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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
There is only one intact Black family in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 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 owner's wife. This woman 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 Black people 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 in the Life of a Slave Girl 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 accounts of violence also demolish the common pro-slavery claim that most slaves were well cared for and led happy, peaceful lives.
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