173 Introduction (2016)

Olivia Hodsdon, Emily Holleran, Toni Gallant

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by Harriet Jacobs in the year 1861, is a tale of the long and hard escape from slavery and the yearning for freedom. To being pursued by a sadistic slave owner, to hiding in an attic for seven years, to being bought and sold like cattle, Jacobs, under the pseudonym of Linda Brent, possesses an unbreakable spirit, as she describes her hardships in the pursuit of freedom. Though she starts out as a slave in the South, she eventually escapes to the North as “an antislavery activist and worker among the black refugees” (Jacobs vi). Armed with only her will to survive, the reader experiences her continuous loss and subsequent triumphs over a world that tried to keep her fettered.

Linda does not even know she is a slave until the age of six, saying, “when I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave” (Jacobs 10). Following this, her mistress dies, and she is put into the care of the novel’s antagonist, Dr. Flint. Although she is owned by his daughter, he pursues her vehemently, and causes her to seek out an affair with a white neighbor, Mr. Sands, in the attempt to flee. She has two children with him, Benny and Ellen. This touches upon the aspect of freedom, especially considering Linda’s escape from Dr. Flint. Jacobs makes the reader consider whether or not she actually earned any sort of freedom, since she left the arms of one man and was taken into another’s.

Aunt Martha is another central character who makes the reader consider what freedom really means to Jacobs, and to Linda respectively. Aunt Martha is perfectly content being a possession of her oppressors, and does not long for freedom as Linda does. This makes the reader consider if what Linda pursues really counts as freedom – does everyone’s definition of freedom change with what sort of situation they are in? Later, in the attempt to escape from her oppressors but still not abandon her family, she wedges herself in Aunt Martha’s attic for seven years, thus physically debilitating her. When the fear her children might be sold into slavery outweighs fear of her own personal safety, Linda begins preparation for her escape, much to Aunt Martha’s chagrin: “My grandmother, always nervously sensitive about runaways, was terribly frightened. She felt sure that a similar fate awaited me, if I did not desist from my enterprise. She sobbed, and groaned, and entreated me not to go” (Jacobs 125). Aunt Martha is more concerned with keeping the family together rather than allowing them the opportunity of pursuing their freedom.

Although Dr. Flint stands as the character who seems to have the most hold over Linda, the main antagonist of the novel seems to be the privileged white people she comes in contact with, whom buy and sell her like cattle. Even after Dr. Flint’s passing, his presence is felt in every aspect of Linda’s life, as his daughter continues the chase, leaving Linda with no relief. The Flints, and other privileged white people like them, limit her freedom, and keep her trapped wherever she tries to escape. This sort of freedom she describes is eternal, and will be carried with her throughout the remainder of her life. One example of her inability to escape the constant belittlement of white people is when she is at the Bruce’s, and the white waiters refuse to deliver her meals: “They soon began to complain, saying they were not hired to wait on negroes” (Jacobs 145). Even though they are employed to serve the Bruce’s, they decide that they are superior to Linda due to their lighter skin color. Their freedom comes from denying Linda her meals, even though they were hired to serve her and her new family. Linda’s freedom remains unaddressed, especially due to this outburst. Jacobs uses the novel and the Linda character to portray her fear of these types of people, and how they will never set her free. Even Mrs. Bruce, who the readers begin to believe will finally treat Linda with a shred of respect, buys her like any other slave.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a text which really gives the reader insight as to what it was like to be a slave longing for freedom. Jacobs, and her personal character Linda, experiences freedom in many forms, and thus should be anthologized because of its relevancy to the American slave’s struggles. Desires for freedom is still relevant in this world, but not necessarily in the same way. Many parts of this novel are still applicable to today’s world, especially considering the battle of racism and classes. In reading Jacobs’ novel, an American could learn and a thing or two about freedom, and what it has to offer.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Olivia Hodsdon, Emily Holleran, Toni Gallant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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