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
AuthorHarriet Ann Jacobs
GenreSlave narrative
PublisherThayer & Eldridge
Publication date
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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Frontispiece of the first edition
AuthorHarriet Ann Jacobs
GenreSlave narrative
PublisherThayer & Eldridge
Publication date

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a slave narrative that was published in 1861 by Harriet Ann Jacobs, using the pen name "Linda Brent." The book is an in-depth chronological account of Jacobs's life as a slave, and the decisions and choices she made to gain freedom for herself and her children. It addresses the struggles and sexual abuse that young women slaves faced on the plantations, and how these struggles were harsher than what men suffered as slaves. The book is considered sentimental and written to provoke an emotional response and sympathy from the reader toward slavery in general and slave women in particular[citation needed] for their struggles with rape, the pressure to have sex at an early age, the selling of their children, and the treatment of female slaves by their mistresses.

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, who was 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 considered too shocking to 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] She eventually managed to sign an agreement with the Thayer & Eldridge publishing house and they requested a preface by Lydia Maria Child. 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]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published as a complete work in 1861, after having been first published in serial form over several months in the New-York Tribune newspaper.[3] When the book finally came out, it was as the Civil War started, which buried it in the war effort. 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. At the time the book was published, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was still in effect, making it a felony for anybody who found a runaway slave not to return the slave to the owner. The book expressed aspects of the influence of the Fugitive Slave Act on people in the North as well as the South.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is strongly tied in themes related to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, book Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). Both were written in the sentimental style of the day and appealed to readers' sympathies. Though Uncle Tom's Cabin is fictional, Stowe based it on numerous factual accounts. 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 said it contributed to the start of the Civil War.[citation needed]

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 thwarts 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. She is ashamed but hopes this relationship will protect her from assault by Dr. Flint. During their affair,Sands and Linda have two children: Benjamin, often called Benny, and Ellen. Throughout her narrative, Jacobs argues that a powerless slave girl cannot be held to the same standards of morality as a free woman. She had practical reasons for agreeing to the liaison; she hoped that Flint would be angered enough to sell her to Sands, but he refuses to do so. He sends Linda to his son's plantation to be broken in as a field hand.

When she discovers that Benny and Ellen are 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 crawl space in 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 the girl 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, nine years old and living in Brooklyn, New York. Linda is dismayed to find that her daughter is treated as a slave by Sands’ 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 now claims that the sale of Benny and Ellen was illegitimate, and Linda is terrified that he will re-enslave all three. 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 was grateful to Mrs. Bruce, who was still her employer when she wrote the book. She 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.[4]

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, Aunt Martha is one of the narrative's most complex characters. She represents 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, and Gertrude Bruce is Cornelia Grinnel Willis.[5]

Critical response[edit]

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was not very popular when it first came out for many reasons, including the timing, at the start of the Civil War; after the war ended people were confused whether the book had been written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, or Harriet Jacobs. Since the book was written using a false identity, it was dismissed as being fiction. The historical opinion on the book until the 1980s was that it was fiction written by Lydia Maria Childs. The book really re-emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, when Jean Fagan Yellin began doing research into the book and author, and through the use of historical documents proved that Harriet Jacobs was the true author and that what she said in the book really did happen.[6]

Harriet Jacobs's work is now received as a great slave narrative that helped people to understand slavery in a new way. Before the book came out there had never been a book that talked about the sexualization of women in slavery. In the book Jacobs says that women in slavery cannot be held to the same moral standards of white women or free women because slave women often do not have control.


  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. ^ Analysis of Major Characters for Incidents in the life of a slave girl
  5. ^ Characters "Characters", Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl], Spark Notes
  6. ^ Yellin, Harriet Jacobs (2004), p. xi–xii.

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