About Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl


Authenticity of the Novel

"Reader it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage."

With these words, Harriet Jacobs, speaking through her narrator, Linda Brent, reveals her reasons for deciding to make her personal story of enslavement, degradation, and sexual exploitation public. Although generally ignored by critics, who often dismissed Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself as a fictionalized account of slavery, the work is heralded today as the first book-length narrative by an ex-slave that reveals the unique brutalities inflicted on enslaved women. As such, it is often cited as the counterpart to the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself.

First published in 1861, Incidents was "discovered" in the 1970s and reprinted in 1973 and 1987. Since then, several editions of Incidents have been published. The most complete and comprehensive version of the narrative is the 1987 Harvard University Press edition, edited by Jacobs' biographer, Jean Fagan Yellin, a professor at New York's Pace University. (The second edition is scheduled for release in April 2000.) In addition to her efforts to establish the authenticity of Jacobs' narrative, Yellin also brought Incidents to the attention of readers, scholars, and critics who had long ignored or dismissed the work because it failed to meet the standards of the male slave narrative, as defined by male critics such as Robert Stepto and James Olney.

Scholars who dismissed the work as a fictional slave narrative often pointed out issues such as the following.

Unlike conventional slave narratives, Incidents does not acknowledge Harriet Jacobs as its author. Instead, the narrative was published under the pseudonym "Linda Brent."

The narrative's formal, sometimes melodramatic style that emulates the style of 19th century romantic novels seemed totally inappropriate for its "delicate" subject matter: the sexual abuse of enslaved black women.

Its stranger-than-fiction account of a woman who spends seven years hiding in her grandmother's attic to escape her master's insatiable lust seemed too fantastic to be believed.

The primary goal of slave narratives was to arouse sympathy among whites and gain their support for the anti-slavery movement led by abolitionists. Because the publication of Incidents coincided with the beginning of the Civil War, it was seen as being published too late to have any social or political impact.

The majority of slave narratives were written by men who documented their daring escapes and heroic actions, many of whom — such as Frederick Douglass — went on to become spokespersons or political leaders. In contrast, Jacobs' story — which focused primarily on her family — was viewed as less important than the stories of her male counterparts.

Male narratives generally followed a strictly chronological format, focusing on the narrator's life as he relates the story of his journey from slavery to freedom. In contrast, Jacobs' narrative focuses on "incidents" in her life. Moreover, instead of following a strictly chronological pattern, Jacobs often interrupts her narrative to address social or political issues such as the church and slavery or the impact of the Fugitive Slave Law on runaways. Consequently, her narrative did not fit the pattern of the "authentic" (male) narrative.

However, Yellin's discovery of letters documenting the correspondence between Jacobs and several prominent 19th century figures — including abolitionist Amy Post, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Jacobs' editor Lydia Maria Child — has established the authenticity of Jacobs' narrative and distinguished it as one of the most powerful and courageous works of its time.

For contemporary readers, skepticism generally revolves around the use of language. Critics have pointed out that Jacobs' narrative often depicts Linda as the tragic heroine of British romance novels rather than as an enslaved black woman fighting for survival. They also note that Dr. Flint is sometimes depicted more like a suitor or persistent lover determined to win the hand of his "lady," rather than as a slave owner determined to hold on to his "property."

Readers may also get this idea because Linda, rather than trying to escape, chooses to have two children by Mr. Sands, another white man, a decision that she sees as the lesser of two evils. So readers may conclude that she contributes to her own bondage. Thus, although she uses her sexuality to try to escape her fate, she is ultimately trapped by it.

In many ways, the structure of Incidents is similar to that of Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, an epistolary novel (a novel written in the form of letters) published in 1740 and based on a story about a servant who avoided seduction and was rewarded by marriage. It also bears some similarities to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, first published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell.

In this novel, Jane, the governess to a ward of the mysterious Mr. Rochester, falls in love with her employer, only to discover that he is already married, and that his wife, who is insane, is confined in the attic of his estate. Jane leaves, but is ultimately reunited with Mr. Rochester after the death of his wife. In one of the most famous quotes from the novel, Jane, an orphan who has survived several miserable years at a charity school, proclaims triumphantly, "Reader, I married him." For Linda, as for other black women, marriage as a means of escape from life's brutalities was not an option. Notably — even though she remains hidden in her grandmother's garret for seven years — she does not become "the madwoman in the attic." In fact, she not only maintains her sanity, but also uses her mind to outwit Dr. Flint, beating him at his own game of treachery and deception.

Scholars also point to similarities between Incidents and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (1852), which dramatized the plight of slaves and had such an impact on its readers that it is sometimes cited as one of the causes of the American Civil War. But although Stowe's "Uncle Tom" escaped only by dying, Linda's escape leads to a full life as a free woman.

Although Jacobs used the style of the 19th century romance in writing her narrative, presumably because it was the only model available to her, the content of her narrative focuses on her own experiences, and not — as was once believed — on the experiences of a fictional protagonist.

In conducting her research, Yellin also discovered a narrative written by Jacobs' brother, John. Titled A True Tale, the narrative authenticates Jacobs' experiences and provides a male perspective on many of the events described in Incidents.

Key Themes

Key themes in Incidents include the economics of slavery (see the Critical Essay "The Feminist Perspective"); the quest for freedom; pain and suffering (physical and emotional); self-definition; self-assertion; community support and family loyalty (generally lacking in slave narratives by men); and writing as a means of freedom, self-expression, and resistance. Also significant is the issue of literacy, which was often used as a metaphor for freedom, because slaves who learned to read and write were often the ones who ran away. Note, for example, that the letters Linda writes while hiding in her grandmother's garret play an important part in her eventual escape.

Other themes include the moral conflict between slavery and Christianity, color prejudice and racism, the bond of motherhood, family loyalty, and abandonment.

Narrative Structure and Chronology

As the Synopsis notes, Incidents can be divided into five distinctive parts each focusing on significant events in Linda's life.

Consequently, the structure deviates from that of the traditional slave narrative: Although some chapters focus strictly on Linda's story, others provide social, political, or historical commentary. The work also offers a new perspective on historical events such as the Nat Turner insurrection.

Incidents is unique in that it addresses a specific audience — white women in the North — and speaks for black women still held in bondage.