This novel is smothered with mothers. Many of the major and minor characters are mothers, including Eliza, Aunt Chloe, Cassy, Mrs. Shelby, Marie St. Clare, Mrs. Bird, and Madame de Thoux. Even spinster Ophelia becomes a surrogate mother to Topsy. We also hear a lot about two deceased mothers, Augustine St. Clare’s and Simon Legree’s. Stowe herself was a mother who was partly inspired to write about slavery because of the death of a son. And many of Stowe’s readers – many readers of any 19th century sentimental novel – would have been white northern women, most of whom were mothers. So what’s with all the mothering?
To understand Stowe’s emphasis on maternal affection, we have to look at slavery as a patriarchal institution. In the South in the 19th century, slave owners were thought of as the fathers of their household of slaves, the patriarchs in charge of caring for a plantation-full of childlike servants. If this sounds patronizing, IT IS!
Think of all the times St. Clare calls Tom "boy," despite the fact that Tom is the older man. Not only is it insulting to treat slaves like children, acting as though the master-slave relationship is a father-child relationship whitewashes it into something positive or productive. Even when Stowe imagines slaves being liberated, she still relies on the paternal care that their former masters will take to educate them for the world. Paternalism here is a source of affection, but it’s also patronizing and demeaning – and a way of maintaining control.
In response to the patriarchal system of southern slavery, Stowe sets up a network of motherly affection. The Christian benevolence and selfless passion of a mother like Eliza becomes more powerful than the malice and cruelty of men like Tom Loker. And Stowe suggests that, if white northern mothers really understand the way that slavery separates black families, they’ll use their influence to support the cause of abolition. If St. Clare’s mother hadn’t died when he was little, we sense that he might have had a more active conscience. If Simon Legree had yielded to his mother’s pleadings, he wouldn’t be so corrupted. Mothers are the answer.