Uncle Tom's Cabin Chapter 20: Summary and Analysis
by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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Chapter 20: Summary and Analysis

New Character:
Topsy: eight or nine-year-old slave girl whom St. Clare purchases

St. Clare decides to put his and Miss Ophelia’s ideas about slavery to the test. He buys Topsy, a slave girl, for Ophelia to raise and educate. Topsy’s expression is “an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning” and “the most doleful gravity and solemnity.” At first, Ophelia protests that she has no use for Topsy, being also repulsed by the slave girl. St. Clare, however, is quick to point out the hypocrisy of Christians like Ophelia, who willingly send missionaries overseas, but refuse to help and reform blacks in their own homes. St. Clare also recounts some of Topsy’s past, in which she had been constantly beaten by her drunken masters.

Ophelia halfheartedly accepts her cousin’s challenge to make something out of Topsy. Ophelia’s task is made more difficult by the other servants’ disdainful attitudes toward the new slave girl. Ophelia is then left with the sole responsibility of raising Topsy. She begins by asking Topsy several questions about the girl’s life. Topsy, however, cannot tell who her parents were or how old she is. Having been raised by slave traders to sell on the market, Topsy’s education is severely lacking. When Ophelia inquires of the girl’s parents, Topsy answers, “Never was born!”

Ophelia begins Topsy’s education with homemaking skills, as well as reading and religious instruction. When Ophelia catches her stealing some gloves and ribbon, Topsy initially denies any wrongdoing. She then confesses to the crime, but also proceeds to confess to other incidents that she did not commit. Ophelia becomes exasperated at the child’s behavior, not knowing whether Topsy tells truths or lies. Eva tries to say something kind to Topsy, but the slave girl laughs at the attempts.

Ophelia fears that she can no longer avoid whipping Topsy for her bad behavior. St. Clare, upon hearing Ophelia’s complaints and frustrations, ponders again over the nature of slavery. He suggests to his cousin that her experiences are much like the Southern slave holder’s in that they must resort to physical punishment. Both masters and slaves become adversely affected by this system. As he observes, “it is a gradual hardening process on both sides,—the owner growing more and more cruel, as the servant more and more callous.” Ophelia retorts that the institution of slavery makes people behave in this manner, and not Northern educational practices to which she adheres.

Topsy does progress in learning new skills and displaying her talents, but she also continues to misbehave. When Ophelia questions her as to why she still rebels, Topsy replies, “I spects cause I’s so wicked!” Topsy then encourages Ophelia to whip her because as a “neglected, abused child,” the girl is used to being beaten to work and behave. Ophelia does so, but Topsy later brags to the other slave children of her misdeeds and hardiness at taking punishment.

In this chapter, Topsy provides St. Clare and Miss Ophelia with a concrete example of slavery’s ills. The St. Clare cousins, however, reach different conclusions on the subject. St. Clare purchases Topsy to prove the shortsightedness of Ophelia’s indictments against slavery. He challenges Ophelia, stating to her: “You’re always preaching about educating.” St. Clare foists Topsy on Ophelia, knowing that the slave girl is misbehaved. He does so partly to mock his cousin, and partly to save Topsy from her brutal masters. St. Clare is “a mischievous fellow” who enjoys surprising and rattling Ophelia. Yet he is also humane, pitying Topsy’s mistreatment.

Ophelia is quite astonished when she is presented with Topsy. As in the previous chapters, St....

(The entire section is 938 words.)