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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl!