Cassy As Spiritual Anomaly in Uncle Tom's Cabin

Louisa Amsterdam's picture

In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the enslaved characters do not have a great deal of agency, especially in spiritual matters. Most conform to a simplified mold of either Christian piety or atheism. There are a handful of exceptions to this in the novel, the most interesting of which is Cassy. Though she is described during the introduction of her character as having a “romantic” (405) history, she has the most realistic inner life of all the characters in the novel. Cassy differs significantly from the other slave characters in her beliefs, and that she acts on them without facing later consequences. At the end of the novel, she suddenly chooses to convert to Christianity, ending her spiritual rebellion; Stowe does this both as a reward for the character, and to tame a character that deviates too far from her moral aims. There is a sort of loophole to this, in that Cassy’s beliefs are contingent upon the people she loves, not love of God.

The enslaved characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are somewhat homogenous in their portrayed spiritual beliefs. The major characters, such as Tom and Eliza, are portrayed as devout Christians; the exception to this is George, Eliza’s husband, who often questions God’s benevolence, but ultimately displays piety. Minor characters are either devout or altogether ignorant of spiritual doctrine. Cassy’s belief system, in contrast, is complex and tumultuous. She is torn between several modes of belief. Often, she alternates between atheism and a belief in a God that works against humankind: “’There’s no use calling on the Lord,--he never hears […] there isn’t any God, I believe; or, if there is, he’s taken sides against us.’” (414) If God is not malevolent, He has decided to ignore His creatures, as evidenced to her by her time with Simon Legree. When Tom cries to heaven for help, Cassy, so jaded by her experience, says, “The Lord never visits these parts.” (409) Otherwise, she believes that God exists, and wants to believe in his benevolence; she cannot believe in this, however, because the horrors she has experienced during her life to her make it self-evident that God is not benevolent, and works against humankind: She wants to have faith and forgive, as seen in her powerful reaction to reading about the crucifixion (416), but cannot. Though Cassy doubts the existence of a caring God, she certainly believes in evil, especially within or surrounding her; at one point, she tells Legree to fear her, because she has “the devil” in her (425). Paralleling this, she believes in harsh supernatural consequences for those who perpetrate injustices. She insinuates that Legree will go to hell (434-435). However, those who are oppressed will not face judgment: “it’ can’t be that the Lord will lay sin to our account, […] he won’t charge it to us, when we’re forced to it’” (415). Her beliefs are very complex, and built on experience.

Cassy acts on her deviant spiritual beliefs, and she does this without facing negative consequences. She recounts that she poisoned one of her children, believing him to be better off in an unknown afterlife than a life of slavery, and remains unremorseful about the decision (422). When Tom begins to work on the farm, she tells him “when you‘ve been here a month, you‘ll be done helping anybody, you‘ll find it hard enough to take care of your own skin“ (407), despite his feeling that it is his Christian duty to assist the other slaves. Several times, she contemplates murdering Simon Legree; this is out of a desire to escape, but also a strong thirst for revenge. Though she comes close to killing Legree (455-456), she ultimately settles on pushing him into insanity (486-487). In order to escape with Emmeline, she spreads lies throughout the house’s staff, and steals (467-468). Despite all of these actions being defiant of the novel’s apparent moral framework, Cassy is never punished by the plot events that follow. She escapes Legree’s plantation, finds her long-lost daughter, and lives in comfort. It is as close to “happily ever after” as any character in the novel reaches.

The spiritual independence Cassy enjoys does not last as boldly through the entirety of her depiction in the novel. After reuniting with Eliza, her long-lost daughter, she converts to Christianity (495-496). Beyond her being described as “a devout and tender Christian” (496), not much is said about her newfound spiritual beliefs. On one hand, her conversion serves as an emblem of Stowe’s religious agenda: She is a likeable, intelligent character that, after being lost, finds the light, further proving, for Stowe, the redemptive power of religion. Expanding on this, Stowe may see the conversion as Cassy’s ultimate reward for a life of suffering; she now, presumably, has the joy and comfort of the all-consuming faith that the other enslaved characters, especially Tom, feel in the novel. On a deeper level, though, Stowe cancels Cassy’s spiritual independence, as it frightens her. Her freedom exceeds that of the others in the novel. She is given more license to speculate than any other character, and she does not even convert in the presence of the ultimate devotee, Tom. Though it could be argued that she loses some credibility because she is often described as on the verge of insanity, this label gives her power: She can hold heretical beliefs and not be condemned for them. Also, the instability she displays, we learn, has everything to do with the events of her life (423); it is not her internal defect, but one defense she creates to fight a world that seeks to destroy her. Through these additional powers Stowe lets Cassy roam intellectually, and then suddenly seems to realize that she must cage her before her doubt undermines her religious agenda, and brings doubts to the reader.

However, Cassy’s independence lingers faintly. Her faith ultimately has more to do with people she loves than a love of the Christian God. Her recounting of her life with her first master, with whom she was in love, echoes the story of the garden of Eden; upon first meeting, the two walk together in a garden, and Cassy feels ultimately safe and protected (418). She even states, “’I loved him better than my God and my own soul.’” (418) She again begins to contemplate Christianity with the arrival of Tom, but a factor in this seems to be that she simply feels compassion toward him. Finally, her conversion coincides with her reunion with her daughter; the reunion, an earthly inspiration, prompts the religious feelings that follow. She decides “that God had had mercy on her” (491) after learning Eliza lives. When her reunited family prays together, it stems from the feeling of joy of finding each other, not necessarily a religious sentiment (494).

Cassy is given an inner spiritual life that is more independent and complex than any of the other enslaved characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At the novel’s conclusion, however, she converts to Christianity, and is thus homogenized into the mass of characters with simple spiritual lives. Cassy functions in the novel, among other reasons, to show the power of doubt in opposition to faith within the horrors of slavery. She has, however, too much power, because she is the most believable character, thus, Stowe must remove it at the novel’s conclusion. Cassy does retain a trace amount of spiritual independence, in that her faith centers more around loved ones than God. It is possible that Stowe did not realize this; it may also have been an unconscious way to allow for some doubt to enter a novel so sure of its spiritual position.

 

Comments

Anne Dalke's picture

Spiritual Independence

Louisa--

You've written a complex paper about a complex character, and I think the way you highlight Cassy's function as a "doubting Thomas," a character who explores the edges of the Christian faith that is so central to the book, is striking. So, too, is your (second) notion that Stowe must have realized how transgressive (and attractive, and realistic) this character had become, and so had to reign her in @ the novel's end. Your third turn of the screw (I said this was complex!) is to point out that Cassy's conversion seems to be motivated less by a belief in the world beyond than a pleasure in this world; that it is emotional and familial, rather than religious. Touche.

My first question has to do with where you line up in all of this. You begin by describing Cassy's inner life as being the "most realistic of all the characters in the novel." From what standard? Y/our 21st century notions of what is realistic and appropriate? You show how complex Cassy's beliefs are. How...inconsistent? (though you don't use that word). How...modern? How...postmodern? Your observing that Cassy poisons one of her children, to make him safe, and suffers no remorse for doing so, calls to mind the plot of Toni Morrison's contemporary novel Beloved, in which a slave mother also kills her child, and suffers terribly for doing so; she is haunted almost to death by the child's ghost. Is Cassy more postmodern than Sethe, in her ability to rationalize and accept the consequences of her act, in a world where conventional morality seems to make little sense?

My second question is one of evidence. Although I am compelled by your suggestion that Stowe "canceled Cassy's spiritual independence" because it seemed to undermine her own religious agenda, you don't really have evidence that she was frightened by what the character she created had done. Unless you can find such evidence--in her own commentary on the novel, for instance--your argument here must remain at the level of suggestion.

I have a number of other questions about the implications and consequences of your tri-partite argument. Are you critiquing Cassy's conversion for not being "religious," or are you doing something larger? Much of our discussion of the book had to do with "the real"; are you perhaps revising what counts as either "religious" or "real" in the novel? Or both? Do you find yourself, after staking your third claim, more able to "believe" in Cassy's conversion? You say that Cassy's actions defie the novel's apparent moral framework; would you say, then, that they succeed in revising that "apparent" morality?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
randomness