Death, Transgression, and Homoeroticism
in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
P. GABRIELLE FOREMAN
Oh, grave, where is thy victory?
Oh, death, where is thy sting?
—1 Corinthians 15.55
MARY BOYKIN CHESNUT’S QUIP, “Stowe did not hit the sorest spot. She made Legree a bachelor,” is to this day one of the most famous oneline responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.1 Yet it may have been Chesnut who missed the spot, so to speak, for although Harriet Beecher Stowe reserves her discussion of explicit sexual abuse for the gothic plantation of Tom’s third master Legree, illicit relations are evident throughout the novel. The focus of this essay will be the fissures created by the coded and repressed moments of illicit sexuality in the household of a married couple, the Shelbys (Tom and his wife Chloe and the mulatta Eliza’s masters), and the homoerotics displayed at the estate of Tom’s second master, the father of little Eva, Augustine St. Clare.2
I argue that death in Uncle Tom’s Cabin acts as an insistent sign not of redemption but of the consequence of sexual transgression. The “meanings” of death and sex in sentimental literature are informed by several cultural and literary traditions. In addition to its biblical legacy as purification and redemption in innocence, death is a received literary convention of earlier seduction