Martyrdom and the Unjust Society
George Sand wrote of Stowe's style in Uncle Tom's Cabin, "We should feel that genius is heart, that power is faith, that talent is sincerity, and finally, success is sympathy" (Fields, Ed., 154). Faith, sincerity, and sympathy are indeed the overarching narrative tones Stowe strikes in the novel and are the feelings she wishes to awaken in her readers. Sympathy is likewise what Eliot wishes to stir in her readers in relating Maggie Tulliver's tragic life. Both Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Mill on the Floss utilize religious themes to accomplish these aims. Each points out the hypocrisy of conventional religious sentiments, highlights sincere religious sentiments within a few select individuals, and compares its suffering hero/heroine to Christ the martyr. By casting their narratives in familiar religious paradigms, the authors ably strike deepest into the hearts of their readers, impressing them with the tragedy of the situations they describe.
Religious authority and traditional Christian themes play a significant role in Uncle Tom's Cabin. As part of the nineteenth century tide of American Protestantism in which social behavior and spiritual regeneration were seen as interdependent (Reynolds, 81), Stowe felt the novel was an "errand of mercy," by calling for an improvement in human welfare and humanitarian reform (Crim, Ed., 583). She contrasted the social system of slavery, which corrupted the owners, oppressed the innocent, and undermined American democratic ideals, with a theological system based on compassion, mercy, and "brotherly" love. And this theological viewpoint is presented as the higher moral authority, one that any true believer cannot fail to recognize and obey. The novel is both an appeal for righteous moral action on the part of white northerners against slavery and a confirmation of Christian life as spiritually sublime in the rendering of characters like little Eva and Uncle Tom.
George Eliot also deals with themes of morality and religious sensibility in The Mill on the Floss. Narrow and unimaginative morality is contrasted with wide-ranging fellow-feelings of sympathy and compassion, the latter being the truer expression of Christian teaching. Eliot believed that a "large sympathy" beyond egoism was indispensible to moral growth, therefore the individual must develop within the confines of duty to his/her community (Jones, 59). Through her choices, Maggie Tulliver, like Uncle Tom, represents an ideal of Christian suffering and passive transcendence. And, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eliot's novel is both an indictment of moral hypocrisy and inaction and an affirmation of the redemptive power of patient endurance. Religious authority is presented in many guises in Uncle Tom's Cabin in order to contrast real religious feeling with the hypocritical forms of religious sentiment. Mrs. Shelby evinces real Christian virtue and understanding when she exclaims upon learning of her husband's intention to sell Tom and Eliza's son, "I was a fool to think that I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours...I never thought that slavery was right" (33). Yet she is impotent in changing the system or even affecting her husband's actions. She is subject to the system herself despite her efforts at alleviating her slaves' hardships; her moral authority is relegated to the theoretical in no small part because she is a woman. Likewise, Augustine St. Clair recognizes the evils of slavery and also tries to alleviate its effects by treating his slaves well. And one might think being a wealthy man, St. Clare could more easily put his ideas into practice, but when his brother asks him why he doesn't free his slaves he replies, "One man can do nothing against the whole action of a community. Education, to do anything, must be a state education; or there must be enough agreed in it to make a current" (269). Thus, St. Clare conveniently renders himself ineffective.
Yet, Stowe makes these characters' actions understandable, if pathetic, whereas she absolutely condemns those who distort Christian teaching to justify slavery. Stowe expresses her contempt when St. Clare exclaims to his wife, Marie, "Religion! Is that what you hear at church religion? Is that which can bend and turn, and descend and ascend, to fit every crooked phase of selfish, worldly society, religion? Is that religion which is less scrupulous, less generous, less just, less considerate for man, than even my own ungodly, worldly, blinded nature?" (182). Of course, St. Clare's answer, and Stowe's, is no. True religion must not submit to and be used by the wealthy and powerful to justify injustice, but must flow from the spring of sincere spiritual feeling.
The contrast between true religious feeling and the outer form of it is also a theme of The Mill on the Floss. Most of the characters who claim to live their lives according to a religious standard, or exhort others to, are usually disguising their adherence to a narrow, puritanical notion of morality that is based as much on public opinion as on Christian teaching. Distant from the great social issue of slavery, this novel is able to explore the finer distinction between those who uphold the letter of Christian teaching and those who adhere to the spirit of it. Eliot writes of the Dodsons, "Their religion was of a simple, semi-pagan kind, but there was no heresy in it...[consisting of adherence] to traditional duty and propriety" (364). A surplus of passionate piety, such as Maggie temporarily finds comfort in as an adolescent, whould horrify them. Unlike Simon Legree, no one is branded as being outright evil in St. Oggs, yet Eliot shows how narrow morality disguised as religious sentiment can still be selfishly used to maintain the status quo and to stifle sympathy for one's fellows. This happens not only when the town condemns Maggie after she returns from her escapade with Stephen Guest, but is most particularly examined in Tom's character and his treatment of Maggie. Tom, like his aunts, lacks imagination and that flexibility of mind which enables one to empathize with another's plight. He is "the man of maxims...the popular representative of the minds that are guided in their moral judgment solely by general rules...without the trouble of exerting patience, discrimination, impartiality" (628). As Maggie tells him, "You have no pity-you have no sense of your own imperfections and your own sins" (450). Even Dr. Kenn, who represents actual religious authority and who is presented as a sincerely compassionate man attempting to aid Maggie with support, acceptance and sympathy, has eventually to bow to social pressure.
The aforementioned characters in both novels actually highlight the ineffectiveness of the teachings and exhortations of the traditional religious authorities to affect society for the better. Even characters who have their hearts in the right place, like Mrs. Shelby and Dr. Kenn, are helpless when their viewpoints contradict those of the larger society and, combined with the lukewarm indifference and spiritual apathy of most people who are like St. Clare or Tom, it is no wonder the overall power of religiously motivated understanding and reform is limited. Yet each author does present an alternative role for those with genuine spiritual feelings to play in affecting society for the better. Stowe holds up the Quakers, or the Society of Friends, as a group possibly to be emulated, but at the very least to be admired, for acting directly and forthrightly from their consciences and beliefs. More specifically, both little Eva and Uncle Tom are presented as models of Christian sincerity and virtue. Contrasted with her father, Eva is shown to have true religion when she says of the cruelties of slavery, "I'm not nervous, but these things sink into my heart." No matter the hardship, Tom refuses to be swayed from his faith. And the power of true Christian love is shown in the reform and conversion of Topsy. If only in the traditional Protestant sense, the idealized examples of Tom and Eva serve to reawaken the majority of Protestant readers to the original force and depth of their own religious beliefs.
Unlike Stowe, Eliot herself abandoned the Protestant evangelical tradition and sought for a more humanistic philosophy that transcended doctrine. Gleaning ideas from the philosophers Comte, Feuerbach, and Spinoza, Eliot portrayed her many of her characters, like Maggie, who rely on intuitional knowledge, or "feeling" as a basis and guide to moral duty. Newton writes of Eliot, "Instead of submitting feeling to an external authority separate from it, which had been the main difficulty during her Christian period, she discovers that in feeling itself she can find the basis for the larger moral vision she has been seeking" (70). Yet, this "feeling" is not selfish but is based on one's duty to one's fellows. Maggie tells Stephen she cannot do anything that would "rend me away from all that my past life has made dear and holy to me. I can't set out on a fresh life, and forget that" (605). This view is part of Eliot's conception of society as a slowly evolving organsim, an idea articulated by the philospher Auguste Comte (Jones, 90). Society and the individual progress together and when these forces conflict, as in Maggie's case, it is tragic. Eliot argued, "Tragedy consists in the terrible difficulty of the adjustment of our individual needs to the dire necessities of our lot" (Paris, 22-3). Therefore Maggie's story, in a less traditional and more humanistic sense, also serves to awaken in the reader a feeling of sympathy which Eliot thought was the starting point of moral development. Tom's absolute faith and obedience, Eva's innocently indiscriminate love, and Maggie's recurring committment to be "good," are all intended to be examples of true religious sensiblity that we should admire and emulate.
Yet, neither author advocates revolutionary change but rather glorifies patient suffering and passive endurance. Implicitly and explicitly, both Eliot and Stowe compare Maggie and Tom respectively to Christ the martyr. Like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene, Maggie prays, "I have received the Cross, I have recieved it form thy hand; I will bear it, and bear it till death, as thou hast laid it upon me" (648). Tom not only meets Legree's hatred and ill treatment with "Christian love" but lays down his life for his friends Cassy and Emmeline. As Tom tells George Shelby moments before his death, "Heaven has come! I've got the victory!" (416) echoing Christ's acceptance of death on the Cross.
Also like Christ, Maggie's and Tom's suffering and death promote the "salvation" of those around them. Tom's sacrifice helps Cassy rediscover her faith, enables her to become reunited with her daughter Eliza and to indirectly participate in the founding of the new African homeland of Liberia, and convinces young Shelby to free all his slaves which includes Tom's wife and children. Maggie's suffering and sacrifice is an example to Philip Wakem, Lucy, Stephen, and at the end, Tom, of someone who values her love of others over her own happiness regardless of whether that love is returned. Her choice to return to St. Oggs and remain there is due not to outer influences but rather to her desire to remain true to her own moral ideals. Eliot tells the reader this choice is indispensible for Maggie's spiritual growth when she writes, "That is the path we all like when we set out on our abandonment of egoism-the path of martyrdom and endurance" (387).
By casting Tom and Maggie in the ultimate spiritual and cultural mold of Christ the martyr, Stowe and Eliot wrench this powerful symbol away from conventional religion and recast it to bring attention to the plight of the powerless and downtrodden of the time, namely black people and women. Christianity, traditionally a religion of the oppressed had, by mid-nineteenth century and especially in traditional Protestant denominations, come to function as a genteel veneer of piety for the middle class. In appropriating this symbol, these authors are communicating to their readers in the most vivid way possible that the Christian work of alleviating oppression, injustice, and suffering is not done. Gifted women like Maggie cannot develop themselves because the societal structure will not provide them with a proper education and an opportunity to use it. Women in general in both novels have few choices beyond choosing a husband and raising a family. Maggie is treated the way she is simply because she's female, not because she lacks ability or intelligence. And Tom, the "perfect" slave in that he is loyal, hardworking, and gentle, is murdered out of spite by a degenerate plantation holder. For those who claimed that the problems of slavery are due to the inferiority of the slave, Stowe shows that the slave owner is more corrupt than the slave. In fact, Tom has internalized the true Christian faith to a greater extent than the pious northerners. Not only are the authors trying to shame the reader by illustrating the needless suffering of good and innocent people, but they are showing the evil of the systems themselves since Maggie and Tom are exceptional; if they cannot escape or overcome the strictures of the systems they live under, then who can? And ironically, Maggie and Tom are squashed because of voluntary submission to the system that oppresses them, thereby mirroring the ideal of patient suffering back at the "Christian" societies they live in. In other words, they "died so that we may live" and understand.
Despite Stowe's and Eliot's reluctance to advocate revolutionary change by directly calling for an abolition to slavery and a granting of equal rights for the former slaves, or appealling for political and economic rights for women equal to those of men under the law, by utilizing the symbol of Christ, a truly revolutionary figure if one studies his story in any depth at all, they challenge their readers all the same but in a uniquely subversive way. By mirroring the symbol of Christ back at the reader in the stories of Maggie Tulliver and Uncle Tom, the authors challenge the reader to follow Christ's dictums of treating the lowly, the oppressed, and the suffering as you would him, and to love all others as one love's oneself.
Crim, Keith. Ed. The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1981.
Feilds, Annie. Ed. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1897.
Jones, R. T. George Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.
Newton, K. M. George Eliot: Romantic Humanist. Totowa, N. J.: Barnes & Noble, 1981.
Paris, Bernard J. Experiments in Life: George Eliot's Quest for Values. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1965.
Reynolds, David S. Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
© 1995 Shirley Galloway
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