St. Clare House



If we imagine that the domestic settings in Uncle Tom's Cabin fit into a spectrum of moral spaces, ranging from the 'best' (the Quaker settlement) to the 'worst' (Legree's plantation), then the Shelby plantation and St. Clare's house both fall somewhere in the middle. The Shelby place is ambiguous but 'better', leaning toward the light of Abolition, whereas the St. Clare house is ambiguous but 'worse', tending toward the darkness of Slavery.

Even to the heartsick Tom, the St. Clare house is aesthetically pleasurable, "he was in a beautiful place ... he did enjoy...the silken hangings, and pictures, and lustres, and statuettes, and gilding, that made the parlors within a kind of Aladdin's palace to him." In contrast to Downing's belief that the moral character of the inhabitants could be discerned from a view of a house, the beauty of the St. Clare home conceals the moral cancer within.

The problem articulates itself in the chaos of Dinah's kitchen. In her article "Getting In The Kitchen With Dinah: Domestic Politics In Uncle Tom's Cabin, " Gillian Brown writes, "Exponents of domesticity defined the home as a peaceful order in contrast to the disorder and fluctuations occasioned by competitive economic activity in the marketplace." * She goes on to show that the changing, whimsical nature of Dinah's kitchen matched the contemporary understanding of the marketplace -- it was, therefore, the direct opposite of what it should have been.

When St. Clare had first returned from the north, impressed with the system and order of his uncle's kitchen arrangements, he had largely provided his own with an array of cupboards, drawers, and various apparatus, to induce systematic regulation, under the sanguine illusion that it would be of any possible assistance to Dinah in her arrangements. He might as well have provided them for a squirrel or a magpie. The more drawers and closets there were, the more hiding-holes could Dinah make for the accommodation of old rags, hair-combs, old show, ribbons, cast-off artificial flowers, and other articles of vertu, wherein her soul delighted.

When Miss Ophelia entered the kitchen Dinah did not rise, but smoked on in sublime tranquillity, regarding her movements obliquely out of the corner of her eye, but apparently intent only on the operations around her.

Miss Ophelia commenced opening a set of drawers.

"What is this drawer for, Dinah?" she said.

"It's handy for most anything, Missis," said Dinah.

..."Where do you keep your nutmegs, Dinah?" said Miss Ophelia, with the air of one who prayed for patience.

"Most anywhar, Missis; there's some in that cracked tea-cup, up there, and there's some over in that ar cupboard. ..."


The image is to the left is the Stowe's vision of the ideal kitchen, as presented in 1869 in The American Woman's Home. Although anachronistic to the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is nonetheless representative of the orderliness considered ideal in the kitchen at mid-century. It gives a close approximation of what St. Clare sought when installing "an array of cupboards, drawers, and various apparatus, to induce systematic regulation."

Miss Ophelia, although she has "thoroughly reformed every department of the house to a systematic pattern," is powerless to maintain any order. St. Clare explains that efficiency is nearly impossible thanks to the intrinsic inefficiency of the slave system, and that the only solution is to not care; "My dear Vermont, you natives up by the North Pole set an extravagant value on time! What on earth is the use of time to a fellow who has twice as much of it as he knows what to do with? As to order and system, where there is nothing to be done but to lounge on the sofa and read, an hour sooner or later in breakfast or dinner isn't of much account." This forsaking of domestic virtues was one of the many sins brought about by slavery.




* Gillian Brown, "Getting In The Kitchen With Dinah: Domestic Politics In Uncle Tom's Cabin."
American Quarterly. vol.36 (Fall 1984), pp. 503 - 523.