Uncle Tom's Cabin | Study Guide

Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Uncle Tom's Cabin | Chapters 18–20 | Summary



Chapter 18

Chapter 18 returns readers to the St. Clare household, where Uncle Tom has been given more and more charge of the household finances. Trusted by St. Clare and respected for his ability to manage money, Tom has gotten the extravagant spending of both Augustine and Adolphus under control. Along the way Tom has come to fully understand his master's character and is troubled by his lack of religious faith and tendency to drink to excess. After dealing with Augustine one night when he was particularly intoxicated, Tom cries as he begs Augustine to stop his debauchery, and Augustine gives his word to stop drinking.

In her realm of the household Miss Ophelia is having a similarly significant impact. She cleans and organizes all parts of the house. Her only initial struggle is with Dinah, the head cook, who views herself as in charge of the kitchen and resents Miss Ophelia's interference, "a henderin', and getting my things all where I can't find 'em." In general Miss Ophelia finds the servants to have an air of "shiftlessness," which is her least favorite way of being, but her complaints to Augustine mostly fall on deaf ears and before long she has everyone in line to at least meet her minimum expectations. She is horrified, however, to see how abused slaves are regularly beaten and respond by wishing they were dead, drinking, or otherwise trying to escape their miserable lives. The best example of such abuse is Prue, who carries bread around for people to buy, sometimes keeps some of the money to buy liquor, and is then beaten savagely by her owners. Prue says she drinks, and will continue to drink, to escape her memories of being treated like a breeding animal. All of her babies were sold except the last one, who died of hunger because Prue had no breast milk and her mistress would not buy any for the baby.

When Uncle Tom meets Prue, he tries to reform her, but she is too far gone. Incredibly sad, he shares Prue's story with Eva, who is also deeply wounded by the life the poor woman has led.

Chapter 19

A few days later Prue is dead. She was beaten horribly for getting drunk and then thrown into the cellar to die. Miss Ophelia, Eva, and Uncle Tom are all devastated by the news, but when Ophelia expresses her outrage to Augustine, he tells her she must learn to close her eyes and ears to such goings on. Ophelia is appalled, saying, "It's perfectly abominable for you to defend such a system!" Augustine says he doesn't defend it; he then goes on to give a long and detailed explanation of his view of slavery, which includes the history of his family's involvement in it.

Augustine's father was an aristocrat—"upright, energetic, noble-minded, with an iron will" and without "human sympathies, beyond a certain line in society." He viewed his hundreds of slaves as "an intermediate link between man and animals," and they were cruelly ruled by an overseer who was brutal. Augustine's mother was, to Augustine, a saint. As he describes her it's clear his own daughter, her namesake, is very much like her. Augustine's twin brother, Alfred, is like a carbon copy of his father and so is the opposite of Augustine. They could not agree on how to manage slaves or run a plantation, and so they had to divide the family's wealth and go their separate ways. Since that time Augustine admits, he has had a fairly purposeless life, becoming "a piece of driftwood" instead of trying to take action to improve society.

The cousins are called in for tea, and the subject of Prue comes up again. Marie recalls a slave her father beat over and over, never breaking him, until he finally died. In contrast Augustine tells how he used kindness to tame a wild enslaved man, Scipio. Eva cries when she hears the stories.

Stowe then switches to general information about Uncle Tom and Aunt Ophelia. Tom has been growing more and more homesick. Eva tries to help him write a letter to Aunt Chloe; when Augustine discovers what they are doing he writes it for him. Ophelia is keeping the servants in line, although they do not appreciate her as their boss and are bemused by her level of industry.

Chapter 20

The content of this chapter is revealed by its one-word title: "Topsy." Topsy is a wild slave girl Augustine acquires because he wants to see how Miss Ophelia—whom he views as rather sanctimonious about the issue of slavery—will train her. Referring to her constant comments on the topic, he suggests that she should educate the girl and "bring her up in the way she should go." Ophelia's initial shock is apparent in how she refers to the girl—as "that thing"—but soon enough she comes to view the challenge as a sort of "real missionary work."

About eight or nine years old, Topsy has been sadly neglected and abused throughout her life and is entirely ignorant on most topics. The other African Americans in the household view her as a lower class than they, and so Topsy ends up mostly serving Miss Ophelia alone, as her chambermaid. The child is quick to learn how to do things, especially reading, but she is a thief, a liar, and a shameless, mischievous trickster. Nevertheless Ophelia perseveres in trying to remediate her, even resorting to whipping her—although it is ineffective—and over the next year or two Topsy becomes a source of humor for the household. When she does get into trouble, Augustine St. Clare is the one who "would make peace for her."


By showing such a broad range of personalities within the community of enslaved people, Stowe is very effective in humanizing them, which is one of the goals of the novel. She wants people, especially Northerners like her fictional Miss Ophelia, to be moved by the stories of what humans can do so cruelly to other humans. Uncle Tom, Prue, Topsy, Dinah ... they are all very different, and they respond in their own unique ways to the same tragic treatments.

Juxtaposed with these stories are those of whites who are all also very different. Augustine's family members, both his birth family and he and his wife and his daughter, have extremely different personalities and views of slavery. Like those enslaved to them, each white person in the novel is unique.

Tellingly, those who see the best in any situation are Christians, another point Stowe never stops making. Similarly, her temperance views are often referenced. People who drink alcohol, slave or free, always get into trouble and cast themselves in a bad light.

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