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.