When Eliza leaps across the treacherous, icy Ohio River, she is literally leaping from the south side of the river to the north side, from slavery to freedom. You really couldn’t devise a more powerful (or more obvious) image of the slaves’ desire for emancipation and the risks they’re willing to take to achieve it. Of course, Eliza doesn’t leap across the river in a single bound. She scrambles across jagged, loose, dangerous ice floes for the entire width of the river, cutting her feet to shreds, finding superhuman strength and agility in her intense desire to protect her child:
The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake – stumbling – leaping – slipping – springing upwards again! her shoes are gone – her stockings cut from her feet – while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank. (7.109)
Eliza’s trip to freedom may happen across cakes of ice, but it certainly isn’t a cakewalk. Every time we think she’s escaped, it turns out she has further to go, and that the journey involves more suffering than we could have imagined.
On the simplest level, Eliza’s leap reminds us of the moral and legal divide between the North and the South. Yet, Stowe constantly reminds us that the North may not have its own slaves, but it’s still legally, morally, and economically complicit in southern slavery. Eliza’s not safe once she reaches the firm ground of Ohio; the Fugitive Slave Act makes it dangerous for any escaped slave to be in the North, because all citizens are legally required to help return her to her master. Stowe wants this to enrage her readers: after everything Eliza’s been through, shouldn’t making it to Ohio be enough? Shouldn’t Eliza be able to live in the free states as an independent woman, like any other pious wife and mother? But she won’t be safe until she crosses another body of water – Lake Erie – and makes it to Canada. So Eliza’s leap also comes to symbolize the futility of slaves appealing to the North for help.