For those few who have not read . . .
Once upon a time, everyone under the sun — and a few in the shadows — knew a certain great novel so well, its characters’ names served as figures of speech. One still does, the very figure of servitude. Here’s a dictionary definition for another; it attests quite well to the novel’s ubiquity a century after publication. The definition was written by Eric Partridge and comes from his Name into Word: Proper Names That Have Become Common Property (London: Secker and Warburg, 1949):
Simon Legree tends, in American writing, to mean, literally and figuratively, ‘a cruel, sinister, relentless slave-driver’. …
For those few who have not read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which appeared in the early 1850s and did much to precipitate the emancipation of the Negroes in North America, it is necessary to mention that Simon Legree hounded Uncle Tom and his fellow-slaves and came to a somewhat gruesomely sticky end.
And for those few who have not read the novel, Legree’s comeuppance is precipitated by a certain Gothic tomfoolery, performed by two of the slaves, who prey on Legree’s mind by playing ghost. Here’s the sticky end as Stowe gives it:
… finally, there came over his sleep a shadow, a horror, an apprehension of something dreadful hanging over him. It was his mother’s shroud, he thought; but Cassy had it, holding it up, and showing it to him. He heard a confused noise of screams and groanings; and, with it all, he knew he was asleep, and has struggled to wake himself. He was half awake. He was sure something was coming into his room. He knew the door was opening, but he could not stir hand or foot. At last he turned, with a start; the door was open and, he saw a hand putting out his light.
It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it! — something white, gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garments. It stood still by his bed; — a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, “Come! come! come!” And, while he lay sweating with terror, he knew not when or how, the thing was gone. He sprang out of bed, and pulled at the door. It was shut and locked, and the man fell down in a swoon.
After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.
There were reports around the country, soon after, that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick-room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!”
I say “as Stowe gives it” because the dramatizations that flourished in the nineteenth century and after often altered the details. Legree is shot, for instance, in the most popular of the stage versions, that of George L. Aiken.
Oddly, Partridge has no entry at all for Tom or Uncle Tom, though this epithet has had much a longer shelf life than Legree. Go figure.