Close Reading by Isaac Gradman

  "But, in a corner, sitting apart from the rest, are two females of a more interesting appearance than common. One of these is a respectably-dressed mulatto woman between forty and fifty, with soft eyes and a gentle and pleasing physiognomy. She has on her head a high-raised turban, made of a gay red Madras handkerchief, of the first quality, her dress is neatly fitted, and of good material, showing that she has been provided for with a careful hand. By her side, and nestling closely to her, is a young girl of fifteen, - her daughter. She is a quadroon, as may be seen from her fairer complexion, though her likeness to her mother is quite discernible. She has the same soft, dark eye, with longer lashes, and her curling hair is of a luxuriant brown. She also is dressed with great neatness, and her white, delicate hands betray very little acquaintance with servile toil. These two are to be sold tomorrow, in the same lot with the St. Clare servants; and the gentleman to whom they belong, and to whom the money for their sale is to be transmitted, is a member of a Christian church in New York, who will receive the money, and go thereafter to the sacrament of his Lord and theirs, and think no more of it." (pp. 470-1)

  This passage demonstrates two intriguing and very telling aspects of Stowe's attitudes and the attitudes of her times. First of all, is her treatment of mulatto women as compared to darker, "full-blooded" black women. This scene is set in the Slave Warehouse where slaves are kept en route to being sold on the auction block. After describing in brief detail the dreary demeanors and conditions of the other women in the room, including "a worn old negress" (p. 470), she alights on the two mulatto women in the corner, Susan and Emmeline. She begins by noting that these two females are "of a more interesting appearance than common." This interest, one could argue, could be attributed to the unusual and distinctly fine clothing that the women are wearing, like "a high-raised turban, made of a gay red Madras handkerchief."

  However, this explanation is undermined by the disproportionate amount of space Stowe reserves for describing the bodily appearance of these light-skinned black women. She repeatedly refers to their physical beauty, noting their "pleasing physiognomy," their "longer lashes" and their "hair of a luxuriant brown." Furthermore, it is clear that it is not just these two particular mulatto women who happen to be beautiful, either. Through her wording, Stowe reveals that she believes the particular traits of lighter-skinned blacks naturally tend them to greater beauty, grace and poise. She notes Emmeline's "white, delicate hands" that naturally lead the observer to conclude that she's dainty and unaccustomed to manual labor. It is no accident that "white" and "delicate" go hand-in-hand, according to Stowe (pardon my pun). From her first mention of a mulatto child in the opening chapter, Stowe shows herself to be a paragon of the opinions of the time, which characterized whiter as better and more beautiful. "There was something in [Harry's] appearance remarkably beautiful and engaging."


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