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Monday, March 14, 2011

A Stark Contrast

The book opens with a stark contrast of two men from the antebellum south, one a slave trader, the other a slaveholder.  The trader, Haley, has a less than complimentary introduction:

He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it, -- which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar, and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe (Ch. 1).

Haley is referred to as a "low man" while his dress is out of the ordinary.  His ostentatious display shows a lack of good judgment and his colloquial way of speaking shows, perhaps, a lack of education, as demonstrated by the following quote:

 "Well, I've got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep, -- just a little, you know, to swear by, as 't were," said the trader, jocularly; "and, then, I'm ready to do anything in reason to 'blige friends; but this yer, you see, is a leetle too hard on a fellow -- a leetle too hard" (Ch. 1).

Haley's dialect depicts the unrefined stereotype of a white southerner.

Mr. Shelby, on the other hand, is called a "gentleman" and whereas Haley's gaudy raiment is ridiculed, opulent is the word Stowe uses to describe Shelby, suggesting that though Shelby is having financial trouble, he carries himself with more dignity than his counterpart.

Shelby, though forced to sell for financial reasons, views his slaves as family while Haley sees slaves as mere commodities.  Shelby refers to them by their names or with such phrases as "my boy," but Haley speaks more generally about slaves as a group, calling them "niggers."

'Tan't, you know, as if it was white folks, that's brought up in the way of 'spectin' to keep their children and wives, and all that. Niggers, you know, that's fetched up properly, ha'n't no kind of 'spectations of no kind; so all these things comes easier" (Ch. 1).

Haley doesn't see slaves as human and doesn't expect them to be capable of emotion attachments to familial units.  Shelby has grown up with and live among his slaves all his life and can relate to them.  One idea that Stowe establishes is that children are more likely to empathize and grow emotionally attached to slaves than are their adult counterparts, such as is the case with "Mas'er George," who spends more time with the slaves than with whites in the opening chapters.  Ultimately, Stowe advises that slavery is an ugly system, no matter the attempts to beautify it:

So long as the law considers all these human beings, with beating hearts and living affections, only as so many things belonging to a master, -- so long as the failure, or misfortune, or imprudence, or death of the kindest owner, may cause them any day to exchange a life of kind protection and indulgence for one of hopeless misery and toil, -- so long it is impossible to make anything beautiful or desirable in the best regulated administration of slavery (Ch. 1).

Despite Shelby's humane treatment of his slaves, he still lends his support to a reproachful system that his wife rejects:

" I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil. It is a sin to hold a slave under laws like ours, -- I always felt it was, -- I always thought so when I was a girl, -- I thought so still more after I joined the church; but I thought I could gild it over, -- I thought, by kindness, and care, and instruction, I could make the condition of mine better than freedom -- fool that I was!" (Ch. 5).

Her assertion is Stowe's belief as well, that nothing good can come of slavery, no matter how good the people involved.

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