Enslavement and Freedom in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl". A Peopled Mind Under the Model of Femininity

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2015

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Franz Stiegler (Author)




Sexual abuse – acceptance by southerners, northerners and law

First hints on violation – rhetoric effects

Longing for family

Image of femininity: slave-girl

The real father of Linda Brent’s children

The myth of the southern belle


Works Cited


Many narratives are written to entertain, to get sold to many readers, and thereby make profit. Harriet Ann Jacobs, surely also wanted to acquire as many readers as possible, not for the profit, but to spread her message. Thus, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is far more than just a slave narrative – it is a feminist document. In this autobiography, the importance of family ties is well expressed, showing that Jacobs alias Linda, does everything to not only protect her children, but also to maintain the relationships towards her brother William, her aunt Nancy, her uncles Benjamin and Phillip and especially her grandmother. Published in the 19th century, women were not yet as emancipated as they are today. The whole model of femininity was different. During the victorian time, the image of womanhood was represented by the four female virtues: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.[1]

To follow these female virtues, a woman would need to have special living conditions. Of course, slaves could not afford to follow these living conditions. Thus, it was only the white woman, not the slave-girls, who had the possibilities to follow these virtues and thereby access the so-called “true womanhood” . The domestic sphere of slaves truly got destroyed by not only the masters, but also by the either active cruelty of white women, or at least their passivity.

Like I said in the beginning, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is not just a bare narrative, but an appeal to white women, encouraging them to stand up against slavery, against their passivity and to stop watching – but to start to change this attitude.

Jacobs tries to show that slavery is a pure perversity, leading to the end of the ‘black race’. However as it might mean the end of the slaves, it also means the end of the white population for the mistresses and their daughters. She denounces the social system with its betrayal of the social ideals and the misused paternalistic system for abuse and exploitation. This way she shows that the picture of the benevolent family of the southern states, just like the “southern belle” is a myth only; a myth and a picture made for the external world.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is different from the well-known plantation novels, showing a whole different picture of the southern states’ women. In this paper I am going to point out how Jacobs presents the model of femininity of the black, as well as the white women and how Jacobs’s picture might differ from the myth of the southern belle.

Sexual abuse – acceptance by southerners, northerners and law

As Jacobs mostly appeals on the northern white women, I want to point out how the image of illicit slave-sexuality and slave violation could become legal and so accepted by northerners. Regarding law, slaves had a double character, which means they get impeached as criminals (= persons), but sold as property. Thus, it is necessary for a slave to commit a crime, if he wants to be viewed as a person; as a criminal though, not as a victim. Many states actually protected slaves, but here again, only as property. Rape was excluded from these protections. Stone writes that “the law, by recognizing the existence of the slaves as a person, thereby confers no rights or privileges except such as are necessary to protect that existence” (67). With other words, a slave is only protected, if he otherwise could not exist and if the master had a loss of property. Rape doesn’t endanger the woman’s existence and is thus excluded from punishment. In general, for U.S. law, illicit sex is not defined as a personal injury, but as an injury of “lost services” to the man. Furthermore, a master can’t trespass on his own property, so it is legally impossible for a master to actually rape his slave.[2]

Due to urbanization and industrialization, life in the northern states was quickly evolving. So outside of marriage, two different institutions to satisfy the sexual desire are known, accepted and maybe even promoted: the prostitution in the northern urbanized regions and the southern plantations. Being one of the antebellum anxieties about modernization, prostitution gets more and more despised. Now it was the challenge of the abolitionists to turn the focus from the northern prostitution to the injustice of the southern slavery. As slave-girls were not allowed to marry, had no protection of the patriarchal family, and were alleged to be voluptuous at any time, their sexual abuse was neither interpreted as violation, nor crime. Only through its politicization could it slowly be made comprehensible and intolerable.[3]

First hints on violation – rhetoric effects

Due to analytic purposes I differentiate between the names Jacobs and Linda in this paper. When I write about Linda, I mean her experiences in the story. Naming Jacobs, I want to point out her decisions in the story-telling as an author. Born in North Carolina in 1813, Linda Brent had quite a good childhood, but at the age of eleven she came to Dr. Norcom, A.K.A Dr. Flint. When she becomes an adolescent, Dr. Flint gets sexually attracted and starts to talk dirty to her. Maybe it is Jacobs’s description how he plans to people his plantation through Linda’s body, when she writes:[4] “he peopled [her] young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of” (Jacobs 14). That’s when her tragedy begins; the well-known and typical tragedy of slave-girls, not only based on their racial ethnicity, but also their gender. These gender differences regarding cruelty is one of the messages Jacobs wants to bring along, saying that:

“slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they [emphasized in the original text] have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own” (Jacobs 41).

So in her eyes, they have the same issues like slave-men, but they still have some other afflictions, that men don’t have. Writing that, she mostly means sexuality. Sharing her experiences with sexual oppression, she shows how the Victorian virtues could never be reached by slave-women. Due to completely different preconditions, there was not only the mental and physical pain from the sexual abuse through the white master, but also the moral conflict of the Victorian virtues. These Victorian female virtues were claiming for the purity of body and mind. Both were unattainable for slave-girls, as they had to witness their master’s sexual abuse from young age on. Based on this impossibility of the purity of mind and thus the exclusion of the “true womanhood”, Jacobs claimed that “the slave woman ought not to be judged by the same standard as others“ (Jacobs 30). So for Jacobs the abuse should – regarded on a higher level – not damage the purity of mind, as the slave-girls don’t have a choice, contrary to white women. Although sexual abuse in slavery happened on a daily basis, it is nearly impossible to address this topic, since it is an absolutely taboo subject – not to mention calling the father’s name of an illegitimate child. Both are examples of an “offense that never went unpunished” (Jacobs 15). That’s one reason why she describes her situation in a very subtile manner: “he told me I was his property; that I must subject his will in all things” (Jacobs 15). In this example, it shows Jacob’s cautious way of describing that she has to do whatever he wants her to do, in general, her cautious way of describing her story. But does she choose this cautious way in full awareness? Maybe it is her personal form of rhetoric resistance.[5] Maybe her affliction is too obnoxious for the white women to listen to. To be politically successful, she definitely needs to write in a sensitive style.[6] But might another, maybe a psychological reason stand behind this tentative story-telling.
I think it is mainly due to the so called masking. Masking is a typical technique of the black culture’s narratives, which makes it possible to tell a hidden message within the story to only those who are able to understand it. This way, Jacobs tells her selected message to the majority of the northern white women from the middle-class, and meanwhile shows her true story to who ever is able to understand her code.[7]

From the first page on Jacobs uses rhetoric terms, putting her protagonist Linda into a moral, familial and class context and prepares the reader for the incident turning the virgin girl to the fallen woman. On the first page she writes about her blithe living-conditions, following the American dream, being the child of the hard-working, “skillful”, “freeman”, and artisan father, and how she passed her childhood in a “fondly shielded” home (Jacobs 3). This blissful, rural and virtuous origin corresponds to the urban gothic convention and thereby she makes her antebellum readers accept her moral sensitivity. Also, typical for the gothic convention is the afterwards abrupt ending of this rural life, because of the capitalists of the social order and the urban oligarchy, which in Jacobs’s story is represented by the Flint’s family. The death of Linda’s father at the same time solidifies her imprisonment. In these urban gothic narratives, the virtuous girl receives the insult of illicit sex as an act of mental rape, that corrupts her mind and robs her moral purity. Jacobs’s description of Dr. Flint’s verbal abuse clearly invokes the northerner explanation of illicit female sexuality. Although she continuously prepares the reader for the passage of the fallen woman, she never admits that directly. Rather, Jacobs describes Linda as a sentimental and sacrificial mother – as a mother that can never be freed from her status of a fallen woman, which gets demonstrated when she escapes to the north but is never “entirely free to act a mother’s part towards [her] children” (Jacobs 89).

Longing for family

Linda’s desire for an intact family life is expressed through her relationship towards her grandmother. Since her mother died early, her grandmother becomes her surrogate mother. Until Linda lives with Dr. Flint, she is the one caring for Linda and her brother. Like I mentioned before, she is well-respected by black and white people alike. Often enough, this gives her the possibility to protect her family, either by buying them free, like she “succeeded in buying Phillip” (Jacobs 14), or helping them out, like standing up for Linda and hiding her in her house for seven years. Due to her prestige, even Dr. Flint is afraid of her, as his damnation by her would also mean his damnation by the whole society. This is also one reason why Dr. Flint builds Linda’s own house, further from the public and further from any disturbance like his wife or Aunt Martha. This is when Linda expects her second child. Like the first time, her tactic is to call Mr. Sands the official father and risk her grandmother’s abandonment. This decision points out how badly she desires the freedom for her children, because she knows that Mr. Sands would buy them free as soon as he had the possibility – at least she expected him to do so.

With the decision to escape, she is suffering for seven years, hiding in her grandmother’s house. After drilling some holes into the wall to see her children, “the first person [she] saw was Dr. Flint. [She] had a shuddering, superstitious feeling that it was a bad omen” (Jacobs 61). At this point it becomes obvious again, how much psychological damage Dr. Flint causes. But there isn’t psychological damage only. Lying for such a long time in this small hiding place stiffened her limbs so badly, that even years later her “body still suffers from the effects of that long imprisonment” (Jacobs 78). Knowing about all these issues, this begs the question, why she did not already flee to the North before. Of course she thought about fleeing earlier, but she has a couple of reasons that make her stay. One point is, that in her opinion, a true mother could not leave her children behind. Also, after what had happened to her uncle before, Martha is too worried about Linda, so she is begging her to stay. This sacrifice makes clear how important family is for Linda, despite all the tragedies, or maybe even just because of them. Her close relationship to her brother, her uncle and her aunt also indicate that the family is her top priority. Jacobs exposes these relationships through Linda’s constant demand for advice. In the end it’s them who persuade Linda to escape. This indicates how focal true womanhood and domesticity are in her autobiography. For Linda these virtues exist focally enough in her life to make her bear all that suffer.

Image of femininity: slave-girl

A slave is nothing but property to a plantation owner. Most masters think of slave-women as their property, not being of more value than their dog. Thus, most slaves have a forename only; the only surname they might have is the surname of their master. So, slaves don’t have the right to self-determination, nor their own family.[8] When Linda asks Dr. Flint for permission to marry a free black man, he declines and Mrs. Flint “seemed to think that slaves had no right to any family ties of their own; that they were created merely to wait upon the family of the mistress” (Jacobs 20). As a consequence, Linda does not get the right to self-determination, neither. Even if Dr. Flint would allow her to marry the man of her choice, their children would become his slaves, as “they must ‘follow the condition of their mother’” (Jacobs 22). So it would not matter at all who the father of Linda’s children would be – as long as Linda is a slave, her children are the property of her master. This fact is one of the reasons for the sexual abuse of slave-women: “women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock. They are put on a par with animals” (Jacobs 26). As the children of the owner’s slaves become the owner’s property, this is an easy possibility for the master to increase his stock and thus make profit. Especially after it was forbidden to import slaves into the southern states, the “slave-breeding” was the only possibility for the plantation owner to maintain the slavery.

Another reason for the frequent abuse of women is the pure lust. Due to their education sex is something dirty and immoral for many women from the southern states, thus, many husbands satisfy their sexual desire with their slaves. Often enough, slave-women have the same purpose like prostitutes. After all, their masters paid for them and he could do whatever pleased him. If they refused to do so, he would use violence.

No matter who the father of Linda’s children is, or how badly Dr. Flint violated her, somehow she completely gained his attentiveness. Even though he is constantly watched by his wife and the highly esteemed Aunt Martha, he is always interested in Linda. During her stay at his house, he often made her offers; if she agreed, she would get “a home and freedom” (Jacobs 44). Every time he realized that she would not take his offer, he would take the next step: appealing to her motherhood, that Linda and her “children can be free a week from to-day” (Jacobs 45). These interests in Linda neither change after her hiding for seven years, nor after she flew – even after all these years he is still searching for her, trying to fool her with faked letters in the name of Emily’s brother, until his very end. For some reason, he is obsessed to possess Linda. But despite trying to mislead her, Linda always knows (from experience), that he would not keep his promise. She explains, that she can’t count on his word, as he already promised a woman years ago, that he would “treat [her] well” (Jacobs 7), then ended up selling her, her black husband and her fair-skinned child to a slave-trader, because “it was a crime for a slave to tell who was the father of her child” (Jacobs 7). In general, it does not seem like there is any bond between a white father and his mixed-colored child. Even Mr. Sands, being described as a “gentleman,” “kind” and “generous” (Jacobs 29), doesn’t have any emotional bounds to their (official) mutual children.

Last but not least, a third reason for the numerous abuses is the resulting children holding the women back from escaping like an anchor. For the child, the flight would be way too exhausting, and hardly any mother would leave her child behind.[9] Due to this inability to leave her children behind, Linda hides for seven years in her narrow stash, but “for their sakes, [she] was willing to bear on” (Jacobs 67).


[1] Fulton 30

[2] Stone 67

[3] Greeson 277–282

[4] Vermillion 15

[5] Fulton 22–32

[6] Dalton 38

[7] Whitsitt 73

[8] Fulton 37

[9] White 71

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Enslavement and Freedom in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl". A Peopled Mind Under the Model of Femininity
Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt
Literary and Cultural History I: Literature of Enslavement and Freedom
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Incidents, slave, femininity, victorian, virtues, literary, southern belle, America, narrative, abuse, escape, urbanization, industrialization, crime, violation, Jacobs, Harriet, Linda, Brent, sex, masking, American Dream, family, betrayal, myth, autobiography, rape
Quote paper
Franz Stiegler (Author), 2015, Enslavement and Freedom in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl". A Peopled Mind Under the Model of Femininity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/310871


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