Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was somewhat unique for its time in that it combined aspects of the popular Sentimental/Domestic fiction, slave narrative, and into one piece of influential literature. Due to her experiences as a slave in the South and later a free person in the North, Jacobs was able to gain the needed social and cultural experience to make her aware of how she could persuade Northern women to support the Abolitionist movement. Jacobs knew that Northern white women reading domestic fiction had the influence to sway their husband’s opinions involving slavery issues and white men had the power to make changes. Using her understanding of the social institutions of the times, she tells her story with a cautiousness not to offend her white audience while still establishing herself as a trustworthy source of information. Establishing the sympathy and understanding of a female audience of the 19th century began with the reader’s viewing her as a woman more similar to themselves than different.
Incidents is filled with examples of Harriet Jacobs‘ knowledge of the impact of the “Cult of True Womanhood” on all Victorian women. She makes it clear that not only white women sought to live virtuous and religious lives as she describes the influences her well loved and respected Grandmother had on her beliefs and actions. Even after her escape and her owner, Dr.Flint, had finally passed away and out of her life, Harriet makes a point to mention the willingness of her good Grandmother to forgive the man for all the pain and suffering he had caused her loved ones. She tells how her Grandmother wrote her a letter about his death, “Dr. Flint is dead. He has left a distressed family. Poor old man. I hope he has made his peace with God.” Jacobs’ struggle to remain chaste in spite of Dr. Flint’s constant assaults must have seemed admirable and a new perspective of a black woman in contention with the stereotypes of the times. Although black women were commonly viewed as barbaric, animalistic, and promiscuous, Jacobs depicted herself and her family as people with strong religious and moral beliefs. When Harriet is forced to resolve herself to cunning, deceit, and even pre-marital sex to avoid Dr.Flint, she makes it known that she had no other options and asks the reader to attempt see things from her point of view. She pleads, “Oh ye happy women, whose puberty has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely”. Jacobs’ insinuations about the privileges of the white woman, while discussing her own misfortunes cleverly aid her in her attempts to combat slavery. She also took the opportunity to capitalize upon her combative relationship with her mistress.
Another way Harriet gains sympathy from her readers is meeting the unkindness and jealousy of her mistress with pity and understanding. She implies that the aversion Mrs. Flint shows her is to be expected from a wife whose husband has cheated on her and fathered children with slaves. Jacobs’ know that her mistresses’ plight and those of other Southern women was nothing to envy. In fact, in situations where the Master took a slave as a lover, both wife and slave girl or woman as the case might have been, suffered. The evils of slavery affecting innocent white women are described by Jacobs as she discusses the sad realities they led on the plantation. “The young wife soon learns that the husband in whose hands she has placed her happiness pays no regard to his marriage vows. Children of every shade of complexion play with her own fair babies, and too well she knows that they are born unto him of his own household. Jealousy and hatred enter the flowery home, and it is ravaged of its loveliness.” In such a circumstance, both women become the victim of the man and the perfect world of the aristocracy is disheveled from within. It seems apparent that Jacobs is either looking readers to disdain slavery by pretending to feel pity for her mistress, or she truly did see the wrong being done to white women as well as black. Whether her opinions of her owners were sincere or completely accurate my never be known. Still, her novel does well as a slave narrative to dispel popular myths involving the “dream world” of the Southern plantation.
Jacobs’ depiction of herself as the tormented young slave girl and her mistress in disarray at her husband’s attraction to her female slave tore apart the image of the contented slave and Southern belle mistress. Although it was the “duty” of the wife to uphold institutions like slavery and maintain appearances at all costs, it is clear by Jacobs’ description of Mrs. Flint, that this was not an easy task. But for the men of the South, what was difficult for women did not matter. In fact, “women along with children and slaves were expected to recognize their proper and subordinate place and be obedient to the head of the family. Any tendency on the part of the members of the system to assert themselves against the Master threatened the whole, and therefore slavery itself”(Firor Scott 17). Clearly, slavery was an institution with small amount of benefactors. Among those were the white men, who were depicted as chivalrous and kind by the Southern plantation myth.
According to Jacobs, her master was the exact opposite of kind, as he harassed and berated her for years and betrayed his wife and family, fathering slave children. For the purposes of her novel, the man needed to be depicted as the ultimate antagonist, but in reality, things might not have been so simple. While it may have be easy for a slave girl or a wife to dismiss the man as inherently evil, the Southern aristocratic man was a product of his patriarchal surroundings. It has been pointed out that a man of this time was encouraged to seize control and accept nothing but praise and even worship from his family and slaves. Firor Scott points out that “Husbands were frequently referred to in the words used for God: Lord and Master”(Firor Scott 14). It is not surprising then, that convoluted behaviors and habits would present themselves among such men. Especially when the literature and culture of the time encouraged and confirmed such practices and reaffirmed the fact that women should be passive. For Jacobs to write about Dr. Flint in such a negative way not only allowed women to realize the bad things slavery can do to a person, but the impact of patriarchy on society. Jacobs wants to make it known that not all white people are bad, not even those in the South.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl attempts to show its readers that white people to make the conscious choice to “do the right thing.” Even in the pro-slavery South, some decent people existed. Harriet tells about her Grandmother’s friend and white slave owner Betty who aided her escape to the North by allowing her to hide at her home while waited to flee from the South permanently. Betty makes Harriet promise never to tell a soul that she helped her, because although she may believe the girl should be free, she is not willing to stand up for what she believes in. More importantly to Betty, she cannot disgrace her family by aiding a slave’s escape. What is right is not taken into account. When Harriet finally escapes to the North she is overcome by the surprises she encounters.
Although there had been much injustice and racism in the South where she was in bondage, when Harriet finally escapes to the North her heart is saddened by the hypocrisy there. Writing to a Northern audience, Harriet condemns Northern hypocrites for condemning the South and slavery, while supporting it by enacting the Fugitive Slave law and taking slaves back to the South if caught in the North.
Andrews, William L. Classic African American Women’s Narratives. Oxford UP, 2003.
Firor Scott, Anne. The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930, University of Virginia Press; 25 Anv Edition (October 22, 1995).
Final Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars