Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Frontispiece of the first edition
Author Harriet Ann Jacobs
Genre Slave narrative
Publisher Thayer & Eldridge
Publication date

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative published in 1861 by Harriet Ann Jacobs under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book is an in-depth chronological account of Jacobs's life as a slave, detailing the decisions and sacrifices she made to gain freedom for herself and, later, for her children. It addresses the struggles and sexual abuse that slaves (particularly young women) faced on the plantations. Many of the issues addressed in this novel pertain exclusively (or nearly so) to women, such as struggles with rape, the pressure to have sex at an early age, and the selling of children.

Jacobs began composing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl while living and working at Idlewild, the Hudson River home of writer and publisher Nathaniel Parker Willis (fictionalized in the book as Mr. Bruce).[1] Portions of the book were published in serial form in the New-York Tribune, owned and edited by Horace Greeley. Jacobs's reports of sexual abuse were deemed too shocking for the average newspaper reader of the day, and publication ceased before the completion of the narrative.

Boston publishing house Phillips and Samson agreed to print the work in book form if Jacobs could convince Willis or Harriet Beecher Stowe to provide a preface. She refused to ask Willis for help and Stowe turned her down, though the Phillips and Samson company closed anyway.[2] Jacobs eventually managed to sign an agreement with the Thayer & Eldridge publishing house, and they requested a preface by Lydia Maria Child, who agreed. Child also edited the book, and the company introduced her to Jacobs. The two women remained in contact for much of their remaining lives. Thayer & Eldridge, however, declared bankruptcy before the narrative could be published.

Historical context[edit]

After being printed in serial form in the New-York Tribune, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published as a complete work in 1861.[3] The timing of its release put it in close proximity with the abolitionist movement and the start of the Civil War.

Abolitonist works[edit]

Main article: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is strongly tied to other abolitionist works at the time, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The stories address similar concerns, each following characters who struggle through lives of slavery.[4] Though Uncle Tom's Cabin is fictional, Stowe based it on numerous factual accounts, some of her sources are documented in The Key To Uncle Tom's Cabin. She presented the view that everyone in the United States was implicated in the cycle of chattel slavery, including Southern women, people living in the North, and people who did not own slaves. The book aroused anti-slavery support, and President Abraham Lincoln credited it with contributing to the start of the Civil War.[5]

Slavery and the Civil War[edit]

Main article: American Civil War

When the book finally was published, the Civil War started, burying the novel beneath news of the war.[6] Jacobs had wanted to tell her story to add to the abolitionist movement, and also to appeal to the support of white affluent middle-class women, but the publishing difficulties led to the novel being released at a time when those issues had already largely come to a head.

The book also addresses the influence of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 on people in the North as well as the South. At the time, this piece of legislation made it a felony for anybody who found a runaway slave not to return the slave to his or her owner.

Cult of True Womanhood[edit]

Main article: Cult of Domesticity

During the time of Jacobs's writing, many women operated by a set of ideals known as the Cult of True Womanhood. This set of ideals, as described by Barbara Welter, asserted that all women possessed (or should possess) the virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness.[7] Many scholars agree[who?] that Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a criticism of this. Jacobs challenges these virtues, asserting that slavery made them impossible for her to achieve.[8] She also uses these virtues as an appeal to female abolitionists to spur them into action. Throughout the novel, Jacobs describes life events that illustrate her inability to adhere to each of these values (for example, she cannot have a home of her own for her family, which keeps her from being domestic).

Plot summary[edit]

Born into slavery, Linda spends her early years in a happy home with her mother and father, who are relatively well-off slaves. When her mother dies, six-year-old Linda is sent to live with her mother's mistress, who treats her well and teaches her to read. After a few years, this mistress dies and bequeaths Linda to a relative. Her new masters are cruel and neglectful, and Dr. Flint, the father, takes an interest in Linda and tries to force her into a sexual relationship with him. Linda resists his attempts and maintains her distance.

Knowing that Flint will do anything to get his way, Linda consents to a relationship with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands. As a result of their relations, Sands and Linda have two children: Benjamin, often called Benny, and Ellen. Linda is ashamed, but hopes this relationship will protect her from assault at the hands of Dr. Flint. Linda also hopes that Flint would become angry enough to sell her to Sands, but he refuses to do so. Instead, he sends Linda to his son's plantation to be broken in as a field hand.

When she discovers that Benny and Ellen are also to be sent to the fields, Linda makes a desperate plan. Escaping to the North with two small children would be nearly impossible. Unwilling to submit to Dr. Flint's abuse, but equally unwilling to abandon her family, she hides in the attic of the house of her grandmother, Aunt Martha. She hopes that Dr. Flint, under the false impression that she has gone North, will sell her children rather than risk having them disappear as well. Linda is overjoyed when Dr. Flint sells Benny and Ellen to a slave trader secretly representing Sands. Mr. Sands promises to free the children one day and sends them to live with Aunt Martha. But Linda's triumph comes at a high price, and she becomes physically debilitated by her harsh living conditions. The longer she stays in her tiny garret, where she can neither sit nor stand, the more physically debilitated she becomes. Her only pleasure is to watch her children through a tiny peephole, as she cannot risk letting them know where she is.

Mr. Sands marries and becomes a congressman. He takes Ellen to Washington, D.C., to look after his newborn daughter, and Linda realizes that he may never free their children. Worried that he will eventually sell them, she determines that she must somehow flee with them to the North. However, Dr. Flint continues to hunt for her, and escape remains too risky.

After seven years in the attic, Linda finally escapes to the North by boat. Benny remains with Aunt Martha, and Linda is reunited with Ellen, who is nine years old and living in Brooklyn. Linda is dismayed to find that her daughter is treated as a slave by Sands’s cousin, Mrs. Hobbs. She fears that Mrs. Hobbs will take Ellen back to the South, putting her beyond Linda's reach forever. She finds work as a nursemaid for a New York City family, the Bruces, who treat her very kindly. Dr. Flint continues to pursue Linda, and she flees to Boston. There, she is reunited with Benny. Dr. Flint claims that the sale of Benny and Ellen was illegitimate, and Linda is terrified that he will re-enslave her and her children. After a few years, Mrs. Bruce dies, and Linda spends some time living with her children in Boston. She spends a year in England caring for Mr. Bruce's daughter, and for the first time in her life she enjoys freedom from racial prejudice. When Linda returns to Boston, Ellen goes to boarding school, and Benny moves to California with Linda's brother William. Mr. Bruce remarries, and Linda takes a position caring for their new baby. Dr. Flint dies, but his daughter, Emily, writes to Linda to claim ownership of her. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 is passed by Congress, making Linda extremely vulnerable to capture and re-enslavement.

Emily Flint and her husband, Mr. Dodge, arrive in New York to capture Linda. Linda goes into hiding, and the new Mrs. Bruce offers to purchase her freedom. Linda refuses, unwilling to be bought and sold yet again, and makes plans to follow Benny to California. Mrs. Bruce buys Linda's freedom from Flint. Linda is grateful to Mrs. Bruce, but expresses disgust at the institution that necessitated the transaction. Linda then notes that she still has not yet realized her dream of making a home for herself and her children to share. The book closes with two testimonials to its accuracy, one from Amy Post, a white abolitionist, and the other from George W. Lowther, a black antislavery writer.

Character analysis[edit]

Linda Brent – The protagonist, and a pseudonym for Harriet Jacobs. At the start of the story, Linda is unaware of her status as a slave due to her first kind masters, who taught her how to read and write. She faces betrayal and harassment by her subsequent masters, the Flints. Linda learns along the way how to defend herself against her masters. She uses psychological warfare and cunning to avoid the advances of Dr. Flint, which prove to be effective in the story. However, Jacobs reveals in the beginning of the book that there were aspects of her story that she could not bear to write down on paper. She is torn between her desire for personal freedom and her feeling of personal responsibility to her family, especially her children Benny and Ellen. Jacobs never feels that she quite understands freedom as a black slave, and consistently considers African Americans to be on a different level of morality than all others.

Dr. Flint – Linda's master, enemy and would be lover. He has the legal right to do anything he wants to Linda, but wishes to seduce her by tricking and threatening her rather than raping her. Throughout the book, Linda constantly rebels against him and refuses to do anything sexual with him. This enrages him and he soon obsesses over the idea of breaking her rebellious spirit. Dr. Flint never recognizes that Linda is a human being with feelings, desires or unalienable rights. Dr. Flint represents the oppressive male role in 19th-century America in that he objectifies Linda for being a woman and consistently fights with his wife.

Aunt Martha – Linda's grandmother on her mothers side and one of her closest friends. She is both religious and patient. She is saddened as she watches her children and grandchildren sold and being abused by their white masters. She grieves throughout the book when her loved ones escape their masters and find freedom because she will never see them again. Family to her must be preserved no matter what, even at the cost of their freedom and their happiness. Aunt Martha is not afraid to stand up for herself or her family, and talks to the Flints with pride, dignity, and importance. Aunt Martha is the only slave Dr. Flint fears throughout the entire novel.

Mrs. Flint – is Linda's mistress and Dr. Flint's wife. She is suspicious of a sexual relationship between Linda and Dr. Flint and in turn is vicious towards Linda. Though she is a church woman, she is brutal and insensitive to her slaves. She demonstrates how the slave system has corrupted the moral character of Southern women. Mrs. Flint and Dr. Flint consistently fight over his treatment of Linda, in which he protects Linda from any form of corporal punishment that Mrs. Flint considered dispensing. Mrs. Flint is ruled by her husband and is unable to break free of this constraint due to the lack of rights in women during the 19th century.

Mr. Sands – Linda's lover who is white and the father of her children, Benny and Ellen. Mr. Sands is a kind-natured man compared to Dr. Flint but he has no real loving affection towards his two racially mixed children. Mr. Sands acts as Linda's portal to partial freedom. Linda uses Sands in a similar way that he uses her. Linda needs someone to make her feel important or almost free. Similarly, Linda knew it would enrage her master, Dr. Flint, in which case he can not stop. He breaks his promises to Linda and he eventually doesn't talk to her anymore. He eventually has another child by his wife and treats that child with more affection than Benny and Ellen.[9]

Fictionalized characters[edit]

In the book, Harriet Jacobs uses fictionalized names to protect the identities of persons in the story. Note that not all of the characters in the book are listed here.

Linda Brent is Harriet Jacobs, the book's protagonist and a pseudonym for the author.

William Brent is John Jacobs: Linda's brother, to whom she is close. William's escape from Mr. Sands shows that even a privileged slave desires freedom above all else.

Ruth Nash is Margaret Horniblow.

Emily Flint is Mary Matilda Norcom, Dr. Flint's daughter and Linda's legal "owner."

Dr. Flint is Dr. James Norcom. Although based on Harriet Jacobs's real-life master, the character of Dr. Flint often seems more like a melodramatic villain than a real man.

Aunt Martha is Molly Horniblow. She is one of the narrative's most complex characters, representing an ideal of domestic life and maternal love. She works tirelessly to buy her children's and grandchildren's freedom.

Mr. Sands is Samuel Tredwell Sawyer; he is Linda's white lover and the father of her children. After arranging to buy the children, he repeatedly breaks promises to Linda to free them.

Benny Sands is Joseph Sawyer.

Ellen Sands is Louisa Sawyer.

Mr. Bruce is Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Gertrude Bruce is Cornelia Grinnel Willis.[10]

Critical response[edit]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl initially received favorable reviews, but it quickly lost attention due to the start of the Civil War.[11] After the war ended, readers who discovered the work were confused as to whether the author was Harriet Jacobs, Lydia Maria Child, or even Harriet Beecher Stowe. Since the book was written using a false identity, it was deemed fictional, and the historical opinion on the book was that it was written by Lydia Maria Child. However, the book re-emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, when Jean Fagan Yellin began researching the narrative. Through the use of historical documents, Yellin proved that Harriet Jacobs was the real author and that the events of the book were largely true.[12] Jacobs's work is now considered one of the great slave narratives of the 19th century, shedding light on the sexualization of women in slavery for the first time.


  1. ^ Baker, Thomas N. Nathaniel Parker Willis and the Trials of Literary Fame. New York, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 4. ISBN 0-19-512073-6
  2. ^ Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basic Civitas Books, 2004, pp. 146–147. ISBN 0-465-09288-8
  3. ^ Yellin, Harriet Jacobs (2004), pp. 120–121.
  4. ^ "Uncle Tom's Cabin, An Introduction to." Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 131. Detroit: Gale, 2008. p. 93. Web. 27 October 2014.
  5. ^ Charles Edward Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (1911) p. 203
  6. ^ "Harriet Jacobs." The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Shorter Eighth Edition). Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 818-19. Print.
  7. ^ Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18. (1966): 151-74.
  8. ^ Larson, Jennifer. "Converting Passive Womanhood to Active Sisterhood: Agency, Power, and Subversion in Harriet Jacobs's ‘Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’." Women's Studies 35.8 (2006): 739-756. Web. 29 October 2014
  9. ^ Analysis of Major Characters for Incidents in the life of a slave girl
  10. ^ Characters "Characters", Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Spark Notes
  11. ^ "Harriet Jacobs." The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Shorter Eighth Edition). Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 818-19. Print.
  12. ^ Yellin, Harriet Jacobs (2004), p. xi–xii.

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