Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Corrupting Power of Slavery
Jacobs takes great pains to prove that there can be no “good” slave masters. She argues that slavery destroys the morality of slave holders, almost without exception. Slave holders such as Dr. Flint become inhumane monsters. With no legal checks on their behavior, they inflict every conceivable kind of torture on their servants. Most slave masters view slaves as little more than animals or objects, never acknowledging their humanity. But even “kindly” slave holders, such as Mr. Sands, show themselves capable of betraying their slaves when it is convenient or profitable. Mr. Sands promises to free his slave children and may even intend to do so at first. However, in the slave system, such good intentions are easily forgotten. If a slave owner such as Mr. Sands encounters financial problems, he will likely be tempted to sell his own children to get himself out of trouble. Thus, slavery distorts even the most basic emotional instinct: the love of a parent for a child.
Slaves also suffer from the influence of the slave system on their moral development. Linda does not condemn slaves for illegal or immoral acts such as theft or adultery, saying that they usually have no choice but to behave this way. However, she also points out that slaves have no reason to develop a strong ethical sense, as they are given no ownership of themselves or final control over their actions. This is not their fault, but the fault of the system that dehumanizes them. Slaves are not evil like their masters, but important parts of their personalities are left undeveloped.
Domesticity As Paradise and Prison
At the end of Incidents, Linda states that she is still waiting to have her greatest dream fulfilled—that of creating a real home for herself and her children. The desire for a comfortable and safe home runs throughout this book, reflecting the cult of domesticity that would have been familiar to Jacobs’s mostly white female readers in the nineteenth century. During Jacobs’s time, women were relegated to the domestic sphere and expected to find all of their fulfillment in caring for their homes and children. Women were considered to be housewives by their very natures, unfit for any other kind of life. As a black woman excluded from this value system, unable even to live with her children, Linda’s longing for a home is understandable.
Jacobs does not always present the domestic sphere as an uncomplicated good. Aunt Martha, the book’s representative of domesticity and the only black woman Linda knows who has a real home, is both a positive and a negative character. She is caring and stable, the backbone of her family and a paragon of domestic virtue. Her tidy home is a refuge and a lifeline for Linda from the time her own mother dies. But at times in which Linda needs encouragement in her quest for freedom and independence, Aunt Martha and her house become a discouraging, even confining force. Placing her children’s needs above her own, Linda remains a virtual captive in Aunt Martha’s home until she is permanently crippled. Hence, home and family are valuable, but they must be balanced with personal freedom. Otherwise, they may overwhelm a woman’s individuality.
The Psychological Abuses of Slavery
Most slave narratives emphasize the physical brutality and deprivation that slaves were forced to endure, presenting gory descriptions of beatings and lynchings to shock the reader. Jacobs does not ignore such issues, but her focus on slaves’ mental and spiritual anguish makes an important contribution to the genre. As a slave with a relatively “easy” life, Linda does not have to endure constant beatings and hard physical labor. However, she and many of the other slaves around her suffer greatly from being denied basic human rights and legal protection. Men and women are not permitted to marry whomever they choose—they often are not allowed to marry at all. Women are frequently forced to sleep with the masters they despise. Worst of all, families are torn apart, with children sold to a place far away from their parents. Thus, even slaves who are not beaten or starved are stripped of their humanity. When Linda states that she would rather be a desperately poor English farm laborer than a “pampered” slave, she underscores the point that slavery’s mental cruelty is every bit as devastating as its physical abuses.
Fractured Family Ties
There is only one intact black family in this book, and it does not live in the South. The happy Durham family, whom Linda meets in Philadelphia, contrasts starkly with the situation of black families living under slavery. Aunt Martha struggles to keep her family together, but sees nearly all of her children sold. Linda is taken away from her father at age six to live with her mistress. Her mistress acts as a sort of mother to Linda, but she shows how little this relationship means to her when she treats Linda as property in her will. Linda is also denied the right to raise her own children and meets many women who will never see their children again. Slaves are often not allowed to marry, and if they are, husband and wife cannot always live together. White men father children with black women but feel no parental obligation to them, and they abuse them or sell them as if they were unrelated. If a white woman and a black man have a child together, the woman’s family will frequently have the infant killed. Even privileged white families do not care for their own children, fostering them out to slave wet nurses. Finally, pseudofamilial ties that develop between white and black half-siblings and foster siblings are broken as soon as the whites deem it appropriate. Normal human relationships simply cannot survive the disruptions of the slave system.
Linda’s seven-year imprisonment in Aunt Martha’s attic may be the narrative’s most spectacular example of confinement, but it is not the only one. Dr. Flint seeks to lock Linda up in an isolated cottage in the woods so he can sleep with her freely. Linda’s Uncle Benjamin is jailed for six months before he finally escapes. Dr. Flint imprisons Linda’s brother and small children when he finds that she has run away. Linda herself is confined in several places, including under the floorboards of her the house of her “white benefactress.” She continues to feel circumscribed by slavery even after she reaches New York. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she becomes a virtual prisoner in her employers’ home. The greatest confinements of all, though, may be mental. Masters keep slaves trapped by ignorance: unable to read, they cannot question the pro-slavery claims that the Bible dictates their condition. They know nothing of life beyond their immediate surroundings, and many believe that free blacks in the North are starving in the streets and begging to return to slavery.
Violence is a motif common to all slave narratives, and Incidents is no exception. One of Linda’s earliest memories is hearing Dr. Flint brutally whip one of his plantation slaves. She recalls seeing the blood and gore on the walls the next morning. Mrs. Flint, a supposed Christian, orders slaves whipped until they bleed and spits in their food so they will have to go hungry. She forces Aunt Nancy to sleep on the floor outside her room, continuing this practice even when Nancy is pregnant, causing her to give birth to many stillborn babies. Mrs. Flint’s treatment of Aunt Nancy, as Linda points out, amounts to murder committed very slowly. Slaves are burned, frozen, and whipped to death. Their wounds are washed with brine for further agonizing torture. Jacobs includes such accounts throughout the book, narrating them in detail to shock the reader into sympathy for slaves and to goad him or her into joining the abolitionist movement. Such stories of violence also counteract the common proslavery claim that most slaves were well cared for and led happy, peaceful lives.
Dr. Flint is based on Harriet Jacobs’s real-life master, and there is no reason to think that she exaggerated his vicious nature. Through historical research, scholars have confirmed that her depiction of him is accurate. However, in addition to his role in the true events of Jacobs’s life story, Dr. Flint also functions as the book’s main symbol of the slave system. He is monstrously cruel, hypocritical, and conniving, and he never experiences a moment of guilt, self-doubt, or sympathy for his victims. Given absolute power by the slave system, Flint never questions his right to do whatever he pleases to his slaves. He will accept nothing less than total submission from them. Dr. Flint aptly symbolizes the defining qualities of slavery: lust for power, moral corruption, and brutality. When Linda defies him, she threatens the legitimacy of slavery itself—hence his insistence on “mastering” her.
Aunt Martha, religious, domestic, and patient, represents ideals of womanhood and femininity that were important in Jacobs’s time. She lives for her home and her children and wants only to keep her family intact. She is so humble and pious that she believes that God has ordained her a slave for her own good. All of this is in keeping with a set of sexual stereotypes called the Cult of Domesticity (sometimes called “True Womanhood”), which dictated that women were essentially pure, submissive, pious, and oriented toward the private realm of home and family. Jacobs presents Aunt Martha as a sympathetic, virtuous figure, but also uses her to question some of the “feminine” values she represents, particularly as they apply to black women. Her virtue, patience, and piety go unrewarded, as she sees most of her children and grandchildren sold away or escaped to the North. Her last child, Aunt Nancy, is slowly killed by slavery. Aunt Martha’s story suggests that if slave women try to adhere to white middle-class ideas of how women should behave, they will be rewarded only with greater suffering.
The Loophole of Retreat
Linda’s attic hideout, a place where she is so restricted that she cannot sit or stand, represents all of the forces that keep her from being free. Conversely, it also represents the space of freedom she creates for herself in her own mind. Like slavery, the attic confines Linda’s body in terrible ways. She suffers physically and psychologically, losing her ability to speak and walk and becoming despairing and depressed. Her time in the attic almost kills her, which causes the reader to recall how Dr. Flint had claimed his right, under the laws of slavery, to do so himself. However, the attic is also a prison of Linda’s own choosing, and in this regard it differs from the imposed confinement of slavery. By going into hiding, she rejects Dr. Flint’s claim to own her soul as well as her body. Just as she decides to have consensual sex with Mr. Sands to avoid forced sex with Dr. Flint, she chooses the tortures of the attic over Flint’s luxurious cottage in the woods. She may have replaced one set of physical and emotional hardships with another, but she has claimed her mind and spirit as her own. The “loophole,” a peephole through which she can watch the outside world, symbolizes the spiritual freedom Linda finds even in seemingly restricted circumstances.
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