Let’s put it this way: if there had been a musical version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin made in the 1930s, Eva would have been played by Shirley Temple. She’s an incredibly beautiful, sweet, naive, virtuous little angel. Her golden brown curls are practically a halo around her darling face. Everyone loves her, everyone instinctively protects her, and she’s perfect. Which means, of course, that she has to die.
Like other perfect 19th century girl heroines, such as Beth in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, she’s just too good to live. She’s destined for another world. As a result, there’s something ephemeral about her, something eerie that suggests she might depart for heaven at the drop of a hat.
We first see Eva through the eyes of Uncle Tom, who notices her wandering around the steamboat heading downriver to New Orleans. He takes special pains to make friends with her slowly, giving her little presents and eventually striking up a conversation.
Almost instantly, Eva promises that she’ll get her father to buy Tom. When Tom saves Eva from drowning, his purchase by her family is certain. But even before he rescues her, he’s awed by her unworldly nature:
To him she seemed something almost divine; and whenever her golden head and deep blue eyes peered out upon him from behind some dusky cotton-bale, or looked down upon him over some ridge of packages, he half believed that he saw one of the angels stepped out of his New Testament. (14.20)
In a 19th century sentimental novel, appearances are rarely deceiving: the golden-haired, blue-eyed little girl is an angel, and that’s that. Ironically, of course, Uncle Tom’s Cabin uses the standard connotations of Eva’s appearance, but at the same time tries to make readers rethink their prejudices about the appearance of black slaves. In this novel, blacks have the same immortal souls as whites – but whiteness and blonde hair are still divine.
Eva’s full name, "Evangeline" ("bearer of good news"), also signals her saintly nature. Like the evangelists of the church, Eva is here to spread the gospel and encourage everyone around her to become good Christians. There’s some confusion here, perhaps, between being an angel and being a saint – but Eva is pretty much everything good.
When she gives away the locks of her golden hair to her family’s slaves on her deathbed, spreading herself among them stands in for spreading the gospel. Even her body isn’t really her own – just an eerie manifestation of God’s grace.
The only thing Eva really does in the novel, besides die, is love people. Eva’s love for everyone around her, regardless of their station in life, their race, and even their character, is one of the things that shows how thoroughly Christ-like she is.
Eva loves the people who love her, like her father and Tom, but she also loves people who hardly notice her, like her mother, and people who seem completely unlovable, like the mischievous Topsy. She loves her white family and her black slaves. Miss Ophelia learns from Eva what it means to really love black people – not to believe that they have souls in principle, but secretly dislike them on a personal level, which is what Ophelia has always felt.
Love seems to be something that Eva spontaneously feels for every human being, but also something that she can decide to feel because it’s right to do so. When strictness and corporal punishment have failed to discipline Topsy, Eva instinctively steps in:
"O, Topsy, poor child, I love you!" said Eva, with a sudden burst of feeling, and laying her little thin, white hand on Topsy’s shoulder; "I love you, because you haven’t had any father, or mother, or friends; – because you’ve been a poor, abused child! I love you, and I want you to be good." (25.48)
Eva’s naive, childish wisdom leads her to realize that what Topsy needs is not the strict forms of religion, like the catechism Miss Ophelia teaches her. Instead, she needs what Eva (and Stowe) believe is the heart of Christian faith: feeling loved. Eva goes on to explain to Topsy that "Jesus loves all alike" and that "He is just as willing to love you, as me. He loves you just as I do – only more, because he is better" (25.50).
All Ophelia’s doctrinal principles pale in comparison to the simple words of this (goody-goody) child. Of course, Eva goes on to tell Topsy that she can be angel "just as much as if you were white" (25.50), which makes us cringe. Once again, the novel works against racism (by asserting that Topsy has an immortal soul like any white person), but at the same time it reinforces racist typology (by privileging whiteness).
Eva’s main function in the novel is to die, so it’s no surprise that she takes several chapters to do it. Long before her death actually occurs, everyone around her, except her selfish mother, has predicted what’s going to happen. On her deathbed, Eva gives a Christ-like sermon to the assembled household, including her family and slaves, in which she exhorts everyone to be good Christians and distributes locks of her hair to the slaves as mementos. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on Eva’s golden locks of hair.)
Eva also instructs her father to free Tom and to become an activist for abolition after her death, which he agrees to do. And she has the most unrealistic last words we’ve ever read in a novel, especially in the mouth of a child: "O! love, – joy, – peace!" (26.162). Like Tom, Eva is more of an allegorical figure, an ideal angelic child, than a rounded character. Even stoic Miss Ophelia takes Eva’s death as her cue to become a more loving person, overcome her hidden racism, and treat Topsy more kindly.
Eva’s death isn’t a martyrdom; she dies of natural causes, and Stowe gives us the sense that she’s gently being taken up to Heaven. Nevertheless, she’s so much of a Christ figure that we can’t help feeling her death foreshadows Tom’s. She may not be crucified, but she does turn her death into an opportunity to save others – what could be more Christ-like than that? And with her departure from this world (and, later, her father’s), we have a distinct sense that the novel is going to be much less pleasant in her absence.