Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
by Harriet Jacobs
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
“Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, Slavery; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown.”
—A Woman of North Carolina
“Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters! Give ear unto my speech.”
We start off with Angelina E. Grimke’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. Published in 1936, Grimke’s essay musters the heavy artillery of both the Declaration of Independence and the Bible to point out that, you know, slavery might not be the most American or Christian thing to be doing. By quoting a female abolitionist, Jacobs lets us know that she's (1) well-read, and (2) part of a long line of outspoken ladies.
Then we head back in time for the second quote, from the Hebrew Bible's Book of Isaiah. The prophet Isaiah is lecturing the women of Jerusalem for being self-indulgent and lazy. Just what you want to hear, right? Well, this quote lets Jacobs highlight women as her targeted audience and to raise her novel up to the status of prophecy: whether they like it or not, women need to hear this message in order to be truly moral beings.
Taken together, both epigraphs really boost Jacobs’s authority—a bold move for a former slave woman.