© Copyright by
Roshaunda D. Cade
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Stowe describes Eliza as a young quadroon woman of about 25 years old (interestingly this is the same age at which Stowe married, and the same age at which feminists are supposed to marry), with rich dark eyes and “ripples of silky black hair” (Stowe 45). Her attire fits neatly and “set[s] off to advantage her finely moulded shape” (Stowe 45). According to Stowe, Eliza’s mistress Mrs. Shelby raises her as a “petted and indulged favorite” (54). Stowe continues describing Eliza in stereotypical mulatta terms [I follow the common practice of using the term mulatta to encompass the terms mulatta, quadroon, and octoroon.]. Eliza exhibits “that peculiar air of refinement,” “softness of voice and manner,” and “beauty of the most dazzling kind,” which characterize the “particular gift” of “quadroon and mulatto women” (54). In the midst of her stereotypical depiction of Eliza, Stowe takes an unlikely turn. She writes that Eliza is not merely a “fancy sketch” (54). Stowe then clues readers that Eliza, although a beautiful quadroon, does not emulate their characteristic tragic trajectory. Stowe spares Eliza the concubinage faced by so many of her caste and, instead, marries her to the mulatto slave George Harris. In other words, Stowe alerts readers to her intention not to treat Eliza as merely a tragic mulatta, but rather as a mulatta slave woman. Although still bound by the categories mulatta and slave, Stowe frees Eliza to become a woman and thus opens her to participate in the American landscape and eventually the American citizenry.
Like many American women of the time, being a wife and mother characterizes Eliza. In a stark departure from the broom jumping ritual that often served as a slave marriage ceremony, Eliza and George enjoy a grand wedding. The pair speaks their vows before a white minister in the Shelby parlor. Mrs. Shelby herself dresses Eliza in white gloves, veil, and flowers. The bride, groom, and guests enjoy white cake and wine. The nuptial event showcases the physical whiteness of the bride and groom as well as their participation in (and acceptance in and of) white American society and its mores.
Motherhood further ties Eliza to the American landscape. She loses two infant children to death and mourns them so intensely that Mrs. Shelby coaxes her, “with maternal anxiety” to redirect her passion within the bounds of “reason and religion” (Stowe 57). Losing her children to death links Eliza to countless women of the mid-Nineteenth Century. This tragedy also brings her closer to American womanhood. The deaths themselves do not impart proximity to citizenship, but rather Eliza’s mistress’s response reveals Eliza as an American woman deserving of the solace and guidance that can only be found in a community of women. Tragedy ties Eliza to the community of American women, but the birth and successful development of Harry embeds Eliza in the fabric of American womanhood.
With Harry, Eliza births a boy who looks like a future American citizen. Stowe describes Harry as having white skin and long curls. She sums him up as “‘handsome, and smart, and bright’” (Stowe 63). Giving birth to and raising future American citizens was the “exalted task” offered to women by patriarchy (Crittenden 48). Men urged women to find “fulfillment in the all-important task of creating the citizens of the new republic.” (Crittenden 48). Through Harry, Eliza does her duty as an American woman. Furthermore, because of Harry, Eliza becomes “tranquillized and settled” in her roles as wife and mother (Stowe 57). As a docile, domesticated, white (looking) woman who spends her energy raising a good American son, Eliza could not seem further from the idealized slave image that the status of her birth seems to demand. Rather, she appears the iconographic American woman lauded by society for her service to it through her domesticity.
Domesticity, however, propels Eliza toward life in the public sphere. When Eliza overhears that Mr. Shelby intends to sell Harry, she begins scheming how to save him, and herself, from that fate and escape into freedom and into the public realm. Motherhood emboldens Eliza to take her famous leap to freedom. After the onset of Harry’s imminent removal, Eliza becomes “an entirely altered being from the soft and timid creature she had been hitherto” (Stowe 86). As Eliza executes their escape, she finds that maternal love strengthens her and she wonders “at the strength that seemed to be come upon her” (Stowe 105). This power “from a spirit within” allows Eliza to circumvent Harry’s sale and thwart their imminent separation (Stowe 105).
Before Harry’s birth, Eliza never dreams of leaving her good master and mistress. After his birth, she continues to trust them. Tending and befriending represent two avenues women use to navigate themselves and their offspring safely through an often hostile society, according to Katherine Ellison (101). Tending refers to fading into the scenery, which I will discuss later, while befriending refers to making social connections with other mothers. After Harry’s birth, Eliza befriends and cements her friendship with Mrs. Shelby. Already a “pet” of her mistress, Eliza uses her favored position to insure security for herself and her son. When she hears of the plan to sell little Harry, Eliza immediately flies to Mrs. Shelby. Eliza seeks emotional comfort for herself as well as physical safety for her son. Eliza relies on the maternal/sisterhood network, but this network disintegrates under the male influence of Mr. Shelby. Although Mrs. Shelby assures Eliza that the family has no plans of selling Harry, Mr. Shelby deems it so. Having been underserved and ultimately failed by befriending, Eliza flees with Harry.
“ ‘Hush, Harry,’ [Eliza] said; ‘mustn’t speak loud, or they will hear you. A wicked man was coming to take little Harry away from his mother, and carry him way off in the dark; but mother won’t let him – she’s going to . . . run off with him, so the ugly man can’t catch him.’” (Stowe 88). As Eliza and Harry make their escape, he asks his mother if she will let Haley, the slave catcher, get him. Eliza assures him that she will not. Harry asks, “‘You’re sure, an’t you, mother?’” Eliza replies “‘Yes, sure!” (Stowe 105). Certain of his safety, Harry asks, ‘Mother, I don’t need to keep awake, do I?’” (Stowe 105). Eliza reassures him, and Harry falls asleep while his mother carries him toward freedom. Based on these descriptions, Harry had to be between three and four years old when he almost separated from his mother. Harry speaks better than a younger child would; yet, he is young enough for his mother to carry him in her arms while he sleeps. Also, an older child most likely would be unable to sleep through such an ordeal/adventure and would require more explanation than a bad man was coming. Stowe perfectly characterizes Harry as at the same age she was when her mother died, when her mother was taken by the “wicked man” and carried “off in the dark.” Stowe conflates the slave trader Haley with a personified death and allows Harry to escape the fate, separation from his mother, that for her proved unavoidable.
Instead of endowing Harry with her own inheritance of maternal bereavement and abandonment, Stowe offers up a legacy of maternal support that she herself longed for but never received. I find it telling that Stowe offers this maternal support for a son. As a woman of the mid-Nineteenth Century, Stowe’s societal objective was to produce and raise sons to become the next generation of American citizens. And Eliza, as a white looking American woman, has indeed produced and raised Harry, who looks for all purposes a white boy, who one day will assume his majority and full citizenship. By creating a situation that lets a mother and child stay together (as Stowe never experienced), Stowe fashions a black woman as an ideal American woman.