Tom and the other slaves continue to travel down the Mississippi River, joined by travelers and workers headed for New Orleans. Tom has won Haley’s confidence with his meek obedience. Therefore, he has received permission to roam the boat freely. He sits up in a nook in the cotton bales, reading his Bible. While there, Tom meets a little girl named Eva St. Clare. An angel of a girl, she dances among the passengers, spreading smiles and good cheer. Tom and Eva quickly become friends, and she tells him she will ask her father, Augustine St. Clare, if he will buy Tom.
One day, Eva falls over the side of the boat, and, while everyone else stands by in shock, Tom plunges over the side of the boat and saves her. Grateful to Tom for rescuing his daughter, St. Clare offers to buy Tom from Haley; Eva urges him to pay whatever price is asked. When her father inquires why she is so intent on buying Tom, she answers that she wants to make Tom happy. St. Clare signs the bill of sale and tells Tom that he shall be in charge of driving the family’s coach.
Here we learn the background of the St. Clare family, beginning with Augustine St. Clare. St. Clare was born to a wealthy planter in Louisiana. Raised by a mother of unparalleled goodness, he grew up soft and gentle. When he became a man, he fell in love with a beautiful woman in the North whom he wanted to marry. However, he received a letter from her guardian saying that she was to marry someone else, and he married a different woman, Marie. After his marriage to Marie, he received a letter from his true love explaining that he had been the victim of deceit, and that she had always loved him. He wrote her back, saying that there was nothing he could do; he was married to Marie, and his heart was broken.
We also learn something about St. Clare’s wife. Possessive, materialistic, and vain, Marie irritates everyone around her. She suffers from hundreds of imagined illnesses and constantly complains.
Next the reader learns that, to help him take care of his child and his difficult wife, St. Clare has brought his cousin, Miss Ophelia, to live with him. A robust woman from New England, Ophelia proves industrious and responsible. Although she and St. Clare possess nearly opposite dispositions—St. Clare is passionate and volatile—they love each other dearly. She regards her years in his New Orleans household as a kind of “project”—a burden that she willingly undertakes for the good of the family.
St. Clare, Eva, and Tom arrive at the house. Adolph, the black doorman, shows Tom into the kitchen, and Marie and St. Clare begin to fight. She berates him for having left her alone too long. He gives her a gift, but she refuses to be placated.
The next morning, Marie complains about the slaves, calling them selfish creatures. Eva points out that her mother could not survive without Mammy, an old black woman who sits up long nights with Marie. But Marie grumbles that Mammy talks and thinks too much about her husband and children, from whom Marie has separated her. When St. Clare and Eva exit the room, Marie begins to complain to Miss Ophelia, who generally greets her remarks with blank silence.
In contrast to her mother, Eva remains filled with joy and does all she can to make Tom happy. Ever adoring and generous, she tells Marie that a house full of slaves makes for a much more pleasant life than a house without them because, with slaves, one has more people to love. Extending her affection lavishly on everyone, Eva gives no thought to the differences between blacks and whites.
Stowe’s idealization of Little Eva is matched only by her idealization of Uncle Tom. Both characters manifest supreme virtue and goodness, furthering the book’s religious messages. Because of Eva’s status as an innocent child, she poses no threat to readers. For this reason, Stowe can use her to voice what was then a radical view of religious thought and racial equality.
While Eva’s character is highly idealized, Miss Ophelia receives what may be the most realistic treatment of any female in the book. While Stowe’s other women—Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, and Rachel Halliday, for example—tend to appear as only slightly varying versions of the “perfect” wife-mother, Miss Ophelia approaches the world without the bleeding heart of these characters. Educated and independent, Miss Ophelia is motivated not by feminine emotion, but by rational thought and a sense of practical duty. The reader has seen how Stowe uses her other women characters to prod gently at her readers’ consciences, as well as to appeal particularly to Northern mothers and wives who may have had moral influence in their households. With Miss Ophelia, the author may be diversifying her strategy. While Stowe plays on the emotions of deep-feeling mothers, she also aims to speak to women more like St. Clare’s independent cousin. An intellectually adept Northern woman, Miss Ophelia is informed about the issues surrounding slavery but has not yet examined her own prejudices. The reader can see evidence of Miss Ophelia’s unconscious prejudice in her reaction to Eva’s color-blind displays of affection. Eva tries to convince her cousin that they should all be motivated by love, and although Miss Ophelia agrees on a theoretical level, she still recoils at the thought of the girl kissing and hugging the slaves.
Unlike Miss Ophelia, St. Clare is less moved by what he “should” do than by what he feels. This allows him to denounce slavery without hesitation and without considering logical consequences of abolition. Yet this passion without practicality leads to a policy in which St. Clare condemns slavery without taking action to eradicate it. Stowe thus treats St. Clare with much of the same irony she extended to Mr. Shelby. As Stowe develops the main theme of her novel—the evil of slavery and its incompatibility with Christian morality—she continually explores ambiguous characters and situations that seem either to justify or to excuse the practice of slavery. St. Clare and Shelby, good men who own slaves and act as kindly masters to them, provide two of the most interesting of these ambiguous characters. Good men and good masters, they offer a test case for the institution of slavery. Stowe seeks to show that the institution is so inherently evil as to render oxymoronic the notion of “beneficent” slavery or “benign” slaveholders.
Stowe portrays the slave-master relationship as creating an intolerable gulf in power, class, liberty and education, even when it exists between two mutually well-meaning men such as Shelby and Tom, who earnestly care for each other’s welfare. This gulf first becomes clear when Shelby smokes his cigar to soothe himself for cleaving Tom’s family apart. And now the reader sees the romantic and sentimental St. Clare arguing with Ophelia on behalf of the humanity of his slaves while he continues to own them as property. In the years prior to the Civil War, many people excused slavery by claiming that most slaveholders were good men or acted in the interest of their slaves. Stowe uses her irony to argue against this idea. She implies that the slaves’ interests do not lie in having kind masters; instead, they lie in being set free. Any man who owns slaves automatically acts against his slaves’ best interests simply by continuing to own them.
The role of women in Uncle Tom’s Cabin undergoes a slight complication in these chapters, as the reader encounters women who do not fit into the religious feminine ideal that Stowe has offered so far. Not only does Ophelia differ from previously presented women; Marie offers a sharp contrast to those ideal types. The grating presence of Marie may serve to emphasize the goodness of the women whom Stowe seeks to uphold as models. Moreover, Marie seems to be intended to represent a white woman who is inferior to her own slaves in her personal qualities. This inferiority of character challenges the assumed white-black moral hierarchy.