Back at the home of the Quakers, Eliza and George speak of the happiness they receive from being in each other’s company. They discuss their plans for reaching Canada and realize that a long and dangerous journey awaits them. Phineas, the Quaker who is to drive them to their next stopping-place, tells them that Tom Loker and his gang have arrived at a nearby tavern and plan to come for them that very night. After supper, Phineas, George, Eliza, Harry, and the Hallidays leave the house, hoping to elude their pursuers under cover of darkness. They hurry along, and set up camp in a small space accessible only through a narrow gap between two rocks. If the gang comes to attack them, the men will have to enter one by one.
Tom Loker and his gang arrive, and George stands up on a rock to address them. He asserts his freedom and declares his intention to defend it by force. They shoot at him, but he leaps out the way, swearing that he will shoot any man who tries to enter their campsite. Tom Loker tries to push up and through the rock, and George lives up to his word, wounding him in the side. Loker leaps around until Phineas pushes him over the embankment. The other slave hunters start to fight but eventually retreat, deserting Loker. The Quakers and escaped slaves now approach the slave hunter, wounded and unconscious. Eliza takes pity on Loker, and the Quakers agree to carry him to another Quaker household, where he will be healed. They load the wounded man into their wagon.
“. . . an’t [heaven] where white folks is gwine? I’d rather go to torment, and get away from Mas’r and Missis.”
In the St. Clare household, Uncle Tom slowly takes on more and more responsibility, eventually taking over the finances of the house for his master. His Christian faith keeps him honest and leads him to worry for St. Clare, who spends his nights at parties in drunken revelry. After a talk with Tom, St. Clare promises to stop this behavior. While Tom attempts to reform his master, Miss Ophelia tries to reform the house. Dinah, the cook, demonstrates a culinary genius but keeps no semblance of order. Miss Ophelia cleans up the kitchen, organizes the house, and attempts to instill a Northern sense of efficiency, with some success.
Prue, a slave from down the street, comes into the kitchen bearing hot rolls to sell. Prue says she is miserable and wishes she were dead. In response to the remark of another slave, she admits to getting drunk in order to alleviate her sorrows. As she leaves the kitchen, Tom asks to help her with carrying the rolls. He implores her to stop drinking and find the Lord. She tells him her sordid history. A former master used her to breed children to sell at the slave market. After being sold to her current master, she gave birth to another baby and gratefully anticipated being able to raise the child, having had so many taken from her over the years. However, her mistress soon took ill, and the long hours that Prue had to spend at her bedside, away from the baby, caused her milk to dry up. Her owners refused to pay for purchased milk, and the baby died of starvation.
After Prue leaves, Tom sits alone outside. Eva comes out to take a ride in her new carriage, and asks him what troubles him. He tells her Prue’s story, and she loses all desire to go out that day.
A few days later, the members of the St. Clare household learn that Prue’s master has whipped her to death. Miss Ophelia reacts with shock, and asks if no laws exist to protect against such deeds. St. Clare explains that the law considers slaves to be property, and people may destroy their own possessions at will. Ophelia accuses St. Clare of supporting slavery; he denies this but says, “in a community so organized, what can a man of honorable and humane feelings do, but shut his eyes all he can, and harden his heart? . . . the most I can do is to try and keep out of the way of it.”
Despite this apparent resignation, St. Clare also shows anger against the system and tells of his mother’s moral perfection: “a direct embodiment and personification of the New Testament,” she possessed a love of humanity that contrasted sharply with his father’s aristocratic attitudes, lack of religious sentiment, and embrace of slavery. Although she never confronted his father directly, St. Clare’s mother made a great impression upon his moral constitution. Thus when St. Clare and his twin brother inherited the family’s slaves upon their father’s death, he found himself unable to bear being the master of a huge plantation and hundreds of slaves. St. Clare tells of a slave who was caught trying to run from the plantation. He explains that the slave had a reputation for rebelliousness, but St. Clare, by tending to him and caring for him, “tamed” him. He then made out free papers for the slave. But the slave felt so grateful toward St. Clare that he ripped the papers in two and pledged his life to him. Eva, who is also listening to the story, starts crying and says that hearing these things makes them sink into her heart.
Later, Tom tries to write a letter to his wife and children, but his limited literacy causes him trouble. Eva agrees to help him, and together they write a letter, which Tom sends.
The standoff in Chapter XVII between the escaping slaves and Tom Loker’s gang provides one of the most dramatically compelling moments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, bringing to a crisis the conflict between the escaped slaves’ noble dignity and the slave hunters’ detestable cruelty. Stowe, who often uses the technique of directly addressing the reader, takes the opportunity to point out that if George were a man in Hungary he would be seen as a hero, but because he is a black man in America he is not. In this way, she attempts to simplify and sentimentalize the situation in such a way that her readers will identify with the heroism of George’s stand.
One of Stowe’s most effective techniques of persuasion lies in her presentation of the slaves as real human beings. That is, although Stowe does not portray them with a high degree of “realism” per se, she does render them human to her white audience. In 1852, whites lived such separate lives from blacks that Stowe could dislodge some of their prejudices simply by presenting blacks interacting as a family or feeling joy and sorrow. If she could make whites in the North realize that many of the escaping slaves had families, histories, and pressing human reasons to escape the system of slavery, she could make them see the institution in a new light. Historians have argued that Stowe succeeded in this project, effectively breaking through the familiar defenses of the slave system. By forcing her readers to see the institution from a new perspective, not dulled by custom and familiarity, Stowe may have helped to change many people’s attitudes.
Stowe’s attempts to render the slaves human prove integral to her powerful portrayal of Prue in the next chapter. Having begun to humanize the slaves, she shows a slave who has been dehumanized by the system. If George’s attempt to escape explores the theme of slavery from the standpoint of a noble hero, the story of Prue explores the same theme from the standpoint of a tragic victim. Although Stowe has had her characters discuss at length the evils of slavery, she now illustrates her point graphically, intending to shock the reader on a deeply emotional level. Until Stowe introduces Prue, all of the slaves seem to receive comparably decent treatment; the most cruelty they suffer seems to come when they are between owners, in trade and in transit. But slavery ruins Prue, even before it literally claims her life. She has been treated as nothing more than an animal—useful for breeding other animals to sell—and she has been destroyed morally and psychologically. Whether or not Prue’s story achieves its desired effect on the reader, it definitively converts Miss Ophelia, who realizes suddenly the institution’s wickedness.
Miss Ophelia’s outrage at Prue’s fate, along with her ensuing discussion with St. Clare, helps to shed light on the man’s character. Basically a good-hearted man, he nonetheless feels that he has no choice but to uphold a system of which he disapproves. This contradiction attests to the pernicious power of the slavery, forceful enough to override individual decency. Indeed, many people in 1850s America found slavery fundamentally repugnant, and yet the system persisted. The conversation between Miss Ophelia and St. Clare explores how this is possible. In St. Clare’s description of his father, he explains how much depends on the moral lines that an individual chooses to draw. While one may stand for freedom, one can choose to apply the ideal to men only, to whites only, or to white male landowners only.
Eva’s assistance to Tom in writing his letter serves as a small ray of hope in Chapter XIX. Stowe makes an innocent child her instrument for hope as she demonstrates how an act of nonjudgmental love can help the oppressed to find their own voices, to write their own words, and attest to their own humanity.