Thursday, July 14, 2011

Required Work: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

This is probably the hardest thing I have had to read from the list so far. Only if Pale Fire were replaced with Lolita would there be something harder to read. Granted, I’m not talking hard to read like Chaucer is hard to read, or Faulkner, but in subject matter purely. Jacobs’ story is one of abuse, fear, hatred, and injustice. The few bright spots in the narrative such as the kind people who help her out are just not enough to escape the evils that some were willing to inflict upon her simply because of the color of her skin. It makes a perfect companion piece to Frederick Douglass’ narrative, so it makes perfect sense the two should share an item number.


Once again, on the surface this is only a slave narrative that also includes elements of a coming of age tale. The story starts with Jacobs’ early childhood years, before she even knew she was a slave, and follows her until she is able to gain her freedom and that of her children. However, the tale can also be viewed as an example of feminist literature as there are many points in which Jacobs makes the point that as harsh as male slaves were treated with the meanest forms of abuse, female slaves still had it the hardest. They may not have been abused as brutally as the men were, but there was the issue of slave children having to follow the condition of their mother, resulting in many families being separated due to children and parents being sold to different owners. Also, as Jacobs experienced, many female slaves were subject to their white master’s sexual advances. Some were raped, with no law to protect them. Others submitted only to have their children sold from them so that the master would not have to deal with them. And sometimes the females themselves were then sold, mostly due to the intense jealousy of the master’s wives who were often in full knowledge of what their husband’s were doing. While Douglass was able to offer a male perspective in his own Narrative, Jacobs is able to tell another side of the story – of another evil from the influence of slavery in America.


I have already touched on the feminist tones throughout the story; mostly the point that female slaves had it even worse than their male counterparts. The bulk of the first half of the novel involves the many different attempts of Dr. Flint, Jacobs’ master, to get Jacobs to sleep with him. He threatened her, he even hit her a few times, and on occasion was very sweet to her, but he never forced her or raped her. But he employed pretty much every other type of abuse he could when she refused to bend to his will. Jacobs gives plenty of accounts of other female slaves who endured much worse, especially those that did submit or were raped and subsequently had their master’s children.

The issue of identity is also a theme in this story, but not in the same way that it was for Frederick Douglass. There is some issue over whether her children will take the last name of their real father (a white man in the community), but most of the naming issues come from Jacobs’ desire to conceal the real identities of the people she is writing about, both friend and enemy. With every new person that is introduced under a pseudonym the text gives a footnote with information on the real identity.

Jacobs even gives herself the name of Linda Brent, which was also her pen name when the story was published. For me it is a continuation of Jacobs’ constant need to hide, and not only when she has escaped. Even when she is still in Dr. Flint’s house, Jacobs continually attempts to fly under the radar and escape the master’s notice. She often escapes and hides in the comfort and security of her grandmother, and even escapes in some way to the white man who ended up being the father of her children. And then of course, there are the several escapes Jacobs has to undertake in order to elude not only her old master, but his son, his daughter, his son-in-law, and anyone who may recognize her and take her back under the Fugitive Slave Law. She would often hide in plain sight in a way after going north remaining indoors in her employer’s house when there were rumors that someone may be looking for her.

Two other prominent themes will also be those of being free versus being property. Jacobs continually bristles under the idea that she must pay for her own freedom and the idea that her children can be taken away from her on the basis that they are property that belongs to someone else. In the end (spoiler alert!) Jacobs obtains her freedom when her employer buys her from her former master. An actual bill of sale is drawn up, and Jacobs finds this particularly offensive (who wouldn’t?).

Jacobs also had to endure much of the same type of criticism that Douglass did when he published his Narrative. People did not believe the level of cruelty Jacobs described, and some critics asserted that some of the accounts simply couldn’t be true.


Upon its publication, many actually accepted Jacob’s accounts of what she endured as true. They believed that her insights into slavery could not have been fictionalized and openly praised the work and Jacobs on its publication.

When the book was published in 1861, the Fugitive Slave Act had been in effect for 10 years. The act required that whites of the north (or any region really) return any escaped slave they came across back to their masters. In other words, the “free states” were no longer really free. Also, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, a book that also preaches against the evils of slavery. Four years before that, The Seneca Falls Convention had taken place and white women were moving toward the right to vote. But the Anti-Slavery movement was split over women’s rights, and eventually this led to a race of sorts to see who would get the right to vote first: African-Americans, or women. Ultimately, African-American men gained the right to vote first.

Once again, I came in longer than I wanted to, but there you are. Next week I will end my current run on the topic of slavery with a speech from Sojourner Truth and poetry as well as an essay from Frances E.W. Harper.

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