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Analysis Of Miss Ophelia Character In Uncle Tom’s Cabin By Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Miss Ophelia is Augustine St. Clare’s cousin from Vermont. She is a strict and religious woman who moves to New Orleans to live with the St. Clare’s and take care of Eva, as Marie St. Clare is often ill. Miss Ophelia, being from the North, is an abolitionist but has trouble interacting with, or even touching, African Americans. After Eva’s death, Miss Ophelia changes her attitude towards Topsy and learns to see the enslaved as human beings. I believe the thesis for Uncle Tom’s Cabin is characterized by Miss Ophelia. She is the only Northern protagonist and Harriet Beecher Stowe created Miss Ophelia’s character as a focal point for an audience, who feels they roughly understand racism and slavery but who haven’t truly evaluated their prejudices’ and don’t know that love will eventually help them conquer these problems. This connects with readers who hadn’t decided what side of the Mason-Dixon line they affiliated with. Miss Ophelia is the perfect example of Northerners who, at first, don’t have a strong opinion about slavery, but after interacting with it, finally find their side on the matter. When writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I believe Stowe needed a demonstrate a Northerner’s thoughts and ideas on race, slavery, and love; specifically, to convert an audience that were happy to condemn Southern practices, while simultaneously being unwilling to interact with the enslaved or even freed African Americans.

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If you lived North of the Mason-Dixon line you were considered an abolitionist, although Stowe proposes that they were actually hypocrites based on Miss Ophelia’s actions. I believe Stowe was ahead of her time by hinting that the North was racist. This can be seen the first time the reader interacts with Miss Ophelia’s when she arrives on the St. Clare’s plantation.

“Well !” said Miss Ophelia, “you Southern children can do something that I couldn’t.”

“What now, pray?” said St. Clare.

“Well, I want to be kind to everybody, and I wouldn’t have anything hurt ; but as

to kissing–”

“Niggers,’ said St. Clare, “that you’re not up to, hey?”

“Yes, that’s it. How can she?”

Miss Ophelia and St. Clare have this conversation right after Eva flies into the arms of ‘Mammy’. Miss Ophelia is clearly taken a back by the events that just occurred before her eyes. I’m sure in her mind, she is thinking how progressive she must be, being an abolitionist from the North; however, she simply can’t fathom having physical contact with one of the enslaved. This ultimately shows that her feelings as an abolitionist are strictly superficial, because how can you want a people to be free but feel repulsed by their presence?

Not only did Miss Ophelia not want physical contact, she didn’t even want personal interaction with the enslaved. As her days with the St. Clare’s continue, Miss Ophelia learns about the life and death of Prue and she begins to question St. Clare.

“I thought it would come to that, some time,” said St. Clare, going on with his paper.

“Thought so ! an’t you going to do anything about it ?” said Miss Ophelia. “Haven’t you got any selectmen, or anybody, to interfere and look after such matters?”

Miss Ophelia is outraged at St. Clare’s remark and action, or lack-there-of; however, she never bothers to ask or think what she, herself, can do about this predicament. She just demands that others should assist in this matter while not dispensing any effort herself to try to fix any of the quandary. In other words, the symbolism of the North entails that they are content with African Americans as long as they aren’t obligated to interact with any personally.

“You would think no harm in a child’s caressing a large dog, even if he was black; but a creature that can think, and reason, and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at; confess it, cousin. I know the feeling among some of you Northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having it ; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do, obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels North, how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?”

Miss Ophelia asks Augustine why he lets Eva sit on Tom’s lap and his answer is the epitome of what Stowe is driving at. Stowe points out that the North is also racist and she uses Miss Ophelia’s character to represent her own realization of a Northern problem.

The novel demonstrates not only the anguish of the enslaved, but also that slavery, as an institution, creates instability in social structures. Stowe’s use of Miss Ophelia is an effective example of her belief that it’s not just the obligation of the South to abolish slavery, but also the North’s obligation as well.

“Well, of course, I couldn’t bring them. They were little dirty things I couldn’t have them about ; and besides, they took up too much of her time; but I believe that Mammy has always kept up a sort of sulkiness about this. She won’t marry anybody else; and I do believe, now, though she knows how necessary she is to me, and how feeble my health is, she would go back to her husband to-morrow, if she only could. I do, indeed,” said Marie; “they are just so selfish, now, the best of them.”

Miss Ophelia’s eyes expressed such undisguised amazement at this speech that St. Clare burst into a loud laugh.

Miss Ophelia is completely shocked at Marie’s heartless statement. Marie truly sees the enslaved as objects for her will, she does not even care about Mammy’s children. This complete lack of disregard for human decency is a common attitude amongst the South. However, Miss Ophelia is from the North, and despite the establishment she is racist, she does not wish harm on to the enslaved. This surreal lack of empathy from the St. Clare’s displays to the reader the large contrast between the South and the North.

Eventually, St. Clare gives Topsy, an enslaved girl, to Miss Ophelia to educate her and hopefully learn about slavery. Yet what she truly learns is what Stowe hopes the readers will learn: love. In the first interactions with Topsy, Stowe portrays her in a bad light, describing her as a “creature”. ““Never was born,” reiterated the creature, more emphatically…”. Stowe depicts Topsy like this to show Miss Ophelia’s initial dislike for her. St. Clare states that Miss Ophelia is allowed to treat Topsy however she sees fit. The reader expects Miss Ophelia, as someone from the North, to be kind and humane towards her, as she has preached in the past. However, when Miss Ophelia is teaching Topsy how she likes her bed made and she finds out that Topsy has been stealing, Miss Ophelia shakes her, threatens her, locks her in a closet and says to St. Clare, “how I’m going to manage that child without whipping her”. These reactions are typical of a Southerner, not generally what you would expect from a Northerner who preaches to treat the enslaved as human beings. However, this attitude begins to change after Eva and Topsy speak.

“But people can love you, if you are black, Topsy. Miss Ophelia would love you, if you were good.”

Topsy gave the short, blunt laugh that was her common mode of expressing incredulity.

“Don’t you think so?” said Eva.

“No; she can’t bar me, ‘cause I ‘m a nigger! she’d ‘s soon have a toad touch her ! There can’t nobody love niggers, and niggers can’t do nothin’!

Miss Ophelia begins to realize that teaching a slave, who has been subjugated and brutalized their entire lives, is very difficult. She then comes to the conclusion ““I’ve always had a prejudice against negroes,” said Miss Ophelia, “and it’s a fact, I never could bear to have that child touch me; but, I didn’t think she knew it”. Afterwards, Miss Ophelia attempts to do the best she can in helping Topsy, but doesn’t understand the correct way to do so until she sees that Eva’s unconditional love for Topsy. That is what succeeded in decreasing Topsy’s wild antics, while Miss Ophelia’s strict ways have failed. Unfortunately, Eva passes away and Topsy feels hopeless. Topsy feels this way because the only person who was ever kind to her and had ever loved her, left her.

“Topsy, you poor child,” she said, as she led her into her room, “don’t give up! I can love you, though I am not like that dear little child. I hope I’ve learnt something of the love of Christ from her. I can love you; I do, and I’ll try to help you to grow up a good Christian girl.”

Miss Ophelia’s voice was more than her words, and more than that were the honest tears that fell down her face.

During this moment, Miss Ophelia manages to win Topsy’s heart and eventually brings her to the North. Miss Ophelia’s revelation is what Stowe is hoping to achieve in the eyes of her readers. She wants the North to feel love towards the enslaved so they might put away their petty differences and help people who need it.

Within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Miss Ophelia clearly comes to represent the Northern ideals, as she is the only Northern protagonist, but shows how different reality is from Northern ideals. Miss Ophelia earns a special devotion from the reader because she is treated as a focus for Stowe’s intended audience. It’s as if Stowe concocted an image of her reader, then turned that image into a character in her book. Ophelia represents what Stowe considered to be an extensive Northern problem: the white abolitionist that has racial prejudice and hatred towards the enslaved. Miss Ophelia despises slavery, but at one point she considers it almost necessary for African Americans. Stowe stresses that Miss Ophelia’s racial prejudice is from ignorance and unfamiliarity rather than from actual experience with the enslaved. At the beginning, Miss Ophelia has rarely spent time in the company of enslaved, she finds them rather disgusting. However, Miss Ophelia might be the only white character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin who actually matures as the story develops. Once St. Clare has Topsy put in Miss Ophelia’s care, she begins to have more interactions with the enslaved. Initially, she tries to teach Topsy out of sheer responsibility, as opposed to caring. But eventually Stowe advocates that duty alone will not eliminate slavery, abolitionists must act out of love in order to eliminate slavery. Eva’s death is the catalyst in Miss Ophelia’s revolution, and she comes to love Topsy as a human being, overcoming her racial prejudice and becomes a symbol for Stowe’s Northern readers.

References

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  1. Ammons, Elizabeth. “Heroines in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” American Literature, vol. 49, no. 2, 1977, pp. 161–179. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2925420.
  2. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Boston: John P. Jewett & Co., 1852
09 March 2021

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