Iola Leroy is a novel of social protest with elements of the Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story). It can also be described as historical fiction.


The narrator of the novel is anonymous but fairly biased. The narrator’s views often coincide with author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s social and political platforms.

Point of View

The third-person, omniscient narrator of Iola Leroy relays and comments on various characters’ personal histories, thoughts, motivations, and actions. The narrator not only reports events in the novel but also delves into the inner psyche of some of the main characters, including Iola, Dr. Gresham, and Harry.


The novel’s tone is sympathetic, contemplative, instructional, optimistic, and at times bitter or caustic—especially in those chapters that read more like political and social commentary or speeches. Harper directly opposes slavery, promotes equal rights for Black people, and teaches the reader to adopt these views.


The tense of Iola Leroy frequently shifts from present to past as Harper employs the literary technique of flashback as a plot device.

Setting (Time & Place)

While Harper does not specify particular dates, the novel occurs during the Civil War (1861–1865) and the post-war Reconstruction period (1865–1877). The novel takes place in various locales, including North Carolina, Mississippi, Maine, Ohio, undisclosed cities in the North, and unspecified states involved in Civil War battles.


Iola Leroy is the protagonist of the novel.


Marie speculates that Lorraine will betray the family by selling her and her children into slavery. The images of darkness that shroud Marie’s home symbolize this dire prediction. Aunt Linda’s clairvoyant visions foreshadow the end of slavery as well as the transcendence of Black people beyond oppression toward attaining civil rights.

Major Conflict

Iola, a person of mixed race, struggles to understand and define her racial identity. Society’s perception of Black people as unequal to white people shapes her inner conflict.

Rising Action 

Iola’s parents raise her to believe she is white, but her mixed race identity is exposed when her wicked uncle, Lorraine, manipulates her father’s will and sells her, her mother, and her siblings into slavery.


The conflict of masking and uncovering identity comes to a climax when Iola first refuses to marry Dr. Gresham, a white man, because the white race is responsible for the institution of slavery and the subsequent fracturing of Iola’s family. While she continues to grapple with her identity, Iola begins to align herself with the Black race and affirm her Black roots, generating her path toward self-realization.

Falling Action

Eventually, Iola definitively asserts herself as a Black woman whose goal is to advocate on behalf of her race in order to foster equal rights and racial uplift within the Black community.