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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Linda Brent

An innocent young slave girl, Linda must grow up fast when she finds herself in the clutches of a morally corrupt master. She begins life with a secure attachment to her parents, who take excellent care of her for her first six years. They don’t tell her she is a slave, which enables her to develop a strong sense of self-worth that later allows her to overcome major obstacles. Linda is confident and spirited, and she never really accepts the fact that she is the property of another person. Although she is exposed to the most degrading treatment at the hands of Dr. Flint, she never loses her self-respect or her desire to have a normal home and family. She is devoted to her children and willing to endure great suffering for their sake.

Just as she refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the slave system, Linda totally rejects her master’s claim that she is his property, body and soul. She is an independent spirit, and Dr. Flint’s sexual harassment only intensifies her desire to control her own life. Linda is clever, rebellious, and strong-willed, and from the start, she lets Dr. Flint know that she will never submit to his advances. She enters into a battle of wills with him and at times even expresses a perverse satisfaction at tricking him or making him angry. Her independence also leads her to have an affair with Mr. Sands, largely to spite Flint and retain some control over her sexuality. Although she doesn’t love Mr. Sands and believes that it is wrong to have sex with him, she takes satisfaction in her ability to choose whom to sleep with. Similarly, when she hides in an attic crawl space for seven years, substituting a life of physical suffering over the relatively “easy” existence she would have had as Dr. Flint’s concubine, Linda once again expresses her strong desire to be psychologically and spiritually independent.

As Linda grows up, and particularly after she becomes a mother, her rebellious and independent nature is somewhat modulated. As a young girl, Linda dreams only of escaping slavery for a better life in the North. After becoming a mother, she still wants freedom, but she also feels deeply attached to her children, who are also Dr. Flint’s property. She is unwilling to leave them and worries about what will become of them if she runs away. Unlike some of the male characters in the book, she cannot simply sever all of her emotional ties and start over in the North. Most of Linda’s actions are directed by this essential emotional and moral conflict. She is torn between her independent nature and her maternal feelings, which urge her to sacrifice her own opportunity for freedom to save her children. In the end, motherhood wins out, although Linda’s bold spirit is never extinguished.

Dr. Flint

Although he is based on Harriet Jacobs’s real-life master, Dr. Flint often seems more like a melodramatic villain than a real man. He is morally bankrupt and lacks any redeeming qualities. He is thoroughly one-dimensional, totally corrupted by the power that the slave system grants him. He sees no reason not to use and abuse his slaves in any way he chooses, and he never shows any signs of sympathy for them or remorse for his crimes. If Dr. Flint expresses kindness, it is invariably a ruse to try to get Linda to sleep with him. Dr. Flint represents the cruelty, callousness, and treachery of the entire slave system.

Dr. Flint loves power above all else, and it often seems that forcing Linda to submit to him is more important to him than simply sleeping with her. He is galled and infuriated by her defiance, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of breaking her will. Rather than simply raping her, he persists in his efforts make her acknowledge his mastery. When Linda escapes, he pursues her relentlessly, putting himself hundreds of dollars in debt to chase her to New York. After his death, his venom and determination seem to be reincarnated in the form of his son-in-law, Mr. Dodge. Dr. Flint neither changes nor grows over the course of the narrative. His malice, representing all of the evils of slavery, appears to affect Linda even from beyond the grave.

Aunt Martha

Aunt Martha is one of the narrative’s most complex characters, embodying Jacobs’s ambivalence about motherhood and maternal love. She is a second mother to Linda, a positive force in her life, and a paragon of honesty and decency. She is loving and family-oriented, representing an ideal of domestic life and maternal love. She works tirelessly to buy her children’s and grandchildren’s freedom. Her unwavering piety leads her to attribute her enslavement to God’s will and to patiently bear the loss of her children to slave traders. Beneath her gentle veneer, Aunt Martha is a powerful figure with considerable standing in her community. She is the only black woman in the narrative with her own home. On more than one occasion, she rebukes slave holders who harm her relatives, even telling Dr. Flint to his face that he is going to hell for his treatment of Linda.

Although she is generally a positive character, there is a dark side to Aunt Martha’s domesticity. She prizes home and family first and foremost, loving her children and grandchildren so possessively that she cannot bear the thought of being separated from them. She is essential to Linda’s survival, but at times her maternal power threatens to suffocate her loved ones. She would rather see them in slavery than have them run away from her to freedom. She mourns the successful escape of her son, Benjamin, who has been dreadfully abused by his master. She repeatedly urges Linda not to run away. When Linda hides in Aunt Martha’s attic crawl space, it is as if she has been locked away in a prison of Martha’s creation. In the end, Aunt Martha manages to let Linda go, but only when it is clear that to stay would spell total disaster.

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