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Monday, March 21, 2011

Miss Ophelia Travels South

Southern Portrait, Daniel Huntington (1816-1906)
In the character of Miss Ophelia, Stowe introduces the perspective of a Northern visiting a southern farm for the first time.  She is the cousin of Augustine St. Clare, Tom's new master.  Forty-five and unmarried she is independent, making all decisions for herself, and very direct in speech, reminding one of the American Henrietta Stackpole in The Portrait of a Lady.  Additionally, she is orderly and methodical, established in her ways, and not open-minded to new ideas, having a "clear, strong, active mind" (Ch. 15).  Making no sense to her is an unsystematic approach to life:

  "There is no such thing as getting anything like a system in this family!"
   "To be sure, there isn't," said St. Clare.
   "Such shiftless management, such waste, such confusion, I never saw!" (Ch. 18).

She cannot hide her aversion to aimlessness and "shiftlessness," a word she pronounces with much disapprobation.  Her strongest principle is conscientiousness, and as one very aware of her duty, she is not to be deterred in anything to which she sets her mind. 

Though a supporter of the abolitionist cause, having called slavery "a barbarous thing" (Ch. 19), Miss Ophelia functions as a condemnation on a certain sect of Northern abolitionists.  While believes that blacks should be liberated, she herself cringes  at the thought of any physical contact. 

"Well!" said Miss Ophelia, "you southern children can do something that I couldn't."
 "What, now, pray?" said St. Clare.
 "Well, I want to be kind to everybody, and I wouldn't have anything hurt; but as to kissing --
 "Niggers," said St. Clare, "that you're not up to, -- hey?" (Ch. 15).

According to Ophelia's beliefs, one should perform his Christian duty towards blacks and educate them, yet any endearing contact should be avoided.  St. Clare takes his assessment of Miss Ophelia's views even further:

"You would not have them abused; but you don't want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn't that it?"
 "Well, cousin," said Miss Ophelia, thoughtfully, "there may be some truth in this." (Ch. 16).

She can champion the liberation of blacks but cannot live in close proximity to them.

Nevertheless, as Eva, St. Clare's daughter, points out, a possibly positive influence of slavery is the presence of more people to love.  Unfortunately, Miss Ophelia's abolitionist beliefs are not the result of her love for blacks but the result of her northern idealism. 

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