Lenguaje, Gramática y Filologías

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Harriet Jacobs

The aim of this paper is two-fold. On the one hand I am going to study the characteristics of the feminine autobiography in the slave narrative written by Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. On the other, I am going to explore the role of the protagonist both as woman and slave in the same text.

The feminine autobiography is studied from the problematic of the female author within the symbolic order of patriarchy and how the position in that sort of system affects the relation of women with the process of writing. Besides, the feminine autobiography has its specificities. Just a few of these characteristics are the fragmentary and discontinuous structure, the building-up of their personality in relation to others or the inclusion of flashbacks and anecdotes. Most of these characteristics can be found in the work by Harriet Jacobs.

Another important point in this narrative is the position of the feminine protagonist. She is a woman and a slave; this will mark not only her life, but also the way she writes. She employs the rhetoric incertitude technique to gain the sympathy of her intended readers, that is, the women of the north. This fact conditions her use of the different narrative styles, a mixture of slave narrative and sentimental novel. On a personal basis, all the slaves suffer the same humiliations, but women suffer some which are specific to their sex (harassment).

She was black in a white society, a slave in a society of free people, and a woman in a society governed by men; all these things made of slave women the most vulnerable group in the America previous to the Civil War. Under these conditions, the black woman was involved in a hard fight to build her “I”, even harder than the fight of white women or black men. Besides, social and political restrictions were imposed on the female writers; women were conceived as artistic objects, but not as creators of art.


The feminine autobiography has been despised for women have been accused of being unable to transcend; they expose their inner self, their private “I”. Moreover, patriarchal methods have been applied to study these autobiographies, when alternative ones were required. Feminist criticism, which considers the autobiography as a genre, studies the problematic of the identity of the author within the symbolic order of patriarchy; and how this position affects their relation with the process of writing.

One of the characteristics of the feminine autobiography is the fragmentary and circular structure. This can be seen in the very first pages of Incidents; it is divided into 41 chapters. It is not a linear narrative since she alters the order of some events, includes digressions and introduces stories about members of her family and of other people she met. She starts telling the story of her life, how she felt when she was a child; but, already in the third chapter, she presents a painful experience in the life of every slave, New Year's Day. We can find more chapters, all through the narrative, explaining some facts of the life of slaves in general: from the laws against them or the racist attitudes suffered even if they were free to the description of traders and owners of slaves.

It is also important in Jacob's autobiography the use of a seductive rhetoric in order to gain sympathy. In this respect, Manuela Matas Llorente says in the introduction to Jacobs' Incidents TEN32:

“Considerando que la compasión es el “primer objetivo emocional... [y que esta] existe relacionada con el sufrimiento y hace del sufrimiento su tema principal”... el padecimiento físico consecuencia de palizas o castigos brutales... está prácticamente ausente; los lazos sentimentales deben establecerse a través de un sufrimiento diferente... ligado a la maternidad.”(TEN32, p32)

The bond created between the intended reader Matas suggests and the protagonist is motherhood. She persuades the reader about the motivations for her acts through their feelings as mothers they share. Further on, Manuela: “La mujer abolicionista podría haber experimentado dificultades para identificarse totalmente con la mujer esclava, sin embargo, la situación de la esclava madre se presenta más propicia para establecer analogías”(TEN32, p33)

Linda, as mother, fights to free her children from slavery and get a home for them. Though, what at first seems likely, ends being a fruitless reality. She has to be apart from her beloved children, where her pain as mother stems from. Finally they end together with the subsequent happiness, even if their status is quite low.

The experience and voice of the slave are introduced within the narrative forms that link the slave narrative -from which the general theme is taken (slavery and its consequences)-; the apparent disordered distribution of events; the values associated with the journey of the hero; the journey as the connecting theme and guide to read; the anti-slavery discourse and the irony as a way of expression by which the dominated culture appropriates the dominant culture.

Irony is exploited all through the narrative, specially when she talks about her mistress:“La señora Flint no podía seguir prescindiendo de ella por más tiempo; estaba cansada de ejercer de ama de casa: era bastante agotador tener que pedir ella misma su cena para poder cenar”(Jacobs, chapter XVIII, pp121-2); or when she refers to the “generous” offers of her master to return to the plantation: “Verdaderamente, confiaba demasiado en la “estupidez de la raza africana”. No devolví a la familia Flint las gracias por su cordial invitación, descuido por el cual fui, sin duda, pagada con ingratitud”(Jacobs, chapter XXXIV, p199)

Women do not usually write about their successes; rather on the contrary, they talk about social relations and problems they find in their daily life. Basic in the narration of Harriet Jacobs is the problematic of getting freedom. She begins with her happy memories of early childhood, to change the tone of her narration. She sees how her first mistress does not set her free and feels quite disappointed. It is also at this moment when she first questions religion, and she realises the hypocrisy present in most Christians; and the double standards employed by them in order to preserve the “peculiar institution” as she calls slavery.

This is the first disappointment, but not the last one since it is followed by many more; overall, there are much more failures and obstacles to overcome than good moments. The death of her mother when she was a child (chapter I); the sexual harassment of her master (from chapter V); the jealous of her mistress (chapter VI); her escape from the plantation (chapter XVII); her confinement in the attic of her grandmother (chapter XXI); and the separation from her children are just some of the difficulties in her way to gain freedom.

Even though we can consider she has succeeded in her quest to obtain freedom for her and her children, she is quite pessimistic and knows it will extremely difficult to improve in such a society being an ex-slave black woman: “¡Yo y mis hijos somos ahora libres!... es una vasta mejora en “mi” condición. El sueño de mi vida aún no se ha realizado. No vivo con mis hijos en una casa de mi propiedad. Todavía anhelo una chimenea de mi propiedad, aunque sea humilde.” (Jacobs, chapter XLI, p232)

She presents a fragmentary and multidimensional identity. She obtains her identity in relation to others: her mother, her grandmother (aunt Marthy), Dr Flint, Mrs Flint, her daughter and son, etc.; this is known as rhetoric incertitude. She does not know what will become of her life, but she knows what she wants, to be free, and will get it thanks to her strong-willed personality. But she needs other people to build up her identity; being Dr Flint the model to fight against and her mother and grandmother the models to follow.

The narration is interrupted by a variety of scenes about life in slavery, songs and letters. She even introduces the bill offering a reward to anyone who captured her. She reproduces the letters sent by Dr Flint and other members of his family to persuade her to return to the plantation; we can also find the letters she sent to her grandmother to mislead him. We have: A letter sent by Dr Flint (chapter XXV, P151), another sent to Linda by Dr Flint's daughter (chapter XXXVIII, p214), another sent by Linda to her daughter Ellen (XLI, p225) and a few more. There are songs black people sang in church (pp86-7, 92) too.

She also includes pictures of common life of slaves and events of the time. The third chapter is dedicated to a painful experience, New Year's Day; this is a day of sorrow for slaves and just the opposite for the white community; many families were separated for good, sons, daughters, wives and husbands were often sold to different owners. In the eighth chapter, Linda tells us about what black people knew of the north through their masters. In the twelfth chapter, it is explained the insurrection of Nat Turner and its consequences for the African-American community. In the thirteenth chapter, she explains the ambiguous relation between religion and slavery; she is rather bitter with the hypocrisy of the priests and Christians. Linda cannot understand how slavery, “the peculiar or patriarchal institution” as she refers to it, can exist if we were all made equal. In the fortieth chapter she explains what the Fugitive Slave Act consisted in.

Most of the times, female authors start using a chronological order in their autobiographies, which helps them to exercise control over their lives; however, sometimes this chronological order is suppressed by the inclusion of anecdotes, flashbacks, digressions and all sort of explanations. Some authors, like Richard Lilliard, have given lists of elements that should not be present in an autobiography, but which are quite common in the feminine autobiography and Harriet Jacobs used them too. These elements are: flashbacks, anecdotes, reconstruction of scenes and dialogues, diary notes, portraits of relatives, details about travels, memories of disordered youth, naming many people, hiding data and accelerating the narrative.

To start, all her biography is a big flashback, but within the narration of her life there are several flashbacks. She tells the story of another slave woman, Fanny, who is in an even worst situation than hers. She escaped and took refuge in her mother's house: “Y ahora debo retrotraerme unos pocos meses en mi historia... una de mis amigas, llamada Fanny, iba a ser vendida en subasta... había escapado... Benny vio a Fanny en la cabaña de su madre”. (Jacobs, chapter XXIX, p173)

She also remembers the story of Luke, the slave of a “cruel and nasty crippled”. He used to be whipped without reason, till the day he ran away to the north:

“Uno de mis recuerdos del Sur... conocí a un esclavo llamado Luke... Al regresar [el amo] estaba privado del uso de sus miembros por una descalcificación... por la mayor trivialidad ordenaba a su sirviente que expusiese su espalda... y le azotaba hasta perder las fuerzas. me alegré especialmente de verle en suelo del Norte”(Jacobs, chapter XL, pp221-2)

We can find a lot of anecdotes: When she taught an old man to read (Jacobs, chapter XIII, p89); when she heard from the attic a band playing “home sweet home”, and how this song brought her the memory of her children (Jacobs, chapter XIX, pp 127-8); when she explains how Christmas celebrations were in the slaves' homes, what were their celebrations and folklore (Jacobs, chapter XXII, pp139-40); when she tells the story of a slave woman who ran away and died drawn in order to escape from the humiliation of being whipped without reason (Jacobs, chapter XXIII, p143).

The reconstruction of dialogues and scenes is also present in this autobiography. She reproduces the dialogues she has with her family, with her friends, with the family of Dr Flint and with Dr Flint himself or even with the captain of the ship that takes her to the north. However, the two dialogues I am going to talk about, as examples of the other dialogues present, are the ones Linda-Ellen and Linda- Benny. These two are the more emotive and the more important for Linda, as she finds that her children understand the motivations of her actions and offer her their support. When she talks to Ellen to explain who is her father, she interrupts her mother to say that she knows more than enough about Mr Sands; she has experienced his lack of love for her, but that she does not mind because her mother loves her more than her own life (Jacobs, chapter XXXIX, p217). In fact, Linda declares several times her desire to live only to protect her children; if she had no children, she would prefer to die. When she talks to Benny, she realises he already knew she was in the attic; but he adopted a mature position to protect her and he did all that was in his power to mislead any possible enemy (Jacobs, chapter XXIX, p179).

Another characteristic is the inclusion of portraits of family members, of her friends and even of Dr Flint's family. The most important members of her family are her mother and her grandmother. They are the models to follow. Her grandmother is especially important due to the premature death of her mother. She is kind, pious, supportive, generous, hardworking and self-sacrificing. She helps her in every difficult situation, even when she lay with Mr Sands. Her portrait is incremented all trough the narrative, since Linda offers various situations and her grandmothers' attitudes in each case. We are offered several perspectives; so, at the end, we have the feeling of knowing her as fully as we do know Linda.

The details about travels are present too. She explains in detail her escape from the plantation; she even mentions the noises fear make her hear: “me detuve en el segundo piso, creyendo haber oido un ruido. Seguí mi camino hasta el salón y miré por la ventana. La noche era tan oscura que no pude ver nada. Levanté la ventana muy suavemente, y salté”(Jacobs, chapter XVII, p115). Another trip she describes is the one she made with Fanny in the hold of a ship (Jacobs, chapter XXX). The last travel is the one she made to England (Jacobs, chapter XXXVII). This was a very good experience since she could see by herself that England was far more tolerant than The United States of America. She was equal to anyone else, not like in her native country, where not even in the north she could feel free:

“Mi situación era infinitamente mejor. Por primera vez en mi vida era tratada de acuerdo con mi comportamiento, y no en relación con mi apariencia... apoyé mi cabeza en la almohada, por primera vez con la deliciosa percepción de la pura libertad” (Jacobs, chapter XXXVII, p210)

In relation with the memories of disordered youth, we can say that Jacobs goes from a short period of acceptation- propitiated by ignorance- to a necessity to redefine her identity against an unfair system that tries to submit her. The “I” of the work of Jacobs resists itself to be reduced to a buying and selling object. As a rebellious “I” she questions from the beginning her society and the system that propitiates it. She is not a submissive woman; rather on the contrary, she knows what she wants and fights hard to get it. In fact, when she wants to achieve freedom, she says: “ “libertad o muerte”, era mi consigna” (Jacobs, chapter XVIII, p119). In this sense we can consider Linda as a heroine.

She adopts a discourse of rebellion, wit, adventures and danger, which was traditionally attributed to men. She employs it to tell her story and connect it with the problematic of being a woman. She claims the authorship of her own narrative by means of making reference to the pen: “¡y mi pluma es tan débil!” (Jacobs, chapter V, p41). She also dismisses her ability to transmit her experience, she puts herself in a humble position; the patriarchal tradition tries to diminish the works written by women. The slave defines herself as victim of Dr Flint, of Mr Sands, and of the patriarchal system, which they are representatives of; anyway, her behaviour and manipulation of the two lead her to control them, outwitting Dr Flint, making use of Mr Sands and escaping to the north.

Another act of bravery on the part of the protagonist is having her children with Mr Sands and not with Dr Flint; she resists possession by keeping control at least over her body. In connection to this, we have the fact that she hides information, which is another characteristic of the feminine autobiography. She says that the only way to avoid Dr Flint's sexual harassment is her relation with Mr Sands. But she does not explain why, since once she loses “her virtue”, it seems easier to Dr Flint to force and posses her.

In this respect of hiding data, in her preface, she says she has a reason to hide names; she does it to protect the people who help her to escape from slavery:

“No he exagerado las injusticias cometidas por la esclavitud, por el contrario, mis descripciones se quedan cortas ante los hechos. He ocultado los nombres de lugares, y he dado a las personas nombres ficticios. No tengo ningún motivo para guardar en secreto lo que se refiere a mí, pero lo juzgué necesario y considerado para otras personas” (Jacobs, preface, p13)

It is quite common in this sort of biographies the naming of a large number of people. Jacobs not only names the people, but also offers a short description or story of each. She names the members of her family, the members of Dr Flint's family, her friends, the people who helped her and the ones she met where she went.

Acceleration is also present. She spends a lot of time describing places and people, even justifying herself. Nevertheless, all the actions happen rather quickly. Besides, acceleration comes quite of a sudden, from a description or justification she abruptly passes to actions. We can also find jumps in time, which help this accelerating process.


Another important topic characteristic of the feminine autobiography is the role of women in a chauvinistic culture. Here comes the second aim of the paper, to prove that Linda Brent suffers double colonisation and occupies a subordinate position due to her condition of slave and woman. When she was a little child, she was not aware that she was a slave, she had a happy childhood. The adult narrator recognises this was quite unusual: “estas fueron las circunstancias de mi niñez, mucho más felices de lo que es habitual”(Jacobs, chapter I, p17). Her mother and grandmother were very loyal to their respective mistresses, but it was not awarded with freedom; instead, they were given to new masters. Even when the adult narrator says: “todos dijeron palabras amables de mi fallecida madre, que había sido una esclava sólo de nombre, pero que en esencia fue noble y femenina”(Jacobs, chapter I, p17). This means that she was recognised as having some degree of “humanity”; however, she was not set free.

The little girl, Linda, who was taught the Bible, does not understand how her mistress had not set her free. She remembers her teachings on morals and religion, and, according to them, you should not do onto others what you did not want for you. Finally she reaches the conclusion that her mistress did not consider her a neighbour; she tries to justify and not to des-mystify her mistress. At least she had an advantage, she had been taught to read and write; this is a privilege, since most of the slaves were illiterate, so people could take advantage of them more easily. Linda starts to become aware of the fact that she was a slave, even though until that moment she had been quite happy and unconscious of her position in society.

In the second chapter we are told of the humiliating treatment given to the cook when the food for the family, or of the dog, was not considered good enough. Here we have the case of a woman, but men and women were not treated differently in this respect. Double-colonisation appears when women were forced to have sexual intercourses with their masters; this means that they were treated badly for they were black and slaves; and, as they were women, the master had the right to abuse of them in sexual matters. Moreover, they must keep the secret, because the master can beat them or separate them from their children. The black mates of these slave women also bate them for they had fairer children than them, even if their wives were not to blame for that.

Linda is getting older and harassment appeared in her life too: “pero por entonces me aproximaba a mis 15 años- una triste época en la vida de una esclava. Mi amo empezaba a susurrarme asquerosas palabras al oído. Joven como era, no podía permanecer impávida ante su significado. Intenté tratarle con indiferencia o desprecio”(Jacobs, chapter V, p38). The sexual abuse of Dr Flint towards Linda is developed through the language. It is surprising that Dr Flint, who had abused of other slave girls, limited himself to harass Linda. The pursuit of Dr Flint can be interpreted as an attempt to show his power to Linda; he wants to attribute the value of property to Linda, to define the slave condition in terms that allow him to colonise her: “me dijo que yo era suya, que me debía someter a su voluntad en todo”(Jacobs, chapter V, p38).

Linda has to bear the constant harassment of her master and the jealousy and anger of her mistress: “el ama, que debe proteger a la desamparada víctima, sólo siente hacia ella celos e ira”(Jacobs, chapter V, p39). Linda thinks that women should get together and, united, fight against the abuses of men. But the slave women have no power at all to change the state of things; and the white women, represented in this case by the mistress, are too jealous and angry to help the “helpless” victim, they are not actually concerned about the problem.

One of the aims of the author to tell her story is to attract the attention of the women of the north towards the abuses of slavery over women in the south. She wants to create a bond among women, irrespective of class and colour. She hopes that those women, who have more power than they will, help them to achieve freedom. They would still suffer from double-colonisation, for they were women and black; but at least they would be free to rise and fight for their rights.

The master has complete control over Linda, she is threatened and subdued; this portrays an image of the slave as helpless and in danger. This control is exercised by means of several aspects: the language, the plans to build a house for her, and the opposition of Dr Flint to let Linda get married to a free black man or to sell her to her grandmother.

The response to the domination of the master is an active one. We would expect a passive position on the part of the helpless slave, who accepts dominion and humiliation, but Linda reacts against her master. The only way to escape is her relationship with Mr Sands. Her opposition to be colonised, within a discourse dominated by men, obliges the slave to use the only weapon over which she has control, namely, her body. She does this consciously, no under coactions or fear: “haría cualquier cosa, todo, con el fin de derrotarle... No intentaré ocultarme tras la excusa de tener un amo. Tampoco puedo alegar ignorancia o inconsciencia... sabía lo que hacía, y lo hacía con deliberado cálculo”(Jacobs, chapter X, pp67-8)

The slave vindicates her right to own her body, so she decides freely to become the lover of another white man, Mr Sands. By doing this, she is fighting colonialism and showing that Dr Flint has failed in his desire to possess her.

It seems that she has not escaped from slavery, since she passes from the hands of a white man to the hands of another white man. However, as she says, there is a great difference between being owned and being with the one you love: “hay algo semejante a la libertad en tener un amante que no tenga control sobre ti, exceptuando el que gana con amabilidad y cariño. Un amo te puede tratar tan rudamente como desee, y no te atreves a hablar”(Jacobs, chapter X, p69)

When she gives birth to Ellen, the question of double colonisation comes up again. She is sorry for her because she knows how the future will be for her; if slavery is hard for a boy, her own experience has proved her it can be harder to a girl. This is due to the fact that women are subdued twice: first because they are black and most blacks were slaves; and second because they are women, Linda says in this respect:

“Cuando me dijeron que mi nueva criatura era una niña, mi corazón me pesó más de lo que antes me había pesado. La esclavitud es terrible para los hombres; pero es mucho más terrible para las mujeres. Sobreañadiendo la carga común a todos, padecen agravios, sufrimientos y mortificaciones propios”(Jacobs, chapter XIV, p94)

The next step to gain freedom is to escape from the plantation, and she does so. She goes to the house of a friend, where she is helped. A sense of community is present in all her narrative; she has been accompanied and helped by her first mistress, her grandmother and by some friends that hide her.

Then she introduces the maternal factor as the reason to take her decisions; she does this to gain compassion and favour of the intended reader, the women of the north. This once again shows the importance of the community to Linda; she makes a lot of references to her children, as previously she made reference to her father, mother, grandmother and other members of her family. This distances her narrative from the male slave narrative, where the slave is all alone and he has to manage without any external help.

She encloses herself in a little room in the attic of her grandmother's house. In this attic Dr Flint has no power over her, his colonial discourse has lost its value; the slave controls her life from this moment on. The attic involves isolation, and the structures of isolation are both literal and symbolic, they are at the same time prison and way to escape and gain freedom. The attic metaphorically refers to space reserved for women in that society. The isolation in that reduced space is the same they live in society even if they are free; society manages to treat unfairly and isolate women in general and black women in particular. Finally she obtains freedom, but it is difficult to succeed in a world of men.

If slavery was per se a painful experience, women suffered it twice. Both male and female slaves were exploited and humiliated without any reason; however, women were raped and cheated. If they lay with their masters, they and their children would be offered a better condition. But once their children were born, they were not helped at all. On top of that, their masters threatened them to remain silent and their mistresses were angry and jealous with them. According to Jacobs, however, women receive important support from their community.


-Jacobs, Harriet, (1997), Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, TEN 32; Leòn: Secretariado de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Leòn

-Jacobs, Harriet. [1793]1992 Memorias de una esclava.Trad. de Mª José Bacallado Arias. Madrid: Grijalbo Mondadori. Colección: el espejo de tinta

-Notes taken in the lessons' of Literatura Femenina en Lengua Inglesa


Enviado por:Benito Lopera Perrote
Idioma: inglés
País: España

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