Uncle Tom's Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
On her deathbed, Eva insists that Miss Ophelia cut off her locks of curly blonde hair so that she can distribute them to her family and the family’s slaves. It was common in the Victorian period for mourners to keep locks of hair from the deceased, but usually they were cut off after death. Eva decides to give her hair away while she’s still living partly so that she can control who it goes to, and partly to create an opportunity for preaching. By giving away the hair herself, she’s able to decide what it means: "I’m going to give all of you a curl of my hair; and, when you look at it, think that I loved you and am gone to heaven, and that I want to see you all there" (26.75).
Thus, she turns the locks of hair into what they’ve always resembled – a heavenly halo. As we’ll learn later in the novel, Simon Legree’s mother also sent him a lock of her blonde hair as an attempt to call him to Christ.
Eva also likens her hair to a sheep’s golden fleece when she jokes to Miss Ophelia, "Come, aunty, shear the sheep!" (26.41). This association emphasizes her Christ-like nature – like Jesus, she is a "lamb of God," an innocent being sacrificed. The three-fold association of children, lambs, and Christ was immediate and obvious in 19th century culture – as in William Blake’s poem "The Lamb."
Of course. Eva can tell us what she wants her hair to mean, but hair is an overloaded symbol in literature and culture, and there are many connotations beyond the simple one that her golden locks are like heaven’s love or a sheep’s fleece.
The lustrous hair of a woman symbolizes her power and her sexuality; by cutting off her hair and dividing it among everyone she knows, Eva defuses the sexual aspect of her beauty and turns it into a general appeal – but the gifts still seem a little bit sexual in a complicated way. When Tom sits on a boat headed to Legree’s plantation and dreams sadly of "the golden head of Eva" (31.1), it clearly means something different to him than his Bible does. What, exactly, it does mean is hard to say – see our "Character Analysis" of Tom for some more thoughts on that.