Mrs. Shelby stood like one stricken. Finally, turning to her toilet, she rested her face in her hands, and gave a sort of groan.
“This is God’s curse on slavery!—a bitter, bitter, most accursed thing!—a curse to the master and a curse to the slave! I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours,—I always felt it was,—I always thought so when I was a girl,—I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over,—I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom—fool that I was!”
Mrs. Shelby, the wife of a plantation owner, reacts to her husband’s news that he has sold Tom, one of his slaves. Tom lives as a devout Christian and a faithful servant, and Mr. Shelby often promised Tom his freedom, so Mrs. Shelby feels horrified by her husband’s action. Mr. Shelby’s sale of Tom makes his wife realize that she has been foolish to treat slavery like anything but a sin. The incompatibility of true Christianity and slavery exists as a major theme of the novel. Mrs. Shelby represents the Christian conscience within the slave-owning community.
“If you love me, you must not interrupt me so. Listen to what I say. I want to speak to you about your souls . . . Many of you, I am afraid, are very careless. You are thinking only about this world. I want you to remember that there is a beautiful world, where Jesus is. I am going there, and you can go there. It is for you, as much as me. But, if you want to go there, you must not live idle, careless, thoughtless lives. You must be Christians. You must remember that each one of you can become angels, and be angels forever . . . If you want to be Christians, Jesus will help you. You must pray to him; you must read—”
The child checked herself, looked piteously at them, and said, sorrowfully,
“O dear! you can’t read—poor souls!” and she hid her face in the pillow and sobbed, while many a smothered sob from those she was addressing, who were kneeling on the floor, aroused her.
Evangeline St. Clare, an impossibly angelic little girl now on her deathbed, addresses the servants in the St. Clare household and entreats them to become Christians. Little Eva and her favorite slave, Uncle Tom, represent the true Christians of the novel. Their Christian witness often appears overly sentimental. Yet these emotional scenes highlight the cruelty of slavery and establish the tension between principles and action. After all, Little Eva’s heart-wringing deathbed scene does not lead to freedom for any of the St. Clare slaves, and Uncle Tom’s faith only helps him bear, not escape, slavery.
When a heavy weight presses the soul to the lowest level at which endurance is possible, there is an instant and desperate effort of every physical and moral nerve to throw off the weight; and hence the heaviest anguish often precedes a return tide of joy and courage. So was it now with Tom. The atheistic taunts of his cruel master sunk his before dejected soul to the lowest ebb; and, though the hand of faith still held to the eternal rock, it was a numb, despairing grasp. Tom sat, like one stunned, at the fire. Suddenly everything around him seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and bleeding. Tom gazed, in awe and wonder, at the majestic patience of the face; the deep, pathetic eyes thrilled him to his inmost heart; his soul woke, as, with floods of emotion, he stretched out his hands and fell upon his knees,—when, gradually, the vision changed: the sharp thorns became rays of glory; and, in splendor inconceivable, he saw that same face bending compassionately towards him, and a voice said, “He that overcometh shall sit down with me on my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father on his throne.”
The narrator describes Tom’s morale at the lowest extreme of his enslavement. The cruel Simon Legree, a man determined to beat Tom into total submission, resorts to physically torturing Tom. Now Tom’s struggle to keep his faith is rewarded by a direct vision of Jesus Christ, who assures Tom of his place in heaven. Tom’s epiphany gives him so much strength that Legree’s increasing hatred can never conquer his spirit. Tom, now exultant in the power of the Lord, makes it his mission to minister to his fellow slaves, all victims of Legree’s constant cruelties.