Sunday, February 1, 2009

Augustine St. Clare

As I have commented in the past, even in a novel written today, I think it's usually pretty easy to get a sense of which characters the narrative is favoring and which it is disfavoring. If the book ends with character X generally happy and character Y generally unhappy, depending on whether the tone at that point seems positive or negative, you can probably decide which character the implied reader is supposed to be rooting for. It's more complicated than that, of course, but it can still usually be done.

But in the classic 19th-century novel, with its omniscient narrator, it's even easier to get such a sense, because the narrator will come right out and tell you, "Yay wonderful, amazing Character X of Love!" or "Boo horrible, awful Character Y of Hatred!" This is taken to its logical extreme in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, wherein the narrator reveals to us whether each character who dies is going to Heaven or Hell. At this point, while you can certainly read the book against the grain as described in my above post, you certainly can't deny that the text pretty well sets out for you a defined attitude on each character.

What I find amusing is the contrast between the very. . . Protestant attitude of the narrator and my own. Most of the good characters are pretty good throughout, and, believing in Christ, as they do, they shape their actions and behavior based on their sense of what Christ would want. And then there's Augustine St. Clare. Augustine St. Clare was clearly written to be an attractive, Byronic figure (he's explicitly compared to Byron in chapter 28), and he is attractive. He's also, as you might expect of a Byronic character, not an especially good person - as he himself would, as you might expect of a Byronic character, be the first to admit. He has a very high moral standard, but fails to even begin to live up to it in any way. He hates slavery more than many of the other white characters in the book, including some who don't own any slaves, and is extremely articulate on the topic, but he gets so much benefit out of his own slave-owning habits that he doesn't even free his own slaves, let alone work for abolition in any way.

Eventually, St. Clare realizes that maybe he ought to act on his beliefs (he also starts trying to believe in God, which, for Harriet Beecher Stowe, is more or less synonymous). Before he can do anything to help anyone at all, except for Topsy, he gets killed off. Presumably, Beecher Stowe does this in order to end her novel with the portrayal of the awful and not-in-any-way-attractive Simon Legree and to give Uncle Tom the opportunity for his Christ-like martyrdom. But the funny thing about the way that it functions in the novel is that it also gives St. Clare the chance to go to Heaven, because he's started trying to redeem himself and now believes in God, despite the fact that he really never did anything good to anyone and, through his inaction up until the last couple of days of his life, did a lot of harm. Nonetheless, the chapter wherein he dies is called "Reunion," because he gets to go to Heaven and be with his beloved mother and daughter again.

Thing is, I really like St. Clare. I reread Uncle Tom's Cabin this past week largely in order to read about him. I find the book enjoyable and engaging during the section set in his home and kind of boring in the parts before and after. St. Clare is great. But I have the sense that the narrator, and quite possibly Harriet Beecher Stowe as well, like him even more than I do. I mean, it's one thing to be very fond of a character who's clearly not the most wonderful of people. It's another thing entirely to be so fond of him that you give him the chance to redeem himself without in any way making it necessary for him ever to change his behavior. So. . . well. . . it amuses me.

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