Close Reading by Antoniette Alston

  "O missis, missis," said Eliza, "there's been a trader talking with master in the parlor! I heard him."
  "Well, silly child, suppose there has."
  "O missis, do you suppose mas'r would sell my Harry?" And the poor creature threw herself into a chair , and sobbed convulsively.
  "Sell him! No, you foolish girl! You know your master never deals with those southern traders, and never means to sell any of his servants, as long as they behave well. Why, you silly child, who do you think would want to buy your Harry? Do you think all the world are set on him so as you are, you goosie? Come, cheer up, and hook my dress. There now, put my back hair up in that pretty braid you learnt the other day, and don't go listening at doors any more." (p. 52)

  In this passage, Stowe's word choice is very deliberate. The tone of the passage is condescending, although in the paragraph following this passage Stowe states that Eliza was "reassured by her mistress' confident tone." There are specific words that help to identify the difference in "rank" between the dignified white woman and the subservient black female slave. In the second sentence of the passage Mrs. Shelby calls Eliza a "silly child." The use of this phrase serves to highlight the idea that blacks are simple, innocent and childlike. It is obvious Mrs. Shelby assumes the role of the knowledgeable adult and Eliza assumes the role of the naive and fearful child. In the third sentence, Eliza uses the word "mas'r" while Mrs. Shelby refers to Eliza's owner as "master." This deliberate application of words relative to the speaker highlights the difference in the level of perceived intellect of the black slave versus the white master (or wife of the master). It shows that the white female audience at which the book is primarily directed is comfortable with the perception of blacks as intellectually inferior to whites, specifically in terms of diction. In the latter part of the passage, Mrs. Shelby refers to Eliza as "you goosie." The word goose, in addition to referring to the animal, means silly or foolish (Webster's World Dictionary and Thesaurus, 1996). Here we have an illustration of white society's view that blacks are inhuman and incapable of true emotion. Mrs. Shelby dismisses Eliza's concern as silly and unworthy of attention. She follows that statement by saying, "Come, cheer up, and hook my dress," as if to encourage a change of subject and downplay the seriousness of Eliza's worry, which is that her son may be taken from her and sold into slavery. This statement also reinforces the idea that blacks were viewed as property and that slavery was a way of life, the black's destiny.

  Although, the dialogue between Eliza and Mrs. Shelby reaffirms the ideas held by a white audience, it is apparent that Stowe is trying to subtly transform these perceptions by meeting readers at their level and then providing an anti-slavery message. The passage deals with the idea of motherhood. Here we have Eliza, a black female slave, fearful of losing her son. Stowe is taking an idea that her readers have typically viewed as unique to the white experience and suddenly bringing the black slave to their level by suggesting that both groups share the bond of motherhood. But Stowe avoids being too blunt in her approach by still setting up the scene so that Eliza assumes her assigned role as a servant--"hook my dress...put my back hair up in that pretty braid you learnt the other day," Mrs. Shelby orders her. Stowe also tries to convince her readers of blacks' humanity by demonstrating Eliza's ability to feel emotion. In the passage Eliza throws herself into a chair and begins sobbing convulsively. Stowe is sending the message that just like whites, blacks feel too; blacks and whites are at least similar as far as matters of the heart are concerned.