In Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin a novel which is perhaps one of the most didactic in the Western cannon, a novel which leaves little room for interpretation of the author's moral point of view, there remains one big moral question that is not as easily answered as a simple question like "Is slavery right or wrong?" This is the question of the character of Augustine St. Clare--a man who espouses great ideals on the evils of slavery, yet continues to hold his own slaves. Is he a hero because of his beliefs or a villain because of his actions (or lack of actions)? And just how important is this question to understanding and responding to the novel, as a whole?
If St. Clare were a minor character, showing up in just a chapter or two, as another stereotype, i.e. the southern slaveholder who doesn't like slavery, he could almost be dismissed as just another interesting element, one more point of view, on the issue of slavery. But St. Clare dominates over one third of this book--his speeches are Stowe's mouthpiece for her abolitionist politics. He and his moral ambiguity cannot be dismissed. In many ways, St. Clare is at the very center of this book. Not just literally and chronologically, but morally. Josephine Donovan calls St. Clare, "one of the most interesting characters in the novel" (79). Elizabeth Ammons goes even further and calls him "the most tortured white man in the book" (175). Here is a man who knows what is right and wrong, has the power to do something about it, but does not.
In many ways, St. Clare is like Thomas Jefferson, a man who spoke out for freedom, who espoused many ideals and even publicly criticized the institution of slavery, but continued to hold all of his slaves up until his death. Jefferson is not the only founding father St. Clare can be compared to. Stowe herself, in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, compares him to Patrick Henry (73-74).
So St. Clare is like the founding fathers of America--he starts something he cannot finish. St. Clare did not literally begin the practice of slavery, but he supports it by his financial arrangements. Like the founding fathers, he's a great thinker, a believer in ideals, yet trapped by the practical world of reality. An issue very much at the center of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
A world that appeared black-and-white to many of the abolitionists with whom Stowe associated was not so clear-cut to Stowe. She showed all sides of the issue as best as she could, despite her obvious bias against slavery. And St. Clare, the slaveowner who opposed slavery, is the biggest example of the moral ambiguity and contradictions that theissue of slavery, and by extension this novel, posed.
St. Clare's moral ambiguity makes him tough to figure out. He says great things yet does horrible things. Perhaps not as horrible as Simon Legree, but the principle is the same--just like Legree, he holds slaves. He keeps other human beings in legal and social inferiority to himself. And in another way, he's even worse than Legree in that he makes promises he doesn't keep. He promises Tom his freedom, but does not deliver it. Legree at least is honest about his character and makes no pretensions to morality. Legree does not assuage his conscience as Haley does by convincing himself that by treating slaves more humanely than others do he's a moral man. So is St. Clare a good guy or a bad guy? Is he a hypocrite? And which is more important: what he says or what he does?
Several critics, such as Donovan, Lang, and Ammons point out that in this story, males are mostly the bad guys who support slavery. So if St. Clare is a good guy who opposes slavery, does that make him feminine? Donovan, Lang, and Ammons seem to think so. They point to this particular section of the text, where St. Clare is being introduced.
Ammons says, "In his heart he subscribes to feminine, Christian values, as his verbal opposition to slavery and his dying word, 'Mother!' testify" (175). Donovan agrees and specifically calls St. Clare "a somewhat feminine character" (79). Lang gives a little more leeway, saying St. Clare is both masculine and feminine--androgenous, as it were--combining "the knowledge and power of men with the goodness of women" (34). But Lang goes on to say that St. Clare's femininity is heightened by the contrasting role-reversal with his wife, Marie, who is much more masculine than a woman should be (43). Marie wants to manage--something only men do--and she also lacks spiritual insight into human equality--something most women have. The world of business and economics is the men's world in this novel; the men hold slaves because of the economic need. Railton points out that it is the world of business, law, and politics--men's world-- that is attacked in this novel (140). But St. Clare does not thrive in the world of business. He's very bad with his money; he throws it around, like the idle rich, and his estate is much more disorderly than the Shelby farm Tom had been used to.
A good way to look at St. Clare's gender role is by comparing him to his twin brother, Alfred. They are polar opposites of each other in many respects. Politically, of course, as Stowe, herself, points out in her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Alfred is the aristocrat who is more moved by the sufferings of a countess than a seamstress, whereas his brother is more the democrat, knows all humans are equal, sees the common link of humanity in us all, and is embarrassed by the heights to which society has put him (73). Alfred is an unthinking, rough, very manly, doing sort of person; whereas his brother is a thinking, pondering, introspective sort of person who, like Hamlet, is unable to act. So if Alfred is extraverted and masculine, Augustine, who is introverted, would be considered more feminine. And one of the things that Lang points out is, "Sentimentalism requires the representation of the inner life as feminine and the outer one as masculine" (41). Lang goes on to say that in this genre Stowe is writing in, women are the ones to sympathize with the oppressed (42). Lang also points out that St. Clare's time and attention are devoted entirely to the care of his child--traditionllay a woman's role (43). So does this make Augustine St. Clare feminine? Well, if one insists that he is a good guy and in this story only females are good guys, he must be. But Ammons is not so sure he's so good. She looks at his inability to act and declares,
Now, when St. Clare is examined as a bad guy rather than a good guy, critics emphasize his masculine side.
But just how good is St. Clare, really? This leads us back to an examination of his actions.
So why can't St. Clare act? (This is the same question asked about Hamlet.) Is St. Clare simply as paralyzed by the slave system as the slaves themselves, as Jehlen suggests (389-390)? Is he too self-absorbed with his own thoughts to really see the effect on others, another possibility suggested by Jehlen (390)? More importantly, if George Shelby can free his slaves at the end, why can't St. Clare? What makes these two white slaveholders who see evil in slavery so different from each other?
Well, one way of answering this perplexing question of St. Clare's moral character is to examine the similarities with the person for whom he was named, St. Augustine, the man who lived between 354 and 430 and wrote "The City of God." One might rightly ask what do St. Augustine and Augustine St. Clare have in common. The answer is much. For one, they were both strongly influenced by their mothers. In his autobiography, Confessions , St. Augustine often dreams about his mother and explains the intense influence. And critic Stephen Railton discusses how obsessed St. Clare is with his mother (131-132). After all, that was his dying word. And this is an important theme in Stowe's book; in fact the whole plot of the book began when a mother (i.e Eliza) risks her life and runs away to save her son.
But the pull of the mother is not the only thing St. Clare and St. Augustine have in common. Both go through a struggle in life to accept Christianity and finally have a dramatic conversion. St. Augustine, the aesthetic, was not born that way. He was more of a hedonist in his youth, in love with the pleasures of the material world. He wanted to accept Christianity but had trouble giving up his material desires. That is until one dramatic day when he had a vision in a garden in Milan and an image of a woman St. Augustine refers to as "Lady Continence" helps him permanently accept Christ in a spiritual conversion.
St. Clare, too, has a conversion. Very late, of course, but he starts out rejecting religion. In fact, Railton points out how St. Clare sees Christianity as hypocritical (138). But after the death of Eva, he comes around and finally accepts Christ and resolves to release his slaves. Finally, with true religion, actions will go hand-in-hand with convictions. (Unfortunately, of course, St. Clare is killed-- appropriately enough, trying to break up a fight--before he can act on that resolution; that saves his soul, but it does not save Tom.) But the point is that before this conversion, just like St. Augustine, St. Clare was struggling. He didn't quite know what to do because he believed freeing his slaves was futile. He was overwhelmed by the immenseness of the peculiar institution of slavery and felt one man could do nothing. Or at least he told himself that to justify his lack of action. Unlike his brother, Alfred, he was not a man of action. After a long talk with Alfred where St. Clare explains to him his views on the evils of slavery, Alfred says to him,
When Alfred says "You take the first throw," he's only referring to a game they are playing. But it is not coincidence that Stowe puts this line into Alfred's mouth right after this conversation. I think that Stowe is talking about how to change the world. Like what Thoreau had said--i.e. that if one person in Massachusetts stopped paying his taxes, slavery would end. Thoreau meant of course that it was a chain reaction. If St. Clare would free his slaves, his neighbor would notice, think about the evils of slavery, and then free his slaves, and so on. Each man's life influences others. Like Eva and Tom do, as they get others to convert and change their ways.
But St. Clare can't quite see that. At least not yet. Not until after Eva's death. At this point, as he is in most of the book, he's caught in an internal struggle. Just like his namesake was struggling within his own mind, until God (in a female form) came and helped convert him. And before God helps St. Clare, in the female form of his daughter, he's caught between his thoughts and his actions. It's the old theme of thinking vs. doing--the outside world vs. the inside world. This is like in the difference between the Harrises' freedom and Tom's freedom. The Harrises gain freedom by running across geographical boundaries whereas Tom achieves his freedom spiritually.
So, if the reason St. Clare did not act was because he was too concerned with the inner world (like Tom) than the outer world, even to the point of neglecting Tom, does that make him a good and moral man? Well, to a white, 19th century reader, yes, he is moral--as much as Hamlet was. It's his thoughts which were important and made him a hero in the eyes of Stowe and her original audience.
But we, here in the 20th century, are forced to ask the same question and confronted with the issue of thinking vs. doing. What matters more? A Christian would probably argue that thoughts are more important than actions. Look at Tom, a Christian would say; he's saved by what he thinks. Tom does not strike back against the physical evil of Legree. He goes so far as to prevent Cassy from killing Legree. Tom has taken "turn the other cheek" to the extreme and dies for it. And he's considered a hero--a Christian martyr.
But other 20th century readers would disagree and argue that actions are more important. Lang gives a typical 20th century response to St. Clare, pointing out that he is aimless, lethargic, drifting (Lang 44). These are qualities even liberal arts majors are hesitant to laud. Lang puts the 20th century response best when she says, "We want acts from him, not symbols" (45).
What did St. Clare accomplish in his life? That's the important question. Not was his own soul saved at the last minute, but whom did he influence? Compare his death to Eva's and Tom's, as Lang does (47). Eva and Tom converted people, changed people from evil to good; they were Christian martyrs. But St. Clare's death accomplished nothing good. All it did was relieve his slaves of a benevolent master and allow them to be sold to a barbarous one.
Or compare St. Clare with George Shelby. George is just as angry over the evils of slavery as St. Clare. Maybe George had a little more affection for the slaves than St. Clare did, having been brought up with Tom, but that's not an excuse for St. Clare not to act on his convictions. Jehlen tries to justify St. Clare's lack of actions by saying he was paralyzed by the typical male conflict of self vs. society (394). But that seems more like male-bashing. Thoreau overcame it and he was not a female. Sure, it's easy to blame St. Clare's faults on the society he was born into, but he did overcome the pro-slavery ideas he was fed as a youngster. He challenged those thoughts and contradicted them in his own mind. If anyone in society could free the slaves, it would be a white, rich male like St. Clare, but he did not. George Shelby did. Not everyone can be a Thoreau, but shouldn't everybody try?
The answer is not easy. I believe it comes down to the philosophical issue of which is valued more, thoughts or actions. Unlike the simple question of whether slavery is right or wrong, the question of whether St. Clare was right or wrong can't be so easily dismissed and disagreement on it is understandable. I think Stowe left St. Clare's moral ambiguity up to the reader to decide--like when Hawthorne says the reader must choose. The reader then becomes a participant in the great moral debate; and when we, as readers, are forced to ask ourselves which is more important, thinking or doing, we learn about our own selves. And the novel now ceases to be an irrelevant curiosity of a bygone institution, but a direct challenge to all of us today. Are we going to just sit around and think about the problems in the world around us, or are we going to get up and do something about them?
When literature, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, can prompt a political movement, start a war, remove an evil, and change a world, then the issue of didacticism is no longer something to be ridiculed by scholars, lost in the world of thoughts, but to be lauded by people of action, people unlike St. Clare. Uncle Tom's Cabin was a call to action, and in that it succeeded.
Donovan, Josephine. Uncle Tom's Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive
Jehlen, Myra. "The Family Militant: Domesticity Versus Slavery in
Lang, Amy Schrager. "Slavery and Sentimentalism: The Strange Career of
Railton, Stephen. "Mothers, Husbands, and Uncle Tom." The Georgia
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.