From the moment that Tom saw him approaching, he felt an immediate and revolting horror at him, that increased as he came near. He was evidently, though short, of gigantic strength. His round, bullet head, large, light-gray eyes, with their shaggy, sandy eyebrows, and stiff, wiry, sun-burned hair, were rather unprepossessing items, it is to be confessed; his large, coarse mouth was distended with tobacco, the juice of which, from time to time, he ejected from him with great decision and explosive force; his hands were immensely large, hairy, sun-burned, freckled, and very dirty, and garnished with long nails, in a very foul condition. This man proceeded to a very free personal examination of the lot. He seized Tom by the jaw, and pulled open his mouth to inspect his teeth; made him strip up his sleeve, to show his muscle; turned him round, made him jump and spring, to show his paces.
The narrator introduces Simon Legree as viewed by Tom who stands waiting to be sold in the slave market of New Orleans. The buyer, Simon Legree, described as a bestial character, inspects Tom the way one would inspect merchandise before purchasing. Legree has every possible physical and social defect, plus brute strength. The reader evaluates Legree through Tom’s eyes and feels Tom’s sense of dread. Legree and his torments operate as the last great tests of Tom’s faith.
When Legree scolded and stormed, Emmeline was terrified; but when he laid his hand on her, and spoke as he now did, she felt as if she had rather he would strike her. The expression of his eyes made her soul sick, and her flesh creep. Involuntarily she clung closer to the mulatto woman by her side, as if she were her mother. “You didn’t ever wear ear-rings,” he said, taking hold of her small ear with his coarse fingers. “No, Mas’r!” said Emmeline, trembling and looking down. “Well, I’ll give you a pair, when we get home, if you’re a good girl. You needn’t be so frightened; I don’t mean to make you work very hard. You’ll have fine times with me, and live like a lady,—only be a good girl.”
The repulsive Legree plays with Emmeline, a young slave he has just purchased in the same lot as Uncle Tom. Legree makes his sexual intentions toward Emmeline quite obvious. Legree portrays the very worst depravations of slavery, especially physical cruelty and rape. During his own descent into personal hell, Uncle Tom will help protect Emmeline and sacrifice himself to help her escape.
Cassy had always kept over Legree the kind of influence that a strong, impassioned woman can ever keep over the most brutal man; but, of late, she had grown more and more irritable and restless, under the hideous yoke of her servitude, and her irritability, at times, broke out into raving insanity; and this liability made her a sort of object of dread to Legree, who had that superstitious horror of insane persons which is common to coarse and uninstructed minds. When Legree brought Emmeline to the house, all the smouldering embers of womanly feeling flashed up in the worn heart of Cassy, and she took part with the girl; and a fierce quarrel ensued between her and Legree.
The narrator describes Legree’s private life and his relationship with Cassy, a slave he uses as a mistress. Cassy influences Legree through a combination of sexual appeal and fear. Now Legree plans to replace Cassy with Emmeline, who is only a young girl. Cassy’s lapses into insanity are real, the result of many cruelties in her past. The need to protect Emmeline gives Cassy a sense of purpose that counters her insanity.
Legree was provoked beyond measure by Tom’s evident happiness; and riding up to him, belabored him over his head and shoulders. “There, you dog,” he said, “see if you’ll feel so comfortable, after that!” But the blows fell now only on the outer man, and not, as before, on the heart. Tom stood perfectly submissive; and yet Legree could not hide from himself that his power over his bond thrall was somehow gone. And, as Tom disappeared in his cabin, and he wheeled his horse suddenly round, there passed through his mind one of those vivid flashes that often send the lightning of conscience across the dark and wicked soul. He understood full well that it was GOD who was standing between him and his victim, and he blasphemed him.
Legree’s tortures of Tom have sent the slave into the darkest valleys of despair, but that despair has led Tom to a vision of Christ that gives him spiritual victory over his enemy. In this scene, as Legree fails to beat Tom into submission, he realizes that God keeps Tom out of his power. Legree rejects the choice of goodness and becomes the embodiment of evil, the man who blasphemes God.
I believe you are the devil!” said Legree. “Come back you hag,—come back, Cass! You shan’t go!” But Cassy laughed wildly, and fled on. He heard her open the entry doors that led to the garret. A wild gust of wind swept down, extinguishing the candle he held in his hand, and with it the fearful, unearthly screams; they seemed to be shrieked in his very ear. Legree fled frantically into the parlor, whither, in a few moments, he was followed by Cassy, pale, calm, cold as an avenging spirit, and with that same fearful light in her eye.
Legree falls prey to his own fears, superstitions, and guilt after he recognizes the power of God in Uncle Tom. Without his realizing the truth, Legree is also being tormented by Cassy, who has been working on his superstitions as part of her own escape plan. Such a plot line highlights a common abolitionist assumption: Southern slaveholders are terrified of their slaves.
There were reports around the country, soon after that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!” By a singular coincidence, on the very night that this vision appeared to Legree, the house-door was found open in the morning, and some of the Negroes had seen two white figures gliding down the avenue towards the high-road.
Here, the narrator explains how Legree dies of his own fears and evil visions, compounded by acute alcohol poisoning. By this time, Uncle Tom is dead at Legree’s hand, having been beaten severely for refusing to divulge Cassy and Emmeline’s whereabouts. The reader cheers Cassy on as she gets her revenge. With a series of ghostly appearances, Cassy and Emmeline literally scare Legree to death.