Shiftless: An Analysis

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Uncle Tom's Cabin - Aiken

"How shiftless!" (Aiken)

These words, in one form or another, are uttered by Ophelia numerous times in the play. At first, I wondered about what "shiftless" actually meant. So I did a little research. This is the definition I found for shiftless:

Lacking in resource or energy, or in ability to shift for one's self or one's own; slack in devising or using expedients for the successful accomplishment of anything; deficient in organizing or executive ability; incapable; inefficient; improvident; lazy: as, a shiftless fellow.

So, one who is shiftless does not search for other answers and is set in their ways. I can see Ophelia's use of the word in the story, especially considering Topsy's earlier state of mind. But, to Ms. Feely, anything can be shiftless. A situation, a remark, a person... I just thought that her use of the word might be symbolic of something... Perhaps exemplifying her state as well? As in, Ophelia wasn't open to Topsy at first either. She, in fact, was shiftless. She was stuck in her way of thinking, and refused to see it any other way. It was nice to see her transformation, along with Topsy's. It's just tragic that death was the cause of this transformation.

Overall, Ophelia's use of "shiftless" helped develop her viewpoint as a character. She viewed everything else as shiftless, but never herself. This could possibly be an attack on her religious beliefs, or a stereotype of the people of that religion in her area(s) as a whole. Either way, the use of the word was not a shiftless act of the author. 


I am so glad you looked into that! I planned on doing so as well, but got caught up in everything else that had to be done.
Shiftless is such a strange word for us, I had no idea what it could mean.

Knowing what it means now, it might be important to review some of the sections where Ophelia is talking, since you have also pointed out that maybe she is really talking about herself rather than others. That's so interesting!

Meagan Gemperlein said:

I almost took shiftless as Ophelia's "What you takin 'bout Willis?" kind of line. It really identifies her. So on stage, every time you would hear shiftless, you would automatically think of Ophelia. So technically, it's a great way to identifiy the charater, especially on stage if this was being acted.

Now why she is actually saying it, I have no idea. I wonder if she even knows what it means sometimes because she uses it so freely and frequently. It's like when people use "lol" all the time these days. I bet no one really knows why they are saying it or if they are actually laughing. They just use it to use it.

Jessica Pierce said:

I also often wondered if Ophelia knew the true meaning of the word. It is like "lol!" I know so many people who just say LOL after everything just out of habit. Are you really laughing out loud right now? I don't think so. I do think Ophelia's use of the word has to have a deeper meaning, though.

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Jessica Pierce on Shiftless: An Analysis: I also often wondered if Ophel
Meagan Gemperlein on Shiftless: An Analysis: I almost took shiftless as Oph
Heather Mourick on Shiftless: An Analysis: I am so glad you looked into t