Uncle Tom’s cabin, she feels desperate and lonely, and tortured by a maternal sense of panic for her imperiled child. She prays to God and travels throughout the night, finally reaching the Ohio River, the barrier between the South and the North. Springtime ice covers half of the waterway, preventing the river’s ferry from running. Eliza learns from the hostess of a bank-side public house that a boatman might attempt a crossing later in the evening. Eliza takes a room at an inn so that her son can sleep. From the window, she gazes out at the river, desperately longing to cross.
Back at Shelby’s farm, Aunt Chloe prepares the meal at the most leisurely pace possible, in an attempt to delay the chase. Finally, around two o’clock, the search party embarks. Andy and Sam, two of the younger slaves, serve as Haley’s escorts. The young slaves trick Haley into following a route that Eliza would not have taken. Haley is slowed down considerably, but he finally makes it to the town on the river, forty-five minutes after Eliza has laid Harry to sleep in the rented room. Sam sees Eliza standing in the window, and, allowing his hat to be blown off, shouts as if in surprise. With this action, he alerts her to their presence. She throws open the door to her room, which faces the river, grabs Harry, and leaps over the rushing currents onto a raft of ice. She springs from one chunk of ice to the next, oblivious to all pain and cold, until she reaches the other side. A man on the other side helps her up. Eliza recognizes him as Mr. Symmes, the owner of a farm not far from her old home. He fears to offer her shelter himself, but points out a house where she will receive aid.
The bewildered Haley cannot follow Eliza across the river and must return to the tavern. There he meets up with Tom Loker, a man who hunts slaves professionally. Haley pays Loker and his partner Marks fifty dollars to hunt down Eliza and Harry. The three men make the following deal: if Loker and Marks catch the slaves, they may take Eliza as long as they bring Harry back to Haley. Meanwhile, Andy and Sam, unaware of this transaction, return to the Shelby house with the joyful story of Eliza’s leap.
“. . . I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate.”
Across the river in Ohio, Senator Bird sits in his house with his wife. The Ohio State Senate has just passed a law forbidding the assistance of runaway slaves (The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), and Senator Bird voted in its favor. Mrs. Bird reprimands her husband, declaring the law immoral and asking Senator Bird if he could truly turn away a helpless slave if one were to come to him for help. At that moment, Eliza and Harry arrive at the Birds’ doorstep, directed there by Mr. Symmes, and Senator Bird and his wife bring them into the house. Senator Bird knows he cannot harbor them there for the night, but he drives them to a safe house in the woods, owned by John Van Trompe, a former Kentucky slaveholder whose conscience compelled him to move to the North and free his slaves. Senator Bird hands John a ten-dollar bill to give to Eliza.
The theme of female virtue dominates this section. Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird assert their beliefs over and against their husbands’ socially conditioned viewpoints, and, although they lack the more worldly power of men, they can exert influence within the family and the household. This figure of the pious, loving mother recurs throughout the book. Stowe suggests that Eliza’s amazing leap onto the river ice is made possible only through the unique power of a mother’s love, and Eliza earns Mrs. Bird’s sympathy in part by appealing to her grief for her own dead child. Insofar as Stowe intends many of her female figures, such as Mrs. Shelby and now Mrs. Bird, to serve a political purpose, these women never develop into full characters. Rather, they act as models of morality, advocating abolition on a theoretical level, and trying to help the slaves as much as possible on a practical one.
It is important to note that Stowe’s women figures do not assert their beliefs out of a sense of female independence or defiance per se. Rather, these women act on religious convictions. Here and throughout the novel, the value of Christian religious doctrine emerges as a central theme, serving as the standard of virtue by which slavery must be deemed wrong. Thus Mrs. Bird cites the Bible when declaring the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Still, despite Stowe’s use of her female characters to emphasize Christian morality, many readers consider Stowe’s women to be proto-feminist figures because they insist upon the significance and value of their own opinions and defy the male characters in doing so.
Eliza’s escape across the river is the novel’s most famous scene. More than a memorable image from the book, the “miraculous” leap is an important symbol, representing the passage from slavery to freedom and the courage and intrepidity required to make such a passage. However, it is important to realize, as Stowe’s readers would have understood, that Eliza’s passage into Ohio does not guarantee her freedom. The Fugitive Slave Act barred Northerners from assisting runaway slaves and allowed escaped slaves caught in the North to be returned to their masters in the South. Thus, throughout the novel, anyone who helps Eliza, like the Birds, does so in violation of the law. Eliza must travel all the way to Canada to secure her freedom definitively.