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.